The invisible relationship: How power misrepresents knowledge in UX research
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The invisible relationship: How power misrepresents knowledge in UX research


1. Power in political affairs

“Virus! Get the fuck outta here! Go back to Asia!” A middle-aged Caucasian man shouted at me from the street corner. I’m obviously an Asian even if I was wearing a face mask. It was the autumn of 2021 in Melbourne when I was walking to a beach for some fresh air, but the racial discrimination polluted the air.

I didn’t think I was a virus because a virus doesn’t speak English. So I spoke to him right away, “How’s it going, mate?” He must’ve realized I could speak proper English and that was not what a virus can do. So he turned back and walked away.

Covid-related racism once surged over the last two years. The main reason for that was the coronavirus was first reported in Wuhan, China in 2020. Whether for political purposes or not, mass media had strengthened the impression that coronavirus came from China and was made in China. Thus, it was once named “Wuhan virus”. Just like another misnomer “Spanish flu”.

The Asian communities have strived for equality in many western countries by protests, such as “Stop Asian Hate”. Covid-related racism in the Asian community was largely triggered by the political and economic conflicts between western countries and China. The conflicts were intensified in recent years by the different forms of ideologies and governments.

Image from businessinsider.com

Whether intentional or not, mass media has created and exacerbated such a strong misbelief because it has the power to communicate with the target audience. Power dynamics have always existed in multicultural societies. Some communities are in the center of the social system because the society was built upon the major communities’ values, whereas some are marginalized because of lacking the resources and channels to be presented to the entire society.

The mainstream society and marginalized cohorts
Image from news.utexas.edu

When mass media aligns with the government’s and major communities’ ideological beliefs and expectations, power relationships are created. Under the predominant ideologies and beliefs, the media communicates knowledge to society and shows audiences a biased reality. As a result, the audiences see the world in the way that the major communities want them to see it. The knowledge that audiences obtain is the knowledge that the predominant parties want them to absorb.

Power relationships in political affairs

However, media was not the power itself. Media was only a neutral instrument being utilized by the dominant parties, but the political knowledge that media generates can be strong enough to influence the entire society’s point of view.

2. Knowledge and the elusive power exercise: Philosophers’ points of view

In Foucault’s perspective, power and knowledge are inextricably linked. Knowledge, as he called “politics of truth”, is formed in a system of communications, records, accumulation and displacement which is in itself a form of power (Foucault, 2019).

Foucault (1977, p27) said,

“we should admit . . . that power produces knowledge (and not simply by encouraging it because it serves power or by applying it because it is useful); that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations”.

Michel Foucault

The bridge between knowledge and power is discourse. Foucault regarded that discourses are dynamic:

“I do not mean ‘Power’ as a group of institutions and mechanisms that ensure the subservience of the citizens of a given state. By power, I do not mean, either, a mode of subjugation, which, in contrast to violence, has the form of the rule. Finally, I do not have in mind a general system of domination exerted by one group over another, a system whose effects, through successive derivations, pervade the entire social body” (Foucault, 1990, p. 92).

Foucauldian theorists considered that knowledge agents draw upon the media resources through which power is exercised (Giddens, 1986). People act in the social system where the resources that actors utilize are not equally distributed due to the exercise of power, thus it leads to deeper systems of domination (Gaventa, 2003).

The way that Giddens (1984, p15) described power echoes Foucault’s perspective on power, knowledge, and media in a social system,

“Resources (focused via signification and legitimation) are structured properties of social systems, drawn upon and reproduced by knowledgeable agents in the course of interaction. … Resources are media through which power is exercised, as a routine element of the instantiation of conduct in social reproduction”.

Power practiced in the mass communication process

Power is implicitly embedded and exercised in media activities because media produces knowledge, which could be news and reports. The opinion of “Coronavirus is from China, so Chinese is virus” is knowledge because most of the world believes that it is true. If we think about the knowledge production around the pandemic, drawing upon Giddens’ statement, the resources are the capability of making people believe what the truth is, whether the truth is a fact or not. The knowledgeable agents are governments and mainstream media who are able to use the resources to produce “true information” in the power relationships between media and audiences. It’s only that the audiences are not hundreds or thousands, but millions or billions.

It is worth noticing here that perhaps neither the governments nor mainstream media are evil that twisted the pandemic facts on purpose — I hope they didn’t. They broadcast what they believe to be true. If they believe a communist’s government impedes human civilization in the modern world, then it does. But the effects of power still exist because when there is a flow of knowledge between two parties in the using resources — producing knowledge relationship, power is created without awareness.

Philosopher Russell (2004) coined that individuals are influenced by power in three ways:

  • First is direct physical power over the individuals’ bodies, which is someone being imprisoned or killed.
  • Second is the power influence through rewards and punishments as an inducement, such as giving bonuses to employees.
  • The third is power influences opinions, such as “propaganda in its broadest sense”.
Bertrand Russell

Among all the types of power, Russell believes that opinion is one of the strongest power in social affairs because opinion power is pervasive and intangible. Again, opinion is a form of knowledge as long as the opinion is believed to be true. Opinion wasn’t only defined among the apparent unequal roles, such as the king vs civilians, or capitalists vs proletariat, but it moves as an invisible force through persuasion.

Russel (2004, p. 110) said,

“First, pure persuasion leading to the conversion of a minority; then force exerted to secure that the rest of the community shall be exposed to the right propaganda; and finally a genuine belief on the part of the great majority, which makes use of force again unnecessary”.

I talked about power theories to show that in a society where people play their roles to make a living, power itself is not always vicious and negative because it does keep the status quo of the operation of the social structure.

But the problem that power brings can cause conflicts and biases. The tricky part is that, as emphasized, power is often not a straightforward production by some person or institute, but it filtrates the social system like a liquid and prevents people from understanding the facts.

After decades, Foucault’s perspectives on power remain convincing regarding what we saw during the pandemic. It also triggers my thoughts on the power relationships in UX research.

There is no one dominant group in UX research that evidently controls the other. Organizations, UX researchers and research participants work in their own roles to enable the UX research system operating. However, the latent negative effects of power in legitimate UX research activities have misrepresented insights and covered the knowledge of facts.

3. Power relationships in UX research

Power could shift overtly or covertly in UX research. Overt power appears when participants choose not to tell some stories that could’ve been of great value to the research, or being dishonest on purpose. Covert power is hidden and not aware, for example, when the researcher judged the participant’s language or communication skills yet not realized the bias has skewed data analysis. Ignoring the power dynamics in UX research could lead to a perfunctory understanding of user experience.

I will talk about the covert power relationship among the UX researchers, customers and organizations.

3.1 Language and interpretation: The power between researchers and participants

A main power problem in researcher—participant relationships is language. Language conveys the meaning of words in the communication between researchers and research participants. It is one of the most important methods in data collection. Whether in qualitative research where researchers talk to participants, or in quantitative research where researchers write up survey questions for participants to read through, language is the fundamental way to deliver information. However, the meaning in language can be misinterpreted if researchers are not aware of it.

One of the most significant language powers is unintentionally judging research participants by how they communicate and behave in qualitative research sessions. The judgment exists in the consensus that a good research session equals good communication between the researcher and the participant. The communication experience ultimately relies on language.

Image from pexels.com

I referred to language not to the intensity of tones or sentence structures, but how language and expression are fundamentally shaped in people’s original national cultures and ethnicities.

After being involved in many usability testing and user interviews, I found there is an implied typical character in UX researchers’ mind that depicts what a good research participant should look like. They’d better be able to elaborate themselves well with clear words. They’d better be honest and brave enough to express what they honestly thought about a topic or design. They’d better be, most of the time, native English speakers. They’d better have quick reactions so that the research will yield a great amount of narrative data in 60 minutes. This list goes on and on.

Several years ago I observed an interview session moderated by another researcher. The participant was a Japanese lady in her 30s. She was on a working holiday in Australia. She has been living in Sydney for two years and applying for a student visa at that time.

After the interview session, I had a debrief with other researchers. One of the researchers said,

“Hmm… She was too quiet, she was not as elaborate as the last one. I don’t feel I’ve got enough insights from her”.

The other researcher agreed. I was a bit sad.

Unfortunately, the participant’s performance did not meet the researcher’s expectation, in comparison to the earlier and more “adorable” participants, as if there was an expectation on participants’ performance.

However, what I observed was she had limited language skills and barriers to express her ideas. Japanese was her native language and her English speaking skills were a disadvantage among the rest of the interviewees.

The problem here was two-fold. First, the participant struggled to use accurate English words to support her viewpoints on the prototype. The words she picked were rather general and basic than specific. She mentioned one feature was good and the other was not useful. Lack of elaboration made her look like a quiet and uncooperative participant from the moderator’s perspective.

The second one is a deeper problem. The language gap revealed a significant issue in cultural differences. The behavioural pattern of generating and expressing thoughts in English cultures was different to people who were born and raised in most East Asian cultures because of different educational systems and social values.

In China, for example, when I was in primary, middle and high school, expressing ideas and speaking was far less important than inner thinking and reflection. In fact, I could’ve been rebuked by teachers if I expressed too much in a class, even if my talk was relevant to the class.

I talked less, I did more homework, and I was a good thinker than a talker, which made me a “good student”. Ironically, the unspoken standards of judging participants in UX research are literally the opposite of those I experienced in my student time.

The main data collection activities in UX research, especially via qualitative research, are human communication. But fundamentally, the way of thinking shapes the way of communicating. Power has occurred in the social interaction process if the agents hold different cultural and ideological values.

In the interview, the Japanese participant had a difficult time communicating with the researcher due to her English speaking level, but more importantly, because of the cultural difference, she was deemed a “quiet participant” in the western context whereas quietness has another definition in the East Asian cultures. Having a moderate motivation of expressing opinions is not equal to being quiet.

The consequences led by this power relationship is that research findings that inform design decisions could be culturally identical. Under the power of researchers’ own cultural identities and world values, the researchers may not realize that they have tagged participants as a “good one or bad one” rather than a “different one” through a predominant cultural lens that the researchers own. Ultimately the knowledge produced is the skewed research insights from the predominant cultural values.

power in researcher — participant relationship

When the majority of insights come from those well-performed participants, they are from similar participants that are regarded as good participants by researchers, and it will be a risk that user experience was understood from a one-dimensional cultural perspective that UX researchers can hardly get rid of.

But will companies only design products for the users who are similar to those well-performed, elaborate and extroverted participants during interviews, and those who have the same cultural identity as the UX researchers’?

Same to what Foucault thought, no one institute or person creates and implements power in the UX researcher-participant relationship. The UX researcher did not pressure any participant. The participants were not trying to cover any information on purpose during interviews. But the pervasive power stems from the subjectivity of cultural homogenization, and it led to the judgment on research participants and further bias in data collection.

3.2 Generate cross-cultural knowledge to mitigate the power of cultural homogenization

Inspired by ethnographic methodology, cultural awareness is a basic but core quality. The awareness and sensitivity of cultural difference is a result of curiosity in fieldwork. Hasbrouck (2017) described that ethnographers keep seeking for the “why” in every social situation and trying to uncover the meaning of the objects or events that people take for granted. The momentum of such curiosity stems from an outsider’s perspective.

It could be easier for ethnographers to gain the outsider lens if they delve into a cultural context that is different to their own than into an identical culture. Though it doesn’t mean that ethnographers can not study a culture where they were born. The British anthropologist Daniel Miller beautifully wrote about the ordinary people in South London and the material culture (Miller, 2008).

However, when anthropologists like Clifford Geertz and Claude Lévi-Strauss stepped into the exotic cultures in Bali and Brazil, they were astonishingly intrigued by the contrast between the modern and primitive societies. Then they started as an outsider — a modern person — to uncover the primitive social norms and structures to reflect on the current and future society.

Engagement in different cultures made a great positive impact on research findings. UX research practice can borrow the mindset from ethnography to mitigate the power in the researcher—participant relationship. That is to include participants from a diverse range of cultural and lingual backgrounds.

As discussed, language is one of the mediums that embodies cultural, political and social values. Therefore, UX researchers should maintain the diversity of research participants’ national cultures because languages root in national cultures rather than only races. Two people with different races and ethnicities who grew up in one country could share the same culture due to the same language and values.

Maintaining cultural diversity is important to qualitative research because I found that the disparity of national cultures makes participants convey their attitudes towards the same topic in different manners. When talking through the experience of the same prototype, in one of my studies, the Australian and British participants are more likely to share their thoughts about the features they liked first and then the aspects they suggested us to improve. It sounded like

“I loved the purchase flow because it was soooo simple to use. If this product comparison page could be improved, it would be fantastic!”

However in the same study, the Malaysian Chinese participants would share the design drawbacks first before talking about the features they liked. The attitude was

“I would fix this product comparison page ASAP because it wasn’t a pleasant experience, otherwise I won’t use it again. I had no problem with the purchase flow though” .

Obviously, language customs played a significant role here. The conclusion of both the participants

1) The product comparison page design is not good enough

2) The purchase flow overall has been satisfactory

But the language habits and straightforwardness of expressing dissatisfactions in western cultures and Asian cultures are different.

This may lead UX researchers to different interpretations — should the report highlight the comparison page problem as the Asian participants addressed, or emphasize the positive purchase flow experience as the western participants loved?

The team can certainly go for the simple way and recruit the culturally similar participants so that the behavioural patterns are much more straightforward — they’ll all love the same feature and hate the other based on the way of communication.

cultural homogenization — all oranges are the the same
Image from pexels.com

But the findings will not stay close to the factual user experience under cultural homogenization because UX researchers will only be exposed to the similar way of saying, thinking and behaving that might be quite similar to their own.

In order to help researchers remain the outsider view, during user recruitment for UX research, they could add questions in the screener, such as:

  • Is English your native language?
  • What languages do you use other than English?
  • Please specify your ethnicity.
  • Where were you born?
  • If applicable, please specify your religion.

The advice here is that try to diversify the participants’ culture when inviting them to qualitative studies where language plays a key role.

3.3 Market segmentation vs. cultural communities: The power between organizations and customers

Organizations define customers as the individuals who constitute the market. In UX research, researchers recruit research participants to cover the most of the market segments. They also frame research questions and showcase research findings based on market segments, which are usually represented by customer archetypes.

For example, when I worked at a health insurance company, I recruited participants with consideration of the types of insurance covers, the years of experience using insurance products, and whether they have switched from one insurance provider to the other. In the financial industry, SMB owners can be divided by the size and complexity of businesses they own, so I recruit research participants based on the types of SMB in which our organization is most interested.

From the organizational perspective, business grows with more customers in different market segments purchasing or subscribing to their products. In the market-led capitalistic system, a person is either already a customer or expected to become a customer for profits.

Eventually a human being is oversimplified into a figure of market value.

Eventually a human being is oversimplified into a figure of market value —diagrams and tables with international data

The problem is that customers are still people with lived experience and dynamic individual context. They have social networks, they have different roles in the society, they come from different cultural groups, and they seek and fulfil the meaning of life under different worldviews.

Customers constitute the market, however, they also belong to different communities with different cultural, social, ethnic and political needs. In Merriam-Webster dictionary community is defined as:

screenshot of the definition of “community” in the dictionary

The definition emphasized that a community consists of people who have common history or social, economic and political interests. They are not only a group that purchases and uses products, but more essentially they are individuals that belong to and behave within their shared cultures.

More importantly, a community is a range of individuals that are alike and gathered autonomously rather than being grouped by any organizations. “Single parent” or “new immigrants” is a cultural community, but “highly satisfied subscribers aged between 20–40 years old” is a market segment.

A market segment is defined by what organizations think people are, and a cultural community depicts who people really are.

Power comes from an organizational and market-led lens, through which humans are categorized into customer segments. The market-led views on humans will limit UX research to a tunnel vision instead of a holistic view on human experience.

The tunnel vision is a consequence of the power relationship between organizations and customers. It may ignore the diversity of communities and generate superficial product-centric insights rather than knowledge of real human beings’ needs, goals and experiences.

Power in organization — customer relationship

I’ll elaborate why it is important to explore the community-based insights is no less important than the research findings of different market segments.

3.4 Generate community-based knowledge

Imagine there is a bike-sharing company in Australia. The company has seen the different needs between user A and user B. User A works remotely from home, while user B rides a bike to their office every day. They have different levels of dependency on bike riding and different frequencies of riding. This is a market segment disparity between user A and B.

two different users defined by product and market segments

However, a more basic and natural community-based difference is that user A and B are both young immigrants from the same country in South America, whereas user C is a local resident born in the 1950s. Maybe user C has similar frequencies of using bike sharing services with user B, which is very similar to user A; but user A and B belong to the same cultural community who hold shared values and interpretations on commute and transportations.

The two different users defined by product and market segments can be similar based on cultural behaviours

From a market-led research perspective, what organizations can see are only customers within a product/service context, i.e. one user has a higher frequency of use than the other. This tunnel vision can easily miss the community factors that play a foundational role that composed the human experience. Community factors are foundational because they shaped how people believe, behave and think in most of their life based on interests and values. This is not what an interaction with a product can compare to.

A positive signal is that designers have realized the value of community-based design during co-creation activities. Community-based design processes involve people of certain communities so that the design solutions are based on the local knowledge and serving the local people instead of from non-local experts. There are certainly limitations and risks in community-based design methods, but the awareness of communities is worth bringing into UX research practice.

Community is an important concept in traditional qualitative research because great storytelling and insights often reside in the disparity and commonality among people living in the community. In ethnography, researchers have demonstrated the importance of understanding a community by how they work. They are not an outsider to study the research participants defined by any organizations, they need to actively participate and engage in the community to make sense of the meanings behind behaviors to understand how people are defined by their own cultures.

As some ethnographers described their role in community-based research,

“I evolved from being a cautious observer, learning the rules of the game to avoid exclusion, to being an adventurous participant who got involved in the everydayness of the community to uncover the tale of the village” (Elidrissi, Bouguerra & D’Souza, 2020).

During the engagement in communities, ethnographers usually do not have much consideration of a product, service or pre-exist solution to offer help but focus on the shared culture in it. The community-based mindset adds extra value and helps organizations see patterns of latent and foundational needs within and across communities beyond customer segments coined by the market.

Community of the low-income young Chinese Migrant Families — A study on technology use by Tricia Wang

There are certainly many ways to approach community-based research and insights because a community could refer to many aspects including languages, races, personal interests, socioeconomic status, physical conditions, religions and so on. It is worth a whole book to elaborate a community-based design methodology.

What I suggest here is simply enhancing the awareness of community differences in UX research.

It could be realized by long-term focus on studying one particular cultural community. In parallel with quick usability testing for a certain customer segment, the UX research team may also delve into the lived experience of a particular cultural community depending on the team’s interest, such as elderly with no children or people addicted to video games.

This can be one longitudinal research over a few months, or a few research that maintains the exploration into a community over a year. After a few community-based studies, the insights will tell the team how different people can be when they are placed in the cohorts that they naturally belong to.

In addition, I have seen companies categorize research insights with research dates, initiatives and teams. No doubt that this repository structure is easy for the team and stakeholders to find the insights they need. However, to help organizations understand the needs and beliefs of different communities, UX researchers could add extra tags to highlight the community-based knowledge in the research repository.

Ideally the team can filter through the insights not only by products, features or user demographics (ages, genders, income, education etc.), but also more diversely by cultural community tags like “skateboarders with children to take care of”, “anti-tech Generation Z” or “second generation of Malaysian immigrants working in tech industry” — just an example, I totally made them up here. The more that a customer was studied in their communities, the more fruitful findings the team can obtain after a period of research.

The end

Power is an enormous topic for a single article. Philosophers have dedicated their whole lives to understanding and explaining power. Philosophers like Foucault were challenging the power in political systems to strive for social equality. Even though political affairs are far away from UX research, the effect of power relationships exists in both areas.

The power in UX research stems from researchers and organizations interpreting reality through an inevitable subjective and intentional lens. The power is not created by anyone but by the way of thinking that is taken for granted.

In my earlier example, the foreign research participant who had a difficult time during the user interview. She was the vulnerable group in the power relationship between the researcher and the researched. It was not the researcher who exercised the power on purpose to suppress.

The power exists in the normalized way of portraying the qualified research participants in a mainstream culture, just like how I was portrayed as a coronavirus in the mainstream media context.

To mitigate this power caused by subjective intentions, we have to make an effort in UX research to be aware of people’s languages, communities and cultures that make them who they are, not simply labeling them as “customers”.

References

Elidrissi, Y. R., Bouguerra, N., & D’Souza, R. C. (2020). Enacting Ethnography: Three Perspectives on Engagement with Political Communities. Management, 23(3), 109–113.

Foucault, M. (2019). The history of sexuality: the will to knowledge. Penguin UK.

Foucault, M. (1990). The history of sexuality: An introduction, volume I. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 95.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Allen Lane.

Gaventa, J. (2003). Power after Lukes: an overview of theories of power since Lukes and their application to development. Brighton: Participation Group, Institute of Development Studies, 3–18.

Giddens, A. (1986). Sociology: A Brief but Critical Introduction: A brief but critical introduction. Macmillan International Higher Education.

Hasbrouck, J. (2017). Ethnographic thinking: from method to mindset. Routledge.

Miller, D. (2008). The comfort of things. Polity.

Russell, B. (2004). Power: A new social analysis. Routledge.



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Written by Weidan Li

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