UX and Data Science: Human in the Loop

8 min read

UN Global Pulse works with partners to deliver data-driven solutions to development, humanitarian, peace and human rights challenges. Some are digital products to empower our United Nations (UN) colleagues with actionable insight drawn from big data – such as PulseSatellite, which extracts information from satellite imagery for humanitarian use, and Operational Response Communication Analysis (ORCA), which integrates radio data analysis into infodemic monitoring.

At UN Global Pulse, we highlight a “human in the loop” approach in data science and broader innovation approaches, and this is also applicable in building a digital product this is where user experience (UX) comes into play.

My name is Cynthia, and I am the UX / UI Designer for the ORCA Project. Through advocating for UX and practising its principles at UN Global Pulse, I have come to realize the synergies between UX and data science, as well as the applicability of UX values in a wider context.

What is UX?

UX is about designing the ideal experience of using a product. We advocate for users’ best interest and develop a systematic strategy incorporating interaction design, design thinking, usability, and function. 

UX can be broken down into a four-step process – (1) discover problems by research, interviews and surveys, (2) strategize solutions by mapping user stories, sitemaps and prototyping, (3) design to bring the experience to life and (4) evaluate the work by usability testing and accessibility testing. It is an iterative process that allows refinement based on insights drawn from evaluations.

A flowchart summarizing the UX process - Discover, Strategize, Design and Evaluate.
Four-step process of UX. Cynthia Sin Nga Lam.

Synergies between UX and data science

UX and data science are both essential components of our products and they have quite a few things in common. 

  1. Data speaks — Both let data make the decision. It is not the designer, the engineer, or one user who makes a call, but the collectiveness of feedback, metrics and observed interactions with the product that guides its design.
  2. Finding problems and solving problems — In data science, we look into data and patterns to identify problems we can study historical vaccination rates to identify populations at risk for vaccine hesitancy. And to address the problem, we can analyze social media data to identify sources of misinformation precipitating hesitancy.  UX, on a smaller scale, has a similar process. We find problems our end users face through research, interviews, and usability testing, and we address the identified problems with specific user-friendly design.
  3. Iterative approach — Both data scientists and UX designers know it is impossible to hit the jackpot in one go. It takes multiple design options, testing attempts, and iterations to achieve the desired outcome.

Less ego, more EAGO — How to practice UX

UX is a professional field, but its values are not exclusive to UX / UI designers. Everyone can incorporate UX values to improve their products and serve their users better. 

Reflecting on my experience as a UX designer, I summarize the core of UX as “less ego, more EAGO.”

Less ego, more EAGO in UX mnemonic.
Less ego, more EAGO in UX. Cynthia Sin Nga Lam.

E Engage all parties early
Engineers, administrators, clients, designers, and end-users all have a special role to play in the UX journey. It is important for each to communicate expectations early on. It is also critical to be inclusive in engaging our users we need to include persons with diverse backgrounds and minority users to ensure our product is accessible and optimized for diverse use cases.

A — Advocate for the users
UX designers play the special role of advocating not for ourselves, not for our brand, but for the people we build the product for. Conducting thorough user research at the beginning helps us better walk in their shoes and design more user-centric products.

G — Get vulnerable 
Usability testing is a common practice in UX to evaluate a product by observing how real users interact with it. This can be challenging as it takes a lot of courage to let your own work be scrutinized. Designers need to get rid of their ego, pay close attention to how the users might struggle with the product, and embrace criticisms as they come.

O — Optimize with feedback
After usability testing, it is easy to just move on to the next activity, but the best thing to do is to take a deep breath and digest what we have learned from the exercise. 

Practicing UX at UN Global Pulse

When I was brought in to develop the UX of ORCA, which analyzes content shared on public radio across Africa to support infodemic monitoring, I was excited to practice EAGO and encouraged to see some of its values already practised by the team. 

E — Engage all parties — We have weekly check ins where our back-end and front-end engineers, project managers, and designer come together to give their updates and discuss issues and solutions. We also have regular meetings with our partners to discuss progress and certainly our end users to ensure we have their best interest in mind.

A — Advocate for the users — As an infodemic analyst, I am also an end user of social listening tools, so walking in the users’ shoes is slightly easier for me. However, I did not dare to assume I could represent all users. For example, I expected it would be second nature to me to incorporate Boolean operators (a set of commands to specify search in a database) in query building for any infodemic manager, but it was proven not to be the case after interviewing our users. Advocating for users is only possible when we make an effort to understand our users in the first place.

G — Get vulnerable — Through usability testing with users from Niger, Nigeria, Guinea, and Kenya, we gained invaluable insight from our users. We tried our best to completely let go and communicate how open we were to their feedback so they would not hold back… and they did not, which made the exercise especially fruitful.

O — Optimize with feedback — We first analyzed the list of feedback we received as well as the observations we made during testing, then proposed solutions to each of the problems we identified. We then logged them according to their respective categories and priorities so that we would not forget to transfer our lessons learned from usability testing to practice.

UX life lessons: humility and empathy

UX values are also not limited to only product development. I came from medical training and being a UX designer has taught me many invaluable lessons that can be transferred to medicine and other areas of life.

Advocate for those we serve, not what we do — Named user experience, the core of UX is its users – the innate lack of self in our titles reminds UX designers every day of the importance of humility. So much of our job is about embracing criticisms. In usability testing, when a user pinpoints ten weaknesses in our design, or gets stuck in something we thought was user-friendly, or dislikes something I loved, I have learned to celebrate. The essence of usability testing is to get feedback, identify our own biases, and improve the user’s experience. It is never about what I think, but what the users experience. This is an incredibly humbling realization that kicks ego out of the way from letting genuine feedback help us grow.

Empathize with others — UX requires one to empathize and be attentive to problems others might face otherwise, we will fail to address our users’ concerns. We should not only address our users’ immediate frustrations but explore their motivations, needs and goals. Being a UX designer is great training for the eyes to spot problems as well as for the mind to give constructive feedback or even develop solutions, but above all, it reminded me to be human and “feel with” another person. This rings particularly true in my clinical day-to-day work — every patient I talk with, I strive to be fully present and listen (clinical consultations and usability interviews surprisingly have a lot in common). It might not always lead to a solution, but it can build a connection, which is often what the other person really needs. 

There would not have been UX without users, and there would not have been data science without people behind the data. In UX, research, or our everyday life, may we find the humility to focus on not what we do but those we serve, so that we can courageously embrace criticisms and utilize them to help us solve more problems.

Cynthia Sin Nga Lam is a UX / UI Designer, working with the World Health Organization and UN Global Pulse to deliver user-centric solutions for the public good. She is also a final-year medical student in Hong Kong and an Artificial Intelligence and Data Science Fellow at UN Global Pulse.

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