Penelope Rance

My UX research & design ramblings

Interview with Paul Boag

Head shot of Paul Boag

How did you get started in UX?

I stumbled into it. I was at art college with very little interest in computers. It was the very early 90s and I saw a post-it note on a board in the art studio saying IBM were looking for interns. I thought ‘why not, might as well give it a go’ and I got it.

I was working in a multimedia division that was essentially working on the CD ROMs for the very first multimedia PCs. And then this thing called the web came along.

Nobody else wanted to touch it, so they gave it to the intern because it was boring - grey backgrounds and centred text.

From there I went on to work at a .com company and from there ran an agency.

But over time I started to get frustrated by the constraints. People would say ‘we can’t do that’ or ‘users won’t like that’ and I’d think ‘are you sure?’

So I started to interfere in more and more areas thinking maybe we should look into this and that and so just stumbled into user research and user testing.

Basically it was me not believing other people and thinking I was always right, only to discover that I wasn’t.

What do you do now?

These days I work as an independent consultant. Most of the work I’m doing is a real mix. The stuff I enjoy most at the moment is conversion rate optimization work because I get to prove that user experience actually has value to organisations with metrics that get moved, which is always very satisfying.

But I also do a lot of coaching, training and consultancy. I’m a generalist, if it looks interesting I’ll have a go.

How do you convince stakeholders of the value of doing research?

I don’t convince them, I just presume.

They’ve come to me to improve their conversion rate, let's say. I don’t say, would it be alright to do some user research? I say, to improve your conversion rate this is the process. We want to understand the audience better and understand their objections, their pain points, their goals. To do that we need to carry out some user research. This is the kind of research we will do, then we will build a prototype, then we will test the prototype to see how it resonates with the audience.

So I just lay out the process and I think the process gives them confidence. It makes sense, it’s logical.

Occasionally they’ll come back to me and say Oh we’ve already done user research, which usually means’ that they’ve created some personas based on some market research. And I say that’s great, can I have a look, so they send them through. Inevitably it’s things like demographics, you know, they are a 1C or whatever and drive an Audi and read the Guardian.

Okay, that’s kind of useful, but it’s not really the kind of answers I need from a user experience point of view. I’m interested in what their goals are, their pain points, their questions, their task, right. So if what they have doesn’t answer those questions, then we have to go and find out.

Occasionally the customer thinks that they know the answer to those things. And sometimes these guys are really switched on and they are obviously spending time with their customers, then I don’t need to do more research, I just trust them.

Other times I’m thinking do you really know this? In which case I say let’s just do some lightweight sanity checks to make sure nothing's changed, because most times people will swallow that because I’ll never make a big ask.

I might just run a survey. There might be a particular statement that they make or a certain term, some jargon that people might not understand. So I’ll run a little survey that’ll ask whether or not people understand and when they answer comes back, no they don’t understand it, then people start to doubt everything! And that’s when you can do user research properly.

How have you found is the best way of sharing your research insights or findings?

It depends on the type of insight and how it was gathered. And it depends on the client.

There are some clients that are big thinkers, they look at the broad picture, so you don’t want to send them survey results. They won’t pay any attention to them. In those situations I’ll have a quick chat with them and flush out any questions or objections they might have at that point.

Then there are some people who are really into it and then you send them the whole survey results.

But if it’s usability testing and qualitative data I very rarely send them all of it because it’s just so overwhelming!

So I usually create a low light video, or horror video as I like to call them, where I basically edit together the most painful moments in the usability test into probably about 90 seconds worth of material. It really is a trailer for a horror film.

But then I immediately follow up with ‘these are my solutions to these issues’ because otherwise what tends to happen is people start coming up with ideas of how they can be solved and you can lose control of the process. Once they’ve come up with some batshit crazy idea that isn’t very well thought through they kind of have to defend it.

What are your favourite research methods and tools?

I love a good survey. I use surveys a lot for quickly getting answers to specific disagreements I have with clients.

I’ll give you a real example. Recently this company acquired a whole load of new products and they wanted to name those products. It’s not normally the kind of work I get involved with but I happened to be there. Somebody in senior management wanted to call them Network Management, SAS Management and WiFi Management. Now in some ways I quite like that because it describes what the thing is. But everybody else internally wanted to call them Network Manager, WiFi Manager etc.

So I just ran a quick survey to see which ones would make the most sense in context. I was in agreement that it should be Manager and all of us were proved wrong, quite decisively by the data.

I use a tool called Pollfish for that kind of thing. The reason I like Pollfish is it’s just a very simple survey tool, but they’ll do recruitment for you, really quite specific recruitment if needed. The last one we wanted 130 people that worked in America who had to answer a qualification question, and we had the results back in less than a day. That means you can answer questions very very quickly and that’s why I like surveys.

I also do a lot of unfacilitated usability testing using a tool like Maze. I like Maze because I don’t necessarily need to always go through every single video because it gives you data about time to complete tasks and how many mistakes they made and all kinds of things. So that’s a time saver.

The other little tool I use and I confess this is as much to convince stakeholders than actual research value and I’m not sure you could even define it as a user research tool, but it’s something called Attention Insights. It takes 1000s and 1000s of hours of eye tracking studies and creates a machine learning algorithm to predict where people will look on a page. It’s got about 90% accuracy, so I think of it like a spell checker for designers. It’s not always right but gives you a good idea.

So it gives you a head map and you can see where people will likely look on a page. I use it quite a lot if for no other reason than it stops clients asking if I can put things above the fold.

What advice would you give someone just starting out?

I often get asked this question and it’s a really hard question for me to answer because the world is so different now from when I got into it.

I think you’ve got to be curious about people. I think that’s the big one. I’m really really interested in how people behave and I’m very self conscious of how I behave myself.

You’ve got to have a lot of empathy, so always be asking why people are doing what they do. Those are the prerequisites for getting into it. Psychology is really interesting.

Then also be very conscious of any interaction that you either do yourself in life or see someone else doing.

I remember we went to Pizza Express and they were taking our order on this tablet and it was taking them forever, pen and paper would have been so much quicker. This is the kind of obsessive mind that I have. I start thinking okay so it’s taken her about x amount of time to take an order of four people at this table. If we could shave 10 seconds off and multiply by the number of tables in this room that are currently being served, multiplied by the approximate number of services per day it’s going to be this. I’ve basically extrapolated up and worked out how much Pizza Express could save per year if they literally just spend a bit of time on the UX of their app.

That’s the kind of mindset that matters. Training and stuff like that I can’t comment on as I’m not up to date.

Who inspires you?

I’m not somebody who is inspired by individuals, so much as certain people at certain times. So for example there are some Winston Churchil quotes that really inspire me, but the guy was an asshole, so I wouldn’t say Winston Churchill inspires me.

I think if there was one person I would say that actually inspires me, it’s probably somebody you’ve never heard of, a guy called Mike Kus. He is just one of these amazing designers that has an incredible eye for design, incredible illustrative ability and marries copy and concept with beautiful design. His web design is unlike anybody else’s you know and he doesn’t fall into any of the lapses of one column boring design. And everything he does is usable. So I really admire him.

What book would you recommend?

Oh so many!

First is quite a heavy book but it’s really, really good. It’s called Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. That is an excellent book to help understand how our brains work, how we process information, that kind of stuff.

If you want a lighter weight version there’s a book called 100 Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People by Susan Weinschenk.

If you want to learn more about business and business strategy, which I think is something that all UXs should know, then there’s a really good book called Strategy and The Fat Smoker by David H. Maister, which is about some of the common mistakes people making strategy make. It’s a really good book if you’re asked to write a UX strategy.

Then there’s books like Nudge by Richard H.Thaler, which I love and is all about how to persuade people to take action without being too draconian or mean to people.

And lastly Undercover User Experience Design by Cennydd Bowles, which is great for getting user experience into your organisation where it may not be a thing at the moment.

That’s what comes to mind first. You can tell I’m more of a book person than a video or podcast person, which is ironic considering I hosted a podcast since 2005.

What’s been your biggest challenge?


I’m quite an extreme person. I don’t see any character or personality trait as being inherently negative or positive but every character trait has its positives and its negatives.

So I’m incredibly enthusiastic but that means that I could be very dogmatic if people don’t agree with me. I’m incredibly into things, if I like those things and almost obsessive compulsive, but I have a complete disinterest and never touch anything that doesn’t grab my attention.

I’ve spent a lot of my career fighting the negative parts of my personality traits. I imagine for a lot of my career I must have been a very annoying person to work with because I was so into it and so intense about stuff.

I still catch myself occasionally doing it with projects, but you learn to work around those aspects of your personality. So one of them is my short attention span. I get bored with projects partway through, so I’ve built a business which means I tend to be involved in quite short bursts. I have a lot of clients but I only work with them for a relatively short length of time.

I think some of its matured and improved with age. You learn to be a bit more pragmatic and a bit more laid back as you get older.

But I think it’s remembering that every negative has got a positive, if you took away my obsessive compulsive leanings you’d lose half my motivation. If you took away my dogmatism you’d end up with someone that wasn’t very enthusiastic.

What are you most proud of?

Professionally, my own website.

I started blogging and podcasting in 2005 and have done so consistently ever since.

It’s not necessarily the best website and desperately needs rebuilding but the thing that I am really proud of is, my entire brain is in that thing! Everything I know, everything that I’ve thought about I’ve put it down in there, so it’s a huge resource for me. Other people do use it but for me it’s a place where I can check - what do I think about this thing? I can refer back to having that thought process.

I don’t understand why more people don’t blog. Well I do, it’s because they see it as a marketing tool or they’re afraid to put themselves out there. My blog is primarily for me. I blog as a way of processing information. I learn something, I write a blog about what I’ve learnt. I get my thoughts straight by writing it out as a blog post.

It’s the most valuable thing I’ve ever done and I think it’s the largest thing I’ve contributed as well in my career because it’s been very popular. I was the first person to ever start doing a web design podcast, which is a part of what I consider blogging.

Sharing what you know, getting it out of your head, I think is something we should all be doing.

Where do you see the future of UX Research going?

I hate being asked about the future because you inevitably get it wrong.

I think we’re all going to be replaced by machines! No actually I think there’s a degree of truth in that. I’m quite interested in the impact that AI is going to have on user research.

I’ve seen enormous jumps in AI recently, it’s absolutely mind blowing what AI can do now. I think the potential is for its ability to process large amounts of data and insights from user research.

I’ve already talked about Attention Insights that’s taken 1000s of hours of eye tracking and actually predicts people’s behaviour. I think Maze is another example where it could take hours and hours of unfacilitated videos and can tell you which ones people have struggled on.

I’m quite excited by that because one of the worst parts, in my opinion, about user research, and this probably goes back to my short attention span, is it is time consuming to look at all of that data and understand everything. I think that’s part of the reason why more companies don’t do it. So that’s why most of the user research I do is very lightweight, very fast. But I think AI opens up the possibility of me getting more back from the limited time I put in.

Would a governing body to help with training, standards and ethics help or hinder UX professionals?

It’s something we’ve been toying around with for years in various forms.

I’m not going to come down on that one because the honest answer is I don’t know. I think there are pros and cons to both. I think it’s an inevitability at some point, if you look at pretty much any other industry, they’ve all got these bodies.

Without a doubt it would bring some credibility to the industry and it would ensure that people who are practising in it are actually good at their job or at least meet certain standards.

The downsides of all that is it makes barriers to entry higher and might put some people off getting involved. It can be a bit exclusive and makes it all a little bit snobby.

So I’m not a great fan of bodies generally speaking but I’m wondering whether a sector almost needs it at some stage just to establish credibility.

Thank you to Paul for taking the time to speak with me and answer all my questions. If you’d like to learn more about Paul or sign up for his weekly newsletter visit

If you know someone you think I should speak to for this series, do let me know.

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