003 - Usability, Research and- Board Games? With John Sarmiento

John Sarmiento is a Usability expert and is a delight to interview, and work along side at Bottle Rocket Studios.

In design - Usability is paramount for a successful product. This week John and I discuss all things Usability. From empathy and public health, to testing labs and field studies.

And, oh yeah, maybe a board game.


You can find John Sarmiento on linkedin.

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Check out the full transcript below:

Tony: Howdy friends, welcome back to the Xd Podcast! As usual, I'm your host Tony Daussat and today on the show I'm sitting down with John Sarmiento, an experience researcher, ethnographer, usability analyst, and one of the peachiest people that I know. Usability is a vital aspect of any product or business. And without it - to me, I think we'd all just be a bunch of people creating experiences lacking in any impact or real purpose and John and I dive into that. So I suppose without further ado, let's just get on it.

I'm so happy to have you, John Sarmiento. Thank you so much for being here. John is a colleague of mine, a coworker of mine. Just give me a little background about what you do, how you got here, who you are.

John: Yeah, the good old intro icebreaker question.

Tony: Yeah.

John: Yeah. So I am an XDR researcher here at Bottle Rocket Studios. I've been here for about a year and typically what we do is usability, as you mentioned, but I like to think of our department as research as a whole. And even though we here - typically do usability research for software development, uh, I like to include some of my background in anthropology and kind of the problem space understanding, when it comes to usability. So what usability is uh quick introduction, I would say is to test a materialized idea. And what I mean by that is teams here at Bottle Rocket. They help uh talk with a client and create a potential solution. And as they develop a, an app, a website, there needs to be a process in place to evaluate or test to see where the team is at in creating the products. So that's where my role in the research, uh XDR department comes in, is that we test a prototype, we look at a work in progress of an app or a website and it doesn't really matter the fidelity. It can be like a paper prototype, something that you can just have like sheets of paper and having someone look at it and mess around and shuffle sheets of paper. Or it can actually be a high fidelity prototype where it looks like the real thing. What we do at the XDR department is we assess what people think the flow looks like and how it feels, how it relates to them as potential user or a customer or someone that's immersed in a brand and we evaluate how well the design and the ultimate feeling of that experience, even if it's very short and provide insights for the team so that they can iterate a better design.

Tony: When you mentioned your background in anthropology, what is that about? What - What does that background for you?

John: Yeah, so anthropology, I guess my definition would be the understanding of people and people as individuals as well as communities and how do they interact with each other and provide a sense of meaning and value system. So that can that can be understood through understanding people's cultures throughout time and space or understanding of language and how we interpret our day to day life. And so some of these skills that I learned in that discipline was to listen - and to me, that's what I love about my job, here is being able to go in and feel vulnerable create a conversation - and whenever I do like an interview, I try not to go in with like, this person has to say this. I don't want to like lead people to answer questions in my own point of view. Rather, I love to have the person I'm speaking with shared their story. Not only do we show them uh show participants a prototype and have them go through it. I ask them uh questions along the way of - have they seen something like this before? How do they make it - how do they feel about it? And ask for some stories and I know sometimes teams can get antsy and ended up thinking, oh, they have to talk about the product only. For me, I love to bring that context because I use that in my analysis and share that with the team and hopefully that provides a more holistic understanding. So anthropology and just the social sciences that embrace the value and practice of listening is one of the core things I bring to my day to day here at work.

Tony: I always say a designer's greatest skill should be listening, not quote unquote designing. And so for these usability tests, what, why is that important for organizations to do and how early should we be testing?

John: I would say like in this industry of tech, where - are - the main bread and butter of the industries to create things that hopefully creates a solution for people... Uh, I think it can be easy for us to create solutions without validating that, like producing something for the sake of producing rather than really seeing if it's actually useful. Does it create an impact? And so that's why we have usability tests - is so we can create these checkpoints to see if we are at least heading in the right direction that really fits uh, the actual, the end user's goals. And the goals can be something as simple as buying something on an ecommerce website or it can be something even broader like feeling, feeling like they can get by in the day, knowing that they can take care of their family and the tasks that they do on an app is helpful, delightful, and you know, just makes, again, every day to day worthwhile and nothing not intrusive.

Tony: Do you ever come across situations where they end up answering how you, how they think you would want them to answer instead of how they truly feel about the experience?

John: You know, that's, that's a very tricky thing as a moderator and usability tests, it's important to know that in a moderated usability test, especially when you're face to face with someone, the moderator has to go in knowing that there is going to be some type of observer bias and it's, it takes practice and uh reflection - even like after and during the study to know when your, like your questions or the way that you approach the prototype may influence the responses. And so I think like as a moderator, what I do, if I catch myself in the middle of a test, I sometimes have to re-ask the question or maybe even start off with creating uh, an amicable relationship with the participant, like creating like a, a safe and hopefully a transparent environment where I'm not there to seek the success of this prototype. Rather I want a, I hope to have a genuine conversation of their experience with the prototype and, and share that with the team eventually. And I know during this, in the beginning of the study, any interviewer usability tests, I kind of prompt the participant with saying, I'm not a designer or developer. I'm here to hear what you have to say and I'll share it with the team. I'm the one that's going to look at our - look at the recordings and write up the analysis and share that with the team. Because anything that the participant says is valuable and there's no right or wrong answer. We're evaluating, we're evaluating the product, not the individual, thet participant. And so that is a technique to at least mitigate or reduce, hopefully to reduce the observer effect when doing a usability study, but it's not, it's never going to be 100 percent genuine, especially if you do like a usability test in a lab where it's not in a natural setting. And, uh, and even for me like coming in, uh, from a discipline that embraces, I guess I'm more uh onsite lived experience of the participants in a study like doing an ethnography going out in the field and seeing how all these variables affect a person or a group, uh, that is a def- You get a lot of different insights there compared to something that's in a lab. And that's for me even something that I've, I've been evolving and seeing the pros and cons and how to mesh both of my understandings of each method or each context of doing that study in the field or in a lab and through and with, within the analysis part, provide a, hopefully a, an honest report for the team where it doesn't conflate insights, but uh, it does at least provide direction or a deeper context to what to do next or understanding the person. And for me, research never ends. It is constant. It's continuous and it's a luxury if, if to work in a place that embraces that iterative research alongside the design where you can immerse yourself with potential users or a community and then use those insights and constantly create things.

Tony: Have you ever been in a situation where a team is building, building, building, building, building, and they almost ignore usability until they're done. And then they say, okay, great, now we need to test this. What kind of pitfalls might we expect? And doing something like that instead of saying, okay, we've, we've done some white boarding, we've done some like low fidelity prototypes, let's test it now. Like when, should usability be injected into the process as early as the first table? Or like in between each sort of iterative phase?

John: That's honestly one of the tough things about that process is that everyone's perspectives of research and how they apply that in their work stream can vary so much. I think it's not so much about, uh, when usability should be implemented, but I think the bigger question is how do we understand uh research within this work culture and how aware are we of not only methods but our understanding of people like changing our mindset of- I think for me, I've, I've been more in the problem understanding space more so than like the solution space where you're just tossing out ideas. I love just going down that rabbit hole of understanding context and problematize everything and not forget that whatever we're producing is for people.

Tony: In what situations do you think it's better to be in the lab versus better to be in the field where they'd be using the product?

John: Part of me feels like it's a practicality thing, were going in the lab - and our history of how we created a in house lab- An observation lab for usability is kind of cool stories that uh, my colleague Josh, who's my partner in crime in research, he, uh before I started, he had to like create the Research Department here and create - and started to create like an institution within Bottle Rocket, like creating the lab, making sure we have a protocol. Using his expertise before coming to the company to help shape that. So to me, if it's cool to see how the lab grew out of uh, I don't want to say necessity, but like it grew alongside the development of Bottle Rocket as it was growing when projects came in and more research was required for when creating more more apps.

And so I think the lab can be very helpful when bringing in a team and seeing the live interactions of a prototype with a actual person. So that can create a point of empathy with people, for the team to have a point of empathy with the person interacting with their creation. That that's one thing that's nice about having uh live observers, whether that's across the two way or one way mirror or even doing like a live stream of a website using a Webcam or something. I think having that opportunity to connect with people is a, I've, I feel as like an important part in the process of research. Uh, but to your question about when is it, is it better to do in a lab or a going into the field? Uh, and this goes back to my- I guess my tactic as being someone who's always a little bit practical is that sometimes doing field studies that can be very tough to organize, especially if the client is, wants to be very involved and they have to do the recruiting. Especially if they want you to observe their stores. Because for me as a researcher, I have to feel like, okay cool, we have access to this client stores, but how do, how might that disrupts uh those participants work day or like- to me a lot of like logistical questions come in mind that could affect how we gather data and how we interpret that data so it can be a little bit messy when it comes to the field, but I think going to field provides so much opportunity to see and feel the, the real world context of actual people and using those insights to create a more, a more informed design.

Tony: When we start thinking beyond the screen of a smartphone or a computer, how can we inject usability into other experiences?

John: Yeah. And actually that's not like a, I don't think that's like a new thing. I mean we see that through like um, evaluations of a policy or even like organizational development. Usability - to me it's like it's usability as I, as I mentioned before, kind of defined it - It's like testing and materialized idea and it doesn't necessarily have to be a physical product, but it can be a process of how people interact. So needing organization, how do people perceive that social gathering and the rituals that take place within that interaction and how do you evaluate that? What are the right questions? Like what are the questions that can inform, uh inform organizers to improve upon that process? So, um, yeah even like interventions like health interventions. So yeah, let's say like a, a food and security program at a university. If the program is about, you know, providing meals like nutritional meals to students who may not have the means to access them, what does it do well in it's marketing do, does the audience really does, do students really know how to use it? Are the meals, you know, nutritious, like all of these things that are implemented into this product that is a service. How well designed is that service to really make an impact? So that's kind of where I see the analogy of usability in other things outside of just a website or an app. And to me, I think an approach that I love doing is again listening, like seeing the different perspectives, whether it's the people who are receiving that service and those who are organizing that service and seeing if there's any cognitive dissonance or misunderstandings between groups that hopefully as interventionists, designers, whoever you call it, how do they kind of craft something that is meaningful, feasible and impactful. So that's kind of my impression.

Tony: I have a little side tangential question.

John: Yeah.

Tony: Weren't you going to be a doctor? Weren't you in the health field or study or something like that?

John: Yeah. So-

Tony: Everybody wants you to be a doctor?

John: In a weird way. Yeah. So my kind of quick backstory like health and healthcare is um, my parents were nurses, uh, uh, they came to the United States like in the seventies and they moved to Texas and at a young age I thought they were just like putting up bandages and giving them, giving them know, appropriate medication to heal people. I love that sense of being in service of and with others. And I also loved the biological sciences like I, um, and that's kinda what I studied in Undergrad. I, uh, I thought I wanted to become a physician and especially doing programs like Doctors Without Borders. I love traveling. I love immersing myself because growing up as a person of color and a child of immigrants and not being fully immersed in in the like, I guess the Filipino culture and kind of being like weird halfway point of being - part of my parents' legacy, but also being a part of a legacy that or part of, uh, my own legacy of being in the United States. I've always felt like I'm in this weird othered. I had this othered role. So growing up I've, I think I've intuitively intuitively kind of saw myself as someone who would listen to try to understand different perspectives and seeing how they all interact. So that's kind of what informed or what inspired me to pursue the social sciences alongside my passion to become a physician. And then eventually that led to going to Grad school in public health instead of going into medicine because I loved the aspect of going into uh community is and understanding and working with people- And helping them, finding ways to empower communities to design their own, uh, their own improvement in any way without enforcing or patronizing them saying this is the right way.

And I think that's what kind of gravitated me towards the the design space is that when I first heard about like, like UX and everything, a lot of the messages was empathy and listening to people and like knowing that that was like a baseline it within this community. I felt like I could just jump in and learn the craft of the design community, but also bringing my passion and my skillset in my discipline and share that. So it's kind of funny seeing how I'm here now. Someone who once, like I saw myself who wants to work in healthcare and do community development and then jumping into the tech industry. And again, I still feel like I'm still applying my skills. I'm just like adding on an adapting and hopefully I can still share the things that I learned with my team here at Bottle Rocket. And, um, to me that I think that, uh, that is my own personal goal is to empower others and learn at the same time.

Tony: I want to finish with a question that really has nothing to do with anything we've talked about. What object or thing in your life besides something that's digital, has had the greatest impact or added the most meaning to your life?

John: Yeah, the one objects that I think played a part in my journey to where I am now is the board game Pandemic.

Tony: Oh, go on.

John: So, um, so my hobbies are board games and uh, as I mentioned before, I love, I love public health. I love seeing how, uh, how people can work together and collaborate to improve health within communities or populations. And so, and this ties to Pandemic- uh Pandemic is a board game that came out like 10 years ago and it's a cooperative game where all the players are working together and they're trying to eradicate diseases across the world. And in the game, the game basically fights against the players. You're on a timer basically because all these little cubes of diseases will spread out. There's different types of diseases and what I really enjoyed about that game is that like not only did it satisfy like my interest in like in healthcare, but I love the interactivity that comes with the board game where everyone's working together and everyone in the game has a unique role. Whether that role is a researcher or a scientist or a dispatcher who moves people around, uh, or like you have all of these different roles and they work together to take away the disease. And another reason why - this is kind of a weird like meta reason why I like the game is - that I, I shared this game with one of my instructors and Undergrad in public health and she provided me basically like a week to teach my classmates how to play the game and connect it to our lessons and being able to I guess share my passion with other people and embrace the cooperation and the values of where we all may have -we all may have different skillsets, but if we have like the right uh right approach of collaboration and strategy, we could win the game. And this was at uh, like when I was teaching this, this, uh, this board games, my classmates, I was at a crossroads and, and I was debating if I wanted to go to, to pursue medicine and pursue public health... Where medicine you can go through you know the grind of going to med school and then there's like public health is just a shorter version, but the focus as opposed to being with patients is in public health- You focus more on communities and understanding the different facets of healthcare, whether it's policy or epidemics or understanding communities and their definitions of health. That stuff I loved. And so when I was sharing this game, this is at a point where I had to decide am I going to apply for this Grad program or this Grad program? And I ended up choosing public health and it, I'd say that the board game pandemic has really played a factor.

Tony: Pandemic. It's not a sponsor of the podcast.

John: No.

Tony: But listen, if you're listening, we've got a champion for you.

John: Designer Matt leacock. You're awesome. Thank you for changing my life.

Tony: That's really fascinating to me. Thank you.

John: Yeah.

Tony: I'm so glad that you came in and let's do this again. How can people reach you?

John: Uh, you can find me at Linkedin. I think it's John Sarmiento 1. If you have any questions about if you are a budding anthropologists or someone in Undergrad pursuing uh social science and interested in UX research, feel free to hit me up.

Tony: Thank you, Mr. Sarmiento.

John: Thank you.

Tony: Sweet beans. That'll do it for me and John Sarmiento this week. I hope you enjoyed the podcast. If you did, please leave a review - rating. It really helps and reach out to me on social media. All the handles are at xd podcasts except twitter. You can find me at Tony Daussat on twitter, but uh, it's not my jam. Maybe we'll talk about that later on a different episode. At any rate, I'm so happy you were here and I can't wait to see you next week. Until then, stay curious.