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Emma Howell on Bias in Research

We caught up with Emma Howell ahead of the upcoming UXBristol event, to have a chat about topic “Bias in research”. As event sponsors, we took the opportunity to also ask her about her career journeys so far…

Emma Howell has 12 years of research experience, starting in academia before finding her way to crafting lovely digital stuff. She has a mixed bag of research experience. She is a Senior User Experience Consultant and Research Lead at cxpartners currently.

ADLIB: In a nutshell, what has been your career journey so far, leading you to where you are right now?
Emma Howell: I’ve never been someone that has known what ‘career’ they want. In many ways, I still don’t. My parents gave me the best advice growing up – they simply told me to do what I enjoy. And whatever I enjoy, I just have to do my best. This allowed me to explore subjects, and later careers, with intrigue and genuine interest rather than pressure or a feeling of necessity.

I began a research career in academia after really finding a passion for research at Uni . I started in a Biology department studying bird vision and camouflage. After a few years, I began chasing a career in becoming a researcher for natural history documentaries. It was fiercely competitive and a tough slog and I found myself back in academic research. This time, I jumped back to Psychology and watching humans. I toyed with the idea of staying in academia and carving out a career for myself but it just wasn’t for me. I didn’t find the pace quick enough and I wasn’t able to flex my creative side. That lead me to UX research. And here I still am now!

ADLIB: Can you shed some light on the potential impact research bias can have and why you think it is important to avoid?
Emma Howell: Our brains try and save us time and energy by creating short cuts that allow us to find patterns in the things we experience around us. While this can be useful, it also means that when we do research, we are at risk of missing new patterns and information.

As researchers, we need to learn how to recognise our biases. We need to be aware of them and we need to be willing to challenge them. That means actively looking out for evidence that will prove our assumptions wrong.

If we don’t do this, we risk skewing our data. Once our data is skewed, we can’t be sure that we are designing the right thing. Bias research can lead to anything from slightly questionable changes to outright wrong business decisions that cost companies millions of pounds.

ADLIB: As a starting point, can you share common places where bias can creep into projects and how to reduce its effect?
Emma Howell: Bias can creep into research from so many parts of our projects. From your kick off meeting to producing your research deliverables, bias can lurk anywhere! The main place that people tend to think about bias is in research sessions. Being mindful of your language when interviewing and actively seeking information that will challenge your biases is a great place to start. I’ve also found that having more than one researcher and making anaylsis a group activity are great challengers to bias. They’re also pretty quick and easy to build into projects.

ADLIB: What can people expect from your workshop at UXBristol?
Emma Howell: So often, when you read about bias in research, it focuses on the research session itself. I’m really interested in exploring all of the places that bias can come into play. I want to give people time and space to think about how their own biases could be affecting their research. I want to explore all of the places it can creep in. And most importantly, I want people to leave with a fuller toolbox of tips and tricks to minimise bias in their research.

Thank You for sharing Emma!


UX Bristol 2018 is set to be a memorable day of UX workshops. Learn hands-on UX techniques from leading practitioners in a friendly and sociable setting. Tickets and event info via www.2018.uxbristol.org.uk.

For some further reading on User Research, Emma’s book might be for you.