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  • Writer's pictureStephen Ostertag

The Benefits of Causal Theory in Formative UX Research

As a sociologist my scholarship involves explaining why people act together. I published many peer-reviewed articles and a book with an esteemed press that all get at the question of action in some way or another. I even built my own theory of action, where emotions, morals, and cultural codes play central roles (I call it “cultural work”, see my project on post-hurricane Katrina blogging “Connecting After Chaos”).


Action involves not only motives, but also the mechanisms of action; the available resources, knowhow, and cultural scripts that influence action. While it’s a complicated picture, there nonetheless exists useful theoretical frameworks across the social sciences that help us explain and understand why people act the way they do, the causes of action. Yet, I find very little causal theory in UX, in UX literature and in practice. Unstated theoretical assumptions exist, but they’re seldom brought to light. That’s a problem, at least it is for our clients.


Theory provides validated, empirically supported frameworks that offer consistency in how we interpret our data, report our findings, and move forward with confidence. Perhaps most significant for UX are theories of emotions and affect in action (though cultural codes/scripts are important too, they help explain mental models). Theories of emotional energies, of aversion and attraction, pushes, pulls, and containment, activating and deactivating emotions, are all helpful in interpreting data and reporting findings.


Most useful to our clients is that theory provides consistent guidance for what to do with the findings, months and years down the road. Theory provides things to consider as designers move forward with new projects, incorporating not just theories of design, but of emotions, of causality, of collective action, from the beginning.


The results are hard to argue against. Products that are more user-friendly, are those that resonate with collective urges, drives, and motives. When this happens, they sell better.


Good reporting not only needs solid methodologies and data collection, but convincing theory on the causal forces that underlie usability.


Further, good UX needs to be conducted not only by people who understand research methods, but who also know theory well enough to bring it into the reports in ways that benefit clients.

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