Understanding Nuances of Human Behavior

I came across a great article today in UIE’s newsletter: Three Questions You Shouldn’t Ask During User Research. The article highlights some great points that many researchers grapple with when learning to moderate usability sessions, focus groups, interviews etc. How does the type of question you ask, and the way you ask it affect the response you get. And to that effect, how do you know when you’ve influenced someone’s response, or when a response is unreliable?

In his article, Jarrod covers three important areas: 1) Don’t ask about the future, 2) Don’t ask the participant how they’d design something, and 3) Don’t provide a reason why when you ask about observed behavior. There are also many additional considerations, such as the way you formulate the scenario, the type of acknowledgement tokens you use, how silent you are etc.

In fact when you really dive into it you could about drive yourself nuts trying to memorize the exact ways to interact with people in an attempt not to influence them. Thankfully, in the end, we are all human, and no matter what we do we will influence each other. So the important thing is not to try and get everything exactly right, but to understand when and why certain questions may make a response less reliable.

I find this especially important when there are observers in a usability session, as I will sometimes ask questions that I know I can’t use the answer to, simply because I know that asking it will build a rapport with the participant that makes them feel more comfortable, and more willing to expose their opinions later in the study. The trick with this, is making sure the stakeholders also know that they can’t rely on the answers.

So why can’t you rely on participants hopes and dreams? Why can’t you ask them what they want, and how they would like to see it work? You can’t ask because of the way the brain works. As humans we have a unique ability to pretend, to make deductions about our experiences, and to hypothesize about the future based on those experiences. This happens in our frontal lobe where we make rational deductions about the irrational ways that we behave. Unfortunately, we also tend to leave many things out when we think about the future. In part because we are being asked to guess how we will feel in a hypothetical state that we have not yet experienced.

“If that button were on the left, would you have seen it?” How do you answer this? You think about what the button would look like on the left, you think about not seeing it on the right, and you deduct, that in fact “Yes, I would have seen it on the left”. Because you can’t imagine that you’d miss it twice, especially now that it’s been pointed out to you. However in reality, there is no way to know if that is true, without actually having the button on the left and seeing if you notice it the first time around. You may not have noticed it because of some huge red text in the center of the screen, or because the button has no affordance in the first place, there are many possible reasons.

It is also our frontal lobe that convinces us we remember exactly what happened on September 11th, when in reality we are most likely remembering some or much of it wrong. Why do you think you can remember any of it at all? Because it was emotional and different, and it stood out, right? Memory is strongly connected to emotion, which is why we feel like we remember it better and we are likely able to pull back more detail about what happened. Yet, our memory works somewhat similar to our ability to predict the future. We consider bits and pieces, and fill in the rest, we modify our memories over time, and usually feel that we remember emotional experiences the best.

We change our memories based on experiences we have had after the event took place. If the first time you used a piece of software, you stumbled with it a bit. Then after subsequent use you found that you really enjoyed it, and I ask you did you have trouble learning the software? You’re likely to respond “Not really, I’ve always really found it quite nice to use”. You’re not lying to me, your simply remembering all of the positive experiences you had, and probably considering that any software takes a moment to learn, and therefore not remembering in as much detail the length of time it took you to get up to speed with it.

The best thing you can do, to get the most reliable results is to focus on now. Remember that any question you ask will have subjectivity to it, and balance that with what you observed. If I ask you how you feel at this moment, your response will be much more reliable, then if I ask you to predict how you might feel at 5pm, or how you felt at 9am yesterday.