Humans are particularly good at socialising. Over thousands of years we’ve developed a complex set of behaviours that enable us to converse, convey thoughts and ideas, debate, and relate to one another. To watch an interaction between two people is observe a symphony of conscious and subconscious expressions, gestures, and choice language, all working together to fulfil fundamental human needs—to be understood, admired, perhaps even loved.
When interviewing users these behaviours can hamper our best attempts to understand them. Unlike a typical conversation, in a research session we’re only interested in the participant. We want to reveal their thoughts, needs, and opinions. By leaving conversational behaviours unchecked a researcher can unwittingly influence a participant.
If this was done over the course a research study the data gathered from influenced participants could lead a team to design a product that doesn’t meet any real user needs. It’s not uncommon for entire startups to be founded and built on qualitative data, such as that gathered from user interviews. For them, and organisations looking to compete with them, it’s of paramount importance to get this process right.
Here are just some of the tendencies we’re prone to when in conversation with others, and techniques for avoiding them so we can get the most out of our interview sessions.
Filling the gaps
In normal conversation we naturally try to fill the gaps, especially if it’s with someone we’re not too familiar with. Silence can feel awkward so we remedy our unease by filling the voids. If you’ve ever spoken with someone who barely gives you an opportunity to speak it’s probably because they’re nervous.
When speaking with customers it’s important to become comfortable with these moments of silence. If a researcher breaks the silence they risk losing an opportunity for the participant to share more of what they’re thinking or feeling. Thankfully, this tendency to fill the gaps works in the researcher’s favour. When a participant senses that the researcher isn’t going to break the silence, they’ll try to instead, often with some of the most important stuff they’ll divulge in the session.
We are naturally inclined to protect our sense of rightness. In the world of cognitive science this phenomenon is known as “the illusion of explanatory depth”. In conversation this plays out as a pretending of understanding. We’ve probably all experienced a scenario where someone talks of literature or politics and we either accept what little they’ve told us to keep the conversation moving or overstate our understanding, perhaps to appear more knowledgable than we feel we are.
In a research setting we want to get a deeper sense of the participant’s understanding. To do this it can be helpful to resist the inclination to appear knowledgable and to instead play dumb—Louis Theroux is particularly good at this. When a participant tells me about something, even if I feel I know a bit about it, I pretend I know absolutely nothing and prompt them to explain it to me. Very quickly I come to learn how strong their understanding is. By setting my ego aside for a moment I create an opportunity to learn far more about the participant and their understanding.
We have a tendency to act in ways that benefit the group. These pro-social behaviours include sharing, comforting, rescuing and helping others. In interviews participants will sometimes ask for help. It could be help at performing a task or help with understanding an idea. If a researcher comes to their aid then they lose an opportunity to learn from the participant.
As a researcher it’s important to resist these altruistic tendencies and instead get comfortable with being a bit useless. When a participant asks a question that indicates they need help or are unsure, a good technique is to simply replay the question back to them. If they ask, “Would it work like this?” simply ask them, “How would you expect it to work?”. It’s a great way to turn misunderstanding into an opportunity to see their point of view.
Learning to resist our natural behaviours when conducting research interviews takes practice. In qualitative research the data can be so easily affected by how we conduct the sessions. With this in mind it’s important to begin recognising how we naturally are before then applying techniques that circumvent these behaviours.
Adhering to each of the techniques above does have a downside though. Suppressing all the stuff that makes us human and relatable can result in coming across a little cold or robotic. To offset this, it’s important to take time to relate to the participant. It can feel a little indulgent to spend five minutes of a session talking about the participant’s dog but if it’s a conversation that allows the researcher and the participant to connect and relate to one another then it’s time well spent.
When talking about things that are irrelevant to the research I try to find commonalities or share a personal point of view, anything that builds a rapport with the participant. I find it pays dividends later on in the session when I ask participants to share things that they might normally wish to keep to themselves.