Use this UX research technique to gain deeper insights

4 min read
Chris Spalton
  •  Mar 16, 2018
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User experience designers know the importance of building a rapport with research participants.

Yes, you’re there to observe, document, and analyze in a “scientific” setting, but if your participants don’t feel comfortable, they aren’t going to speak freely or act naturally.

That means you won’t be able to gain the insights you’re looking for.

We welcome them warmly, offer them a drink, ask them how their day has been, get them to tell us about their hobbies and interests. We do all these things so that when we start the actual session they feel as comfortable as possible. It’s completely natural for us—we do it all the time because it’s such a big part of our job as UXers.

But to the participant, this process is pretty awkward. You’re in a strange building, in a room with a stranger, looking at a website, app, or product you’ve never seen before and you’re being asked questions about how a mortgage application makes you feel.

Related: How to conduct yourself in a UX research session

This isn’t natural at all. Natural would be relaxing at home after work, browsing your phone, sitting on the couch watching The Bachelor. You’d be talking to your partner about the options and products you’re looking at, bouncing ideas off each other, asking questions and clarifying information as best as you can, working together to identify the best options for your mortgage, your savings, or your insurance.

We can’t set up a couch or TV in our research labs to recreate this, but what we can do is encourage the natural conversations, queries, and teamwork that is often involved in making financial decisions.

So far in my UX career, I’ve held a bunch of focus groups, and I’ve conducted immeasurable amounts of one-on-one, in-depth interviews. Nonetheless, I’d never conducted research with a couple, in the room together, making decisions as a team like they would in real life.

Until last week.

Spoiler alert: It was amazing.

The research we were conducting was to explore the understanding and appeal of two new innovative mortgage products that might be released in the future. With a single participant you have to run through both products, and observe and interview them around their thoughts and feelings about what they’re reading.

“User research participants won’t speak freely if they feel uncomfortable.”

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Sometimes we ask them: “If you had to explain this in your own words to your partner, how would you do that?” They then talk about what they think and understand about the product, quite often mimicking the type of language they’ve just seen on screen. This can be really useful—it ensures we can gauge how much they’ve absorbed, the areas that confuse them, or perhaps what/how to refine.

There’s a couple of fundamental flaws with this approach though:

  • They actually wouldn’t explain it in those terms to their partner. Financial language is not natural language—most people don’t use the kind of terms involved on a day-to-day basis.
  • Surprise! You’re not their partner! As mentioned above, you’re a stranger. You’re in a strange place, in a strange setting. They’re not going to talk completely normally to you. They’re going to imagine they’re in an exam and try and recite what they’ve read to the best of their ability and hope you mark them “correctly.”

Both of these issues can bias the insight you’re gathering, and therefore have a knock-on impact to the analysis and recommendations you can provide to the client. It’s unavoidable, and something we have to acknowledge—and potentially even discount completely—when we’re formulating our deliverables.

So, how does interviewing a couple together make a difference, and how do you go about it?

In my example above:

I greeted them warmly, offered them a drink, asked how their day had been (same as always!), and brought them into the research lab together.

I asked them all the initial introduction or “context of use” questions as a pair, finding out about their relationship, their situation with buying a house, their finances, etc. I ensured that they each had an opportunity to speak as individuals as well as together. This gave me a greater understanding of some of the dynamics at play (her parents had given them a deposit, they both worked for his family’s firm, etc.), and a better appreciation of what their situation and their priorities were as a team, not as individuals.

“You can’t recreate a relationship in the hour you spend with a single participant.”

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I then asked the husband to leave the room and have a coffee. I placed the wife in the situation that a friend had recommended she check out only one of the two products we were testing, and asked her to explore the prototype to discover more about it. I captured the usual spontaneous thoughts and feelings and usability feedback as she moved through.

After around 15–20 minutes of exploring, discovering, and learning more about the product, I invited the husband back in. I asked her to explain the product to him, and how/if it would be a good option for them.

The wife had been really positive about the product she’d seen, so she pitched it to her husband, listing all its benefits: how the product could work given their situation, how they could discuss it with their respective parents, and, most importantly, how it meant they’d be able to borrow more money and move into a house with a garden (a prospect that was out of their reach at the moment).

In return, the husband raised questions and concerns: Would it work in this scenario? What impact would it have? He remembered his father had just retired: Would that impact the deal they could get? Would their needs be putting their parents at risk in any way?

Related: User research that will transform your company

It was a back-and-forth between long-term partners. The wife would clarify parts where she was certain about the details, and realize that she wasn’t so sure about certain aspects of it when particular questions were raised (“Ah, yes, we’ll need to look into that in more detail, and we’d have to make it clear to Mom that she’d need to do this…” ). Together they’d walk through how it might work given scenario X versus scenario Y.

It was real, and it was human.

It was like they’d forgotten I was in the room, and what I was observing was a pure, natural, honest conversation between two people with an established relationship and clear understanding of each other’s situation, goals, and desires—something that would never happen in a one-on-one scenario.

The insights that this single session provided me with were more valuable than the other five one-on-one sessions I’d held that day combined. You can’t recreate a relationship in the hour you spend with a single participant—they had years of a shared life together that had led them to this point, and here they were discussing them in front of me.

After they discussed the first product, I then sent the wife out and ran through the same process with the husband. Finally, I gathered them both in for some final summary questions and to discuss which of the products they’d looked at would suit them both best.

It was one of the most interesting and useful research sessions I’ve conducted in a long time, and I really feel that by embracing this technique I gained far more than if I had interviewed them both individually.

It may sound complicated to conduct a session like this with people coming in and out, but it really isn’t—you do need slightly more time than the standard hour (an extra 15–20 mins should be fine), and of course you need an extra chair, but that’s it!

Because only one person is using the prototype at a time, there’s no need to change the tech setup you have, but you will need to ensure that at least one camera/mic can capture the wider group conversation during those sections of the interview.

I highly recommend trying out this “dual research” technique, and it would be great to hear if you have any tips to share about interesting and useful ways to conduct user testing.

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