How to translate theory into practice - qualitative research
It's no secret that the competencies in social sciences and humanities, such as psychology, anthropology or sociology, could be very beneficial in the work of a UX researcher. They provide the practical skills needed in this job, from research and interview methodology to hypothesis construction. However, somewhat less is said about how valuable the broad theoretical knowledge these fields of study bring. This is probably due to the belief that it is not as applicable to the daily work of a UX researcher as specific hard skills. Nevertheless, theoretical considerations and social or psychological concepts can be of great value for researchers, helping them perfect their craft and better understand the specifics of their work.
The active interview concept
A great example of such an insightful theoretical approach is the social constructionist perspective. It assumes that every interview is an interaction embedded in a social context in which the researcher and the interviewee play specific roles. These roles result from established cognitive scenarios that suggest and guide how one should behave and react in a given situation.
Rooted in this approach is the concept of the active interview, developed by James Holstein and Jaber Gubrium. They challenged the assumption, characteristic of earlier methods, that an interview is simply about extracting and obtaining information that is permanently and immutably stored in the interviewee's mind. However, Holstein and Gubrium have a different perspective on this - they believe that the data (knowledge, opinions, and feelings) that we seek to gather from the participants are primarily a product of the interaction between the researcher and the respondent. In other words - the interview/user research is not a data transmission device but a place of data production.
Translating theory to practice
Although not very popular, such a perspective does not seem to contradict our everyday intuition as UX researchers. Our goal is first and foremost to obtain valuable and relevant knowledge from our respondents. The way we conduct the interview and formulate questions determines obtained information and its quality. At the same time, it is worth realizing that the interview process is equally affected by the people we talk to and the cognitive scripts and scenarios they (largely unconsciously) use. Awareness of this interplay and its effects can help us regain control in challenging and non-obvious interactions and situations during research.
So how do we recognize these situations? A good example would be a conversation where the speaker is uncomfortable or unwilling to express unflattering views on a given topic. They may answer questions evasively, avoid expressing extreme and judgmental opinions, or simply not elaborate, opting for the quickest and easiest answers. Sometimes we can also sense that they are insincere or overly polite. The cognitive script may be responsible for such situations, suggesting that the respondent identify the research/interview with an assessment or exam. Therefore, the person using this script will try to make the best possible impression, put themselves in a good light, and not offend the researcher or other potential recipients with their statements.
They will try to formulate their answers, according to what they think, is the most "correct" way possible. Sometimes this may be a conscious effort, but usually, respondents are unaware of what is driving them. Such thinking could result in inflated or lenient assessments and not entirely honest opinions. However, it is worth realizing that this is not usually due to the bad intentions of the interviewee. In most cases, people are not aware of the cognitive scripts they are using. These are often based on more complex mechanisms, challenges, and psychological needs that people face - such as fear of rejection and being judged or the need to be accepted and display their best side.
Therefore, it is helpful to be aware that the information you gain during an interview may vary depending on the participants’ perception of the situation and its context. Our task is to be vigilant and monitor such behaviour. With this knowledge, we can adequately prepare for the conversation and respond appropriately to various challenges. Additionally, we must realize that the interview situation puts us in an unequal relationship with the respondents. Its dynamics place greater responsibility on the researchers because, unlike the respondents, they have a specific goal in mind. Hence, it is mainly on our shoulders to create a positive experience among the participants. We should use this situation to our advantage because we have more influence over the atmosphere, direction and course of the conversation.
UX researcher in action
We can use this knowledge to rethink and re-analyze the practices we learned during our UX researchers' careers. It is crucial to reflect on the extent to which we actually make a conscious effort to practice them and the importance we attach to them daily. Seemingly obvious recommendations can turn out to be a game-changer if we truly understand their value and impact. So let's take a look at a few that form the core of our work.
- Research setting
Environment and atmosphere influence behaviour and performance - they can, for example, increase interview stress or trigger unwanted cognitive scripts. Therefore we should start by creating an environment that encourages the free exchange of information, experiences and rapport with the interviewee. To do this, we need to ensure a quiet and pleasant setting, with limited distractions (e.g. not allowing other people or technical problems to interrupt the session). This way, we reduce the risk of (unintentionally) putting the interviewee in an inappropriate role (e.g., interrogatee or student), making it easier for us to discover and understand their perspective.
- Introduction to the interview/research
Communication with the respondents before the beginning of the study is another factor that may determine the quality of the obtained information. It is essential to let the interviewees know the purpose of the study, so it is worth spending a few sentences on this to ensure that they have understood our intentions and their role. It is also important to emphasize that honest feedback, both positive and negative, is most valuable to us. We also should transparently and explicitly communicate how we intend to use gathered information, the interviewees personal data, and who will have access to the research results. Such a comprehensive introduction will foster the relationship with the respondents and assure their sincerity during the interview.
During the study itself, regardless of the research scenario and the questions, we want to ask, our main objective is to obtain valuable and honest information. To be able to do this, we'll need empathy - the ability to accept and understand the other person's perspective. This includes the experience of being a user and the forces working against the user, whether it be technology, business, other people, the environment, or culture. Empathy also helps us identify the emotions of all participants in the study. By being aware of those emotions, we can respond appropriately to challenges that may arise, manage the conversation, and create an atmosphere of mutual trust that encourages the free exchange of experiences, thoughts, and opinions. By developing and practising this quality, it will be easier to identify unfavourable cognitive scenarios of our interviewees.
- Suggestive questions
The provided information is always the product of interaction between the researcher and the interviewee. Given how easily the research can be influenced, we should pay particular attention to asking questions.
Sometimes out of convenience, haste, or simply the need to maintain the natural flow of the conversation, our research may deviate slightly from the planned script. Although this is entirely natural, it can sometimes work against us. For example, when trying to paraphrase or add/change a question, we unconsciously suggest a specific answer to the participant. Such suggestions can be based on our personal opinions about the research subject or on frequently repeated statements of other respondents. Such suggestive questions often contain emotional phrases. So it's good to be vigilant. Instead of asking, "Is the amount of information on this screen overwhelming?" it is better to rephrase the question and ask, for example, "How would you rate the amount of information on this screen?" Similarly, it is better to ask, "How do you rate your health?" rather than "Do you find your health satisfactory?"
- Cognitive biases
Let's not forget that the inadequate cognitive scenarios used by the respondents may also apply to us - the researchers. We, too, can fall into the trap of perceiving our work as an exam situation in which we are the students, and the client is the examiner. It is then straightforward to fall into the trap of cognitive errors. An example of such an error is the confirmation bias - the tendency to favour information that confirms previous expectations and hypotheses, regardless of whether this information is accurate. It can affect us when we subconsciously strive for research findings consistent with the client's hopes or assumptions. This may lead to asking more suggestive questions and focusing on results that support those expectations.
When conducting research, we can just as easily succumb to other cognitive errors. One of them is the illusion of transparency. This means that we tend to overestimate the extent to which others know what we are thinking or trying to convey. For example, many participants express their emotions through body language, pauses, and other nonverbal cues during interviews. The illusion of transparency makes it difficult for them to know if the message is being conveyed correctly. This is why it is essential to paraphrase - that is, to express the meaning of another person's statements using different words, especially to achieve greater clarity. One can, for example, ask a simple question "From what you said, it seems that you have such a feeling about this feature, am I right?".
Implicit bias is another common cognitive error. These are simply our attitudes and stereotypes that we associate with people, even without our conscious knowledge. In the context of user research, this can happen when we talk to people from certain demographic, social, or racial groups about whom we already have preconceived notions and generalizations. This can easily lead to asking biased questions. A good and tested practice is to write down all your preconceptions about the person before the interview. In this way, we can control the impact of our assumptions on the conversation and research findings.
These are just a few recommendations and good practices that are important in the work of UX Researchers. However, they clearly show how important it is to broaden our perspective and deepen our knowledge on seemingly obvious and well-known topics. Perhaps we do not think about their relevance daily, but it is easy to make mistakes without understanding how much it depends on them. In this case, issues related to cognitive scenarios and the concept of active interviews by Holstein and Gubruim allow us to explain the importance of our actions simply and logically. The role of a UX researcher is demanding. Still, once we understand the dynamics of the relationship between the researcher and the respondent and the mechanisms active in the research situation, it is easier for us to effectively manage the interview and obtain valuable information and conclusions. Therefore, it is worth reaching for unusual sources of knowledge - such as articles or books, seemingly unrelated to our work or industry. We work with people and for people - even the best tools, scripts or processes cannot replace simple human curiosity, inquisitiveness and empathy :)
Stemplewska-Żakowicz, K., & Krejtz, K. (2005). Wywiad psychologiczny. Wywiad jako postępowanie badawcze.
Holstein, J. A., & Gubrium, J. F. (2016). Narrative practice and the active interview. Qualitative research, 67-82.