Be counter-intuitive with user research

The results aren’t always what you expect

160 million people across 191 countries choose to sleep in a stranger’s bed. How did the founders of Airbnb convince people to take part in such reckless behaviour?

Airbnb challenged intuition. They did this by creating a service based on trust.

Investor Ashton Kutcher tells Business Insider how intuition leads to assumptions. Sleeping in a stranger’s bed might sound strange, but it disrupted the hotel industry in a way no one expected.

We base intuition on our own frame of reference. This makes it a weak basis for making informed design decisions. User research is key as it gives us real insights, untampered by our assumptions.

Step 1: Differentiate insights from assumptions


Before planning user research, differentiate insights from assumptions. An insight is anything supported by data whereas an assumption is anything that isn’t.

Let’s take the study Cognitive consequences of forced compliance, by Festinger and Carlsmith. In this experiment, 71 students took part in a tedious task and were to report back to others that it was fun. Some were paid $1, others were paid $20.

Before starting their research, some of their assumptions might have been:

  • None of the participants will find the task fun
  • Being paid more will incentivise participants to be more positive towards the task
  • Some participants will give up on the task

Step 2: Use your assumptions to write a hypothesis


What is the assumption you most want to prove — or disprove? Consider how you might phrase this as a clear “if…then…” statement. Keep it short and focussed.

If we reward participants more for a task, then they are more likely to be positive towards it.

Festinger and Carlsmith tested cognitive dissonance. This is when someone acts against what they believe. They expected a bigger reward would give participants more justification to lie. In this case, that they enjoyed the boring task when in fact, they didn’t.

Step 3: Prepared to be wrong


The hypothesis stated those paid $20 would be more positive about the task. But it was those paid $1. The results of the experiment were counter-intuitive.

Wait, what… how?

A smaller incentive to behave against your beliefs is harder to justify. Those paid $1 had to try harder to adapt their attitude to match their behaviour to reduce discomfort. As a result, they reported greater satisfaction than the $20 participants.

Intuition can be mistaken for truth. Being counter-intuitive might feel unnatural. But what might we learn from considering the alternative?


When planning user research, be okay to be wrong on some occasions. Be okay answering questions you didn’t set out to answer. Be okay for data to derail you. Because in the end, we’re designing for strangers — and it’s important we get to know them.