To Focus on Why, not What, in User Research

A significant difficulty involved in tackling user research is finding a way into the user’s head. Many researchers avoid this entirely, and focus simply on what a user does.

Accordingly, focusing on what a user does can lead to a magnification of the importance of a single aspect that the user is engaged with.

Let’s take an example (a simplified, reduced example, but one that it is illustrative nonetheless). You are user testing a retail website. A user browses to a sewing machine and clicks on photographs of it. When doing a thinkaloud, she may casually tell you that she liked the photo.

Now, you take that information back and report on it: “Photos appreciated by users”. You might then prototype and test a design with more product photos.

The rationale for the user’s actions, however, is not truly understood in this scenario. This is especially important for something like this, where a usability issue is not involved. Yes, the user liked the photo, but why? Was it because she liked the aesthetics of the photo? She recognised the brand of the sewing machine? She thought she recognised something in the photo that was useful or novel?

If any of these reasons were the case, the conclusion that more photos = better may be a specious, or at least an exceedingly shallow conclusion to draw from the data.

Continuing the example, if we had pressed the user and examined why she liked the photo, we may have found that perhaps, she was curious about the size of the sewing machine and that clicking on the photo was the best method to understand how large it was.

What are the aspects a user is interested in?

If we understood this we would glean much more than the conclusion “add more photos”, which may be fundamentally not what users are interested in, but only a superficial manifestation of a deeper rationale. Understanding this rationale, this why, allows user researchers to grasp the cognition of a user.

Returning to the sewing machine example, the user essentially wanted to understand how the sewing machine would integrate with her life, in a physical sense. In understanding that users on this site are interested in understanding how products integrate with their lives, we might want to prototype methods that facilitate this. We might want to user test a prototype that displayed pictures of multiple angles of a product, or showed the product in context with a person, or allowed users to see a video of a product in use, or even allowed users to superimpose pictures of the product on pictures of their home or person.

I recently completed my Masters thesis on this very topic — why users undertake interactions when they are using the web. After a bout of research, I developed a typology of the rationales users used to describe why they do what they do when browsing the web. These were not rationales for overall goals for web browsing, but rationales for single browsing interactions (clicking on various elements).

These types of rationales were divided into 4 categories: (in actuality the rationales were reactions to the content they were looking at, which then informed the rationale for their interactivity — but that’s perhaps needlessly in depth!)

  • Appeal: Users perform an interaction because they quite simply find something appealing or unappealing. This appeal may be due to the visuals, where it is in the hierarchy of the site (e.g. near the top of the page), the emotions it elicits, or many other aspects.
  • Apprehension: Users sometimes doing things because they want to “apprehend” content. These rationales involved a user seeking to, or failing to, acquire or comprehend content. For example, this might involve a user clicking because he wants to further understand some written content, or could involve a user clicking “back” because he fails to understand content.
  • Congruence: Sometimes users are looking for something, and what they see may be congruent or incongruent with the idea of what they are looking for, thus they’ll often click on a link that when the content is congruent with their expectations, and click ‘back’ when it is not. For example, a user may have the name of particular person in mind, and not seeing it listed, they may hit ‘back’. This is the main reason for interactions people use when they are “finding” things. This idea is also closely related to the idea of “information scent”.
  • Life-world Orientation: Sometimes content that a user sees impacts their life, or zone of experience that is their world. This content might affect their past, current, or future life, (or it might not) so they perform an interaction.

Note that these typologies are not mutually exclusive — their may be multifaceted reasons as to why a user does something.

On identifying these rationales in users, we can consider design suggestions that acknowledge and reflect these rationales. I developed a framework of these suggestions for my MSc. You can check it out here. It’s lengthy, and expects that you know the sub-types of user rationales.

But a good deal of them are self-explanatory.

For example, if we did user testing where we looked at a user’s rationale, and we kept discovering that users were clicking back because they read everything on the page, we might categorise their rationale in the realm of Apprehension, in that they clicked back because they apprehended and exhausted all pertinent information.

What can this tell us?

That users are interested in the information and they likely want more. We can see that users want more of this particular type of content, and that we should structure this page, or collection of pages, around this. For example, we might work to create more related links.

It may be that it is in the site’s best interests that the users do exhaust all the information, so they perform an action (like click a call to action for more information). This is a positive outcome, and would require no change in the site, but even then, seeing this result allows us to understand and confirm that this is a quality on the page that is eliciting a preferred user interaction.

Indeed, understanding why a user does what they do helps understanding the user’s cognition as a whole. It makes it far easier to empathise with a user and model their cognitive behaviour.

Investigating the user rationale is a concept with a great deal of facets and depth — I’ll certainly write about it more. But in the meantime, should you want to learn more, click here to take a look at my Masters thesis, which has a whole lot more detail about what I have been discussing.

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