What Users Really Think & Why They Aren’t Telling You

Practical Advice to Mitigate the Courtesy Effect

Summary: Countless products fail because designers aren’t able to discover the truth behind user behavior before launch. This article explains how to ask the right questions and present prototypes in a way that will uncover what users really think.
Photo by Helloquence in Grenoble, France

In Daily Life

Whether in conversations with our significant other, dinner at a friend’s house, or during a design critique, our goal is usually not to hurt each other’s feelings. We want to avoid offending those we care about, and thus sometimes we suppress our own opinions.

For instance, when Greg’s boyfriend asks if his new jacket looks nice, Greg is calculating his own feelings and opinions with other contextual information: the jacket’s cost, the effort put into the outfit, and ultimately what his boyfriend wants him to say. In dozens of sitcom episodes this scene plays out — with the life lesson centering around being honest and open.

The courtesy effect is a fancy title we use when talking about the white lies and little omissions that occur during the course of conversation.

In Practice

During a usability test, our participants may avoid telling us critical feedback.

The interface we are testing may not be actually usable. Maybe the navigation is confusing, or maybe the onboarding is too cumbersome. Perhaps it’s not even a useful product. Our participants may quietly squelch their true beliefs when asked for input or feedback, all in the name of not hurting our feelings.

An inner monologue of “this looks hard to make” and “they tried really hard” will override our request for comments.


We use a few ways to mitigate the courtesy effect when conducting a usability test.

Start Low

One reason participants do not want to tell designers their true feelings lies with perceived effort. Showing a user a fully complete interface, filled with colors and microanimations, appears to take significant effort. Participants aren’t software designers and have little understanding how hard it was to design. As a result, participants often limit their input to surface level feedback.

Testing with a high fidelity prototype will often lead to comments like “I don’t like how small the text is,” “These instructions are unclear,” or “I love the colors.”

It’s easy to mitigate these comments by starting with a lower fidelity design. Bring paper wireframes to test your core user flows. The smudge-filled paper prototype has an air of incompleteness that makes it more approachable to critique. It looks quickly done, and easily manipulated. Plus, the feedback you will get will focus on the core of the user experience — not just if users find the color palate pleasing.


After completing the tasks outlined during the test, ask users to navigate to the part they felt most lost or unsure. Then, encourage them to help determine changes they think would be best.

Even if their ideas are flawed, it can become clear which aspects of the design or interaction is difficult to grasp. You can work back from the solutions they provide to a core problem with your design.


When meeting with participants, make a point to highlight that you are a user researcher. You definitely did not design this app. Instead, explain that your job is focused on how the interface could be improved. Feedback that you’ll take right back to the team.

By removing your ownership from the mockup, and by explaining that to do your job well you need to understand how the design could be improved, you are giving your participants permission to critique. The feedback you get will (hopefully) be more critical and opinionated.


By mitigating the courtesy effect, we can feel more confident with the design choices we make.

We can catch problems with our core user experience decisions — and by mitigating these issues early we can avoid fundamental product changes going forward. Whether that means not having to refactor the entire interface, or drastically change flows, it will save time and resources going forward.

Quintin Carlson researches and designs for Flexport — the first internet powered freight forwarder and supply chain logistics provider. Every Wednesday, the Flexport design team will breakdown user experience research techniques so you can apply them in your own design process.

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