13 things Louis Theroux can teach us about user research
Louis Theroux’s documentaries often focus on awkward, hard-hitting, sensitive topics. Interviewing people can be extremely daunting, yet Louis makes it look easy. My role as Creative Consultant at Fluxx means I spend a lot of time conducting user research for a variety of clients. Through my experience, and my interest in Louis Theroux, I’ve put together the following 13 tips and tricks through the lens of Louis’ documentaries. Some are more obvious than others.
Watch carefully, and you will see a range of techniques ‘the master of the awkward silence’ uses, and how they can work for you...
1. Always introduce yourself with a smile, eye contact and a hand shake. In this clip from the BBC documentary Drinking to Oblivion, we see Theroux meet alcoholic Aurelie’s seemingly abusive boyfriend, Gary. It’s an awkward set-up in a local park where they drink often, yet Louis, our self-confessed “socially awkward nerd”, introduces himself with a vulnerable charm. This immediately makes those he’s interviewing warm to him. As researchers, creating an immediate human bond is very important, and shaking hands (with a smile) is a great way to do this.
2. Explain why you’re talking to them, and what you’re using it for. This clip also shows Louis briefly explain the purpose of the conversation. For user research, it’s important to be clear about the purpose of your meeting, and honest about what you are using your research for. If you’re incentivising your participants, give them this up front, so that they don’t feel like they have to say ‘the right thing’ to receive it at the end.
3. Make them feel at ease and comfortable. Get them a coffee, ask them how they are and don’t dive straight in with questions. It feels much more natural to ‘warm up’ before directing the conversation towards topics you want to discuss. Despite it feeling ‘off topic’, a five minute chat about the weather, or transport, can pay off with a much better and more natural interview. The same applies for the ‘warm down’ as you approach the end of your time together.
4. It’s a conversation, not a survey.
Here Louis uses a clever power play to ensure he’s having a conversation with Gary, rather than firing questions and waiting for answers. A conversation feels much less intimidating than “10 questions”, and this scene shows how Louis responds to Gary in a way that also sets the terms for the meeting. The person you’re interviewing should feel like they are driving the flow of the conversation, while the interviewer prompts in the direction of what they want to know. One of the ways I find works best is to use a discussion guide with written prompts, to ensure you still cover everything you want to.
5. Ask open questions.
In this clip we see Louis questioning an inmate at San Quentin State Prison in the documentary Louis Theroux: Behind Bars. He encourages further dialogue by asking “Why” and “In what way?”. Open questions are one of the best ways to encourage conversational flow, rather than stilted questions and answers. By ‘open questions’, we mean asking a question that the interviewee cannot respond to with a simple ‘yes’, ‘no’ or one word answer. Louis does, however, often use closed questions, but these tend to be loaded and provocative (see point 8).
6. Visit them in their setting. Meet in a place that’s convenient to them, and on their ground. Almost anywhere is better than a bland meeting room. When Louis meets white supremacist Tom Metzger in Louis and the Nazis, there’s a scene where they are both in Metzger’s car. Louis is in the back seat in a submissive pose, and Metzger is driving. By being in such a personal space, and with Metzger literally in the driving seat, Louis creates a situation where his interviewee is in the position of power, and therefore more confident to answer and challenge Louis’ questions.
7. Keep your eyes open.
Visiting people where they are comfortable isn’t just for their benefit. For a researcher, people’s personal environments are full of telling details. In Drinking to Oblivion, by being with Aurelie and seeing her decision process when buying alcohol, Louis is able to get a more true insight into the behaviours he wants to understand. Not only that, but seeing it first-hand allows him to dig deeper and ask questions about the behaviours he notices.
At Fluxx, we do this all the time. I’ve interviewed parent’s of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in their homes for local authority transport services. I’ve also visited cash machines with ex-pats in Dubai, when designing a challenger banking brand. Being in the parents’ homes prompted many tales that would otherwise have been missed, from letters attached to the fridge about transport issues, through to a jumper on a sofa waiting to be sewn-up due to an incident that happened on one journey to school. In Dubai, being close to where one lady lived, I was able to walk to the cash machine she was having difficulty with where I saw first-hand the issue she was having.
8. Learn to think fast, and pivot when necessary.
In this clip from Louis’ Law and Disorder in Philadelphia, we see Theroux ask ‘drug lord’ Reds whether what he has “heard” from the police about him is true… The man shifts his weight awkwardly, and uncomfortably says “no”.
Changing tack, Louis sheepishly (with a cheeky smile) asks the man about the chain he is wearing, and whether they are “real diamonds”. Sussing out what Louis is suggesting, the man laughs and drops his guard a little. It’s important to read the person you are interviewing, and listen to what they’re saying, rather than rehearsing the next question in your head. This allows you to change the way you phrase a question, or tackle an awkward response.
9. Don’t assume you know the answer. You want to hear what they have to say, in their words. Even if you think you know the answer, sometimes you just need to hear how they say it.
Louis does this when he meets Pastor Phelps in his documentary The Most Hated Family in America. He asks the Pastor how many children he has, despite already knowing the answer. He does this because he wants to know how Phelps responds, knowing he has 13 children but that 4 have “fallen away”. It’s much more powerful and insightful to hear and see a person respond to a question in their own way, even when you think you might already know the answer.
10. Be curious, and drill deeper. Ask ‘Why?’ and ‘What makes you say…?’
In the clip above, Louis can be seen drilling deeper into what Gary is saying when he asks ‘What makes you say…?’ to one of the responses. It’s critical to understand ‘why’ for user-research, to truly get to the core of user needs and problems. When the interviewee makes an interesting comment, ask them why they feel that, why they think that, or why they might say that. Louis can also be seen using this technique in point 5.
11. Don’t be afraid of ‘awkward silences’.
This is a real skill, and not many people can pull it off. But often the most powerful question is silence. People feel awkwardly uncomfortable in silence, and want to fill the void. Hold back and wait for your interviewee to break the silence. Deploying a bit of silence can pull interesting insights from even the most reluctant of interviewees.
12. Pay attention to body language.
In this clip we see Theroux and Aurelie sit silently. She awkwardly jiggles her legs and taps her hand on the cider can, showing us her lack of comfort about the scene that happened just before — her boyfriend’s verbal abuse of both herself and Louis. Louis mirrors her body language, sitting at the same level as her to encourage her to feel more comfortable. This is all part of being an attentive researcher — remembering to listen and being aware of surroundings, but also looking at them and paying attention to their body language whether they are speaking or not.
13. Video record whenever you can… When it comes to documenting user research, videoing (with permission, of course) is always best. It’s best for capturing emotion and tone, it’s more compelling, and it is the truest representation of your research. When it comes to playing back insight to stakeholders and members of your team, it’s also the easiest way to bring a real customer into the boardroom.
We do lots of this sort of thing. If you have any further tips, I’d love to hear from you. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Alice Wilkie is a Consultant at Fluxx, a company that uses experiments to understand customers, helping clients to build better products. We work with organisations such as Atkins, National Grid, the Parliamentary Digital Service and William Hill.
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