Not to prime, is a crime!

As a UX in the corporate world, we need to focus on practical ways of doing things to get better results – in what is often a shorter time frame.

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As UXers in the corporate world, my team have to focus on practical ways of doing things to get better results – in what is often a shorter time frame.  Take this, and the fact that users are often poor at relaying why they have behaved in a certain way, and we are under some pressure to make inferences from observed behaviour that may (or may not), apply to a broader context.   However, we’ve found that the process of priming our users before we see them – getting them to create collages as a homework activity – has amazing benefits with valuable results.

How do we get more from our users?

This is a big question for UX practitioners in the corporate world, as often we don’t get to see users in their natural settings as much as we’d like, due to the difficulty in selling the value to clients,and usually fall back to ‘standard’ UX methods (e.g., user-based evaluations, behavioural interviews and design workshops).

To assist, we have been setting our users homework as a ‘primer’ ahead of workshops, interviews or user-based testing sessions. We’ve found it performs a highly valuable role as an ice-breaker to kick-off and ground the evaluation session: participants were engaged to discuss a given topic, and more relaxed about the session overall. But more importantly,  it assists to anchor discussions and often reveals associations and subconscious links that the participant may not have thought to mention if they were responding ‘off-the-cuff’.

[Priming] performs a highly valuable role as an ice-breaker to kick-off and ground the evaluation session …. But more importantly,  it assists to anchor discussions and often reveals associations and subconscious links that the participant may not have thought to mention if they were responding ‘off-the-cuff’.

I can hear some cry ‘bias’ and ‘influence’ – but these techniques have been used in psychology within a clinical setting for a long time – for the same reasons – to get more from interviews or family / group sessions because users are often poor at recalling what they do and why they do it.

How It Works

We first trialled this method in May 2007 for the redesign of an online education and training website.  We decided to run design workshops as one of the initial stages in the process in order to explore users’ decisions around education and training, but we wanted to understand what triggered their choices in a broader sense; so we asked users to complete a homework activity.

We instructed them to “…think about their education and training choices up to today” and make a collage – using images and words from newspapers and magazines – about their experiences and the path they had chosen and what it meant to them in their careers now.

The purpose of the homework collage was to understand the participant’s emotions and feelings around the selections they had made in a ‘broad’ sense; using an activity that would tap into right-brain thinking – the emotional and creative side of thought processes.  As a recap, left-brain tends to focus on logical thinking, analysis, and accuracy; whereas right-brain focuses on aesthetics, feeling, and creativity.

The focus on right-brain and emotions was particularly important, as this gave us the chance to tap into ‘subconscious’ thought processes; as it is surprising how often we ‘think’ we are making logical decisions (or accurately relaying what we do and why), but often these are just artful rationalisations of decisions we have made on emotion, behavioural triggers, or habits.

The key for us was to encourage free association by providing minimal, focused instruction in an activity that incorporated a visual medium which enabled users to tap into their emotions and sub-conscious mind, in order to understand why they might think or behave in certain ways.

Collage outlining meal planning, food preparation & shopping habits, from a busy working mother

The Method Behind the Method

The approach we chose was a mélange of methods borrowed mainly from brand / design research and family psychology.

  • We drew on brand / design research methods that often focus on clients creating collages in a workshop session, that assist design agencies to develop design concepts (e.g., voice and image mapping, brand personality, etc).  The collage is a great activity that actually helps agencies and the client form a shared understanding of the types of images and words that will best represent the brand; so they can construct the visual design treatment from there.
  • In the case of family psychology, we borrowed from homework activities that clinical psychologists often get parents and children to complete together and bring into family counselling sessions.   The purpose is to get families to engage in an activity that teases out deeper insights regarding how they are functioning at home and in their day-to-day lives, in a way that interpersonal interviewing and discussions alone might not uncover.

We were somewhat surprised with the level of enthusiasm we got from users in this original workshop session when their homework was brought out; and we also discovered that participants were no longer displaying anxious or stressed reactions as they spoke about their thoughts and feelings.   They were open and more willing to disclose information, something that can only be seen as a real plus.

Collage of personal relationship with banking, from a busy mother of eight

Collage of personal relationship with banking, from a busy mother of eight

The Homework Process

Generally we prepare instructions for the homework activity for the participant at the same time as we create the recruitment specification, and this is sent to the participant the minute they agree to take part in the research. Depending on the topic, we’ll ask users to consider a broad question that speaks to this topic and how it applies to them.  For example, the collage above and the one directly below were based on research we conducted in the Banking and Finance sector.

The broad question ‘what does banking mean to you?‘ was positioned as the homework question that users needed to think about when preparing the collage they would bring to sessions.  We tend to offer a few additional prompts for users to be guided by when completing the exercise; such as, to consider their thoughts and feelings, think about how, when, and why, banking touches their lives, and what impact this has on them.

What we were researching was a lot more focused and specific than this question would indicate. However, the value of the process to us is to gain a broader perspective of what influences our users’ lives. It also means we are relying less on a user remembering what they do, or why they do it. The broad nature of the questioning also leaves it to the individual to interpret and relay what matters to them; as you can see from the examples, responses are personal and relevant to that individual.

We then generally spend the first 20 to 30 minutes of that session letting the user talk us through their collage and explain what it means to them.

It is interesting to note that we have never had anyone not complete the activity and many suggest how much fun they had putting the collage together and how they were often surprised at the things that it brought up for them.

Collage of personal relationship with banking, from a young single male

Creating a Positive User Experience

The benefits of this exercise are not limited to what we as practitioners get out of it; we have noticed that the participant’s experience of engaging with us in research has been improved too.

UX Understanding the 'Set & Setting' of user research

Understanding the influence of 'Set & Setting' on user research

Have you ever noticed someone get something wrong in an evaluation setting and then they try again and again – but this time with more effort? The tendency to repeat the same operation over again is most likely for those people who are anxious or stressed.  But the reverse is true too – when someone is relaxed and happy, their thought processes expand and they become more creative and imaginative.  There is a wealth of psychology resources on how positive affect (aka ‘happiness’ or ‘positive psychology’ research) influences decision making.

I think everyone can recall sessions where no matter how hard you have tried, you just can’t seem to allay users’ fears and concerns.

So how might our homework activity assist in creating a positive user experience for the evaluation?

Early brain researcher Timothy Leary suggested that the nature of an experience depends almost entirely on set and setting.  In this context, set refers to the individual, including their personality structure and mood at the time.   Setting is more physical and somewhat out of the user’s control; like the weather, the room’s atmosphere, the environment generally.

Basically we found that by completing a collage as a homework activity ahead of the workshop session; users were already engaged to discuss a given topic – and more relaxed about the session overall.  The homework activity pro-actively influenced the mind set of the user, and ameliorated the ‘test’ setting: anxiety was minimised and the user was primed to participate.

(Not) Lost In Translation

Collages being created and presented by attendees at User Friendly  2009, Shanghai, China

Collages created at User Friendly 2009, Shanghai, China

We’ve found this method to be successful across different cultures. I presented a workshop on this method at User Friendly 2009, in Shanghai China, and since then we have applied this method to a project that ran across six countries (Australia, China, Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore).

Furthermore, we found that in cultures that traditionally tend to be thought of as reserved and ‘polite’ in their judgements, this activity was observed to bring out amazing honesty and high levels of engagement. Participants in these locations were just as excited to discuss and elaborate on the collage they had created as we have seen in Australia, and we were similarly able to gain a broader perspective of what might influence their decision making processes.

Collage from a small to medium business owner from China, showing their experience of enabling online payments via their website

Facilitation vs Empowerment

Would we have got the same value from conversation alone? Perhaps, as a skilled facilitator can gain a great deal from in-depth interviewing techniques.   However, the empowerment priming offers participants is something that I think is also critical when considering the benefits.

Users show ownership of ideas and a sense of mastery when being able to clearly verbalise their thoughts and impressions around a broad topic area; the value of this can’t be underestimated in the research setting as the time we have to engage with users is often limited.

Benefits to Clients

This task is a perfect vehicle for storytelling.  Not only have we observed that priming helps clients from a more traditional marketing background to understand the importance of User Experience Research.  We have found a range of stakeholders and from many different levels of an organisation love the artifacts created, because they bring a little bit of the user out of their world and into the boardroom.

We display the collages on walls and engage stakeholders with ‘actual product users’; and it really does offer some of the ‘empathy’ needed to consider that life often gets in the way of clear cut decisions around their company’s products.

It also allows business stakeholders to “walk in the users’ shoes” and gives them a perspective they might not have otherwise had.

Summing Up

So, based on our experience, the values of ‘priming’ your users are;

  • To get users to think about a given topic in a broad sense,
  • To get users to consider their emotions and feelings,
  • Introducing images and a creative activity, so that their ‘unconscious’ mind is leading the way,
  • Combating negative mind ‘set’ when users come to our ‘Settings’,
  • Allowing us to tap into deeper thoughts and behaviours more rapidly (i.e., emotions, triggers, habits),
  • Getting users to engage their right-brain for more ‘creative’ and ‘imaginative’ thinking and discussions,
  • Getting a wider perspective of the users’ context of use than a normal ‘conversation’ or ‘interview’ might normally yield,
  • Eliciting information from participants from different cultures or backgrounds that may not have felt comfortable to discuss some topics or issues in as much detail.

Overall, the great news is that the ‘priming’ method offers a tangible example of the value of the customer-centric approach that UX professionals offer to a client. Why not give it a go?


Jodie Moule

Jodie Moule is Co-founder & Director of Symplicit, an experience design consultancy based in Australia, that focuses on research, strategy and design services. Her background as a Psychologist means understanding human behaviour is a core philosophy; and she has a passion for helping clients to see their brands through the eyes of their customers. She is also interested in how to combine this understanding of human behaviour with good design thinking, to influence the way businesses approach the design of their products, systems and processes. You can check out Symplicit at www.symplicit.com.au, find Jodie on Twitter as @jodiemoule or follow the team @symplicit.

11 comments on this article

  1. Dey Alexander on

    I can see how this is a great icebreaker and could give some interesting insights by tapping into the user’s world of emotions and experiences.

    But what I like most about it is that is shows a real willingness to communicate. It shows you (consultants) really do want to listen and invites users to make a real investment in communication.

    It’s given me an idea about another context (outside UX design) in which this could be used. Will talk to you about it when I see you next. Would like your feedback.

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  3. Interaction seems to be the key to creating perspective on the situation. If you can get a user to actually STOP and think instead of GO, GO GO, you may just create a unique perspective on the article or task suggested!

  4. Hi Jodie

    Thanks for sharing this interesting technique with us. I particularly like the way it helps the participant feel less anxious about the session.

    I’m surprised you didn’t have anyone not do the collages when asked. Do you pay a slightly higher incentive when using this technique?

    It sounds like you have a deeper grounding in psychology than I so I’d also be interested in your take on this question. You clearly acknowledge that this technique will prime participants. Consequentially, do you have any concern:

    a) about the loss of those “top of mind” responses that theoretically highlight thoughts and attitudes that are very “present” for the participant; and/or

    b) that in doing the collage process the participant is given the opportunity to rationalise behaviours, thoughts and attitudes that may actually be driven by other, less rational motivators?

    I suspect these things may be outweighed by the benefits the technique delivers but I wanted to hear your thoughts based on your training and your experience using the technique multiple times.

    Many thanks,

    Jessica Enders
    Principal, Formulate Information Design

  5. Firstly, thanks for these comments everyone.

    Dey – really appreciate your kind words, and have to say, there is nothing more we love than actually talking to people – that is one of the great joys of our job isn’t it? Keen to chat to you about the application of this method outside of UX Design.

    Scott – I agree it is great to have the chance for users to feel at ease and slow down a bit. I have had those kinds of sessions where users are just rushing along – to me, this is mainly a reflection of them feeling nervous; so this process definitely assists to eliminate some of those anxious feelings.

    Jessica – Yes, we offer more incentive; we suggest it will take them about an hour at the most and we’ll offer between $30 to $50 more on top of the normal incentive, depending on the segment we are focusing on (e.g. business owners might need more incentive, general consumers less).

    For your other questions, I’ll break them down to respond:

    a) Do I worry that ‘top of mind’ responses are lost?

    I guess you are really asking do I think it biases users in some way, and the simple answer is no; however, I can see how such a process could be interpreted as such. I just go back to the uses of it in psychology – it is to ‘assist’ people ‘access’ drivers and motivators and be able to discuss these.

    In this respect, I think that the collage activity taps into the “top of mind” thought processes when they are creating the collage, and lets users goes a little deeper into these when we see them. Sometimes ‘top of mind’ is not a great response set to be tapping into; I know I have had interviews where users are just grasping at straws to describe why they think a certain way, and this is often less helpful. Essentially, we believe that a ‘confident / well considered’ response is more valuable that a ‘cold / off the cuff’ reaction.

    b) Users have the chance to rationalise behaviours and thoughts that may be driven by other less rational motivators?

    Well, the way a user rationalises their behaviour tells us a lot too. What drives behaviour is complex and personal. In this sense, we should be interested in the way a user discusses all aspects of what they ‘think’ drives their preferences or the way they behave. And I think it is our job as behavioural analysts to understand more about the intricacies of their behaviour through focused discussion and questioning. The value of a good moderator is really important. I definitely fall back on my grounding in psychology to question in the manner that taps into attitudes, thoughts and behaviours and consequently, reveals drivers and blockers for that user.

    When I think about the times I have conducted interviews and evaluation sessions without doing this activity, vs. now always doing it, I really do think we get more value from users. I find that it takes longer to tease the motivators and drivers out through discussion when we have not engaged in this activity.

    I guess I can only encourage you to give it a go – it really is interesting the insights it reveals.

    Hope this helps clarify – please let me know either way!

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  7. Bruce on

    Firstly, thanks for these comments everyone.

    Dey – really appreciate your kind words, and have to say, there is nothing more we love than actually talking to people – that is one of the great joys of our job isn’t it? Keen to chat to you about the application of this method outside of UX Design.

    Scott – I agree it is great to have the chance for users to feel at ease and slow down a bit. I have had those kinds of sessions where users are just rushing along – to me, this is mainly a reflection of them feeling nervous; so this process definitely assists to eliminate some of those anxious feelings.

    Jessica – Yes, we offer more incentive; we suggest it will take them about an hour at the most and we’ll offer between $30 to $50 more on top of the normal incentive, depending on the segment we are focusing on (e.g. business owners might need more incentive, general consumers less).

    For your other questions, I’ll break them down to respond:

    a) Do I worry that ‘top of mind’ responses are lost?

    I guess you are really asking do I think it biases users in some way, and the simple answer is no; however, I can see how such a process could be interpreted as such. I just go back to the uses of it in psychology – it is to ‘assist’ people ‘access’ drivers and motivators and be able to discuss these.

    In this respect, I think that the collage activity taps into the “top of mind” thought processes when they are creating the collage, and lets users goes a little deeper into these when we see them. Sometimes ‘top of mind’ is not a great response set to be tapping into; I know I have had interviews where users are just grasping at straws to describe why they think a certain way, and this is often less helpful. Essentially, we believe that a ‘confident / well considered’ response is more valuable that a ‘cold / off the cuff’ reaction.

    b) Users have the chance to rationalise behaviours and thoughts that may be driven by other less rational motivators?

    Well, the way a user rationalises their behaviour tells us a lot too. What drives behaviour is complex and personal. In this sense, we should be interested in the way a user discusses all aspects of what they ‘think’ drives their preferences or the way they behave. And I think it is our job as behavioural analysts to understand more about the intricacies of their behaviour through focused discussion and questioning. The value of a good moderator is really important. I definitely fall back on my grounding in psychology to question in the manner that taps into attitudes, thoughts and behaviours and consequently, reveals drivers and blockers for that user.

    When I think about the times I have conducted interviews and evaluation sessions without doing this activity, vs. now always doing it, I really do think we get more value from users. I find that it takes longer to tease the motivators and drivers out through discussion when we have not engaged in this activity.

    I guess I can only encourage you to give it a go – it really is interesting the insights it reveals.

    Hope this helps clarify – please let me know either way!

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