Asking users the right questions at the right time is critical to good user experience
by Ali Carmichael, Managing Director and Owner

Asking users the right questions at the right time is critical to good user experience

A few years ago I was walking through Bournemouth town centre when I was stopped by a young lady, clip board at the ready, she asked, “Can I ask you a quick question?”

Me: “Yes, of course.”

Lady: “What is your favourite chocolate bar?”

Me: “Umm…A Mars bar”

Lady: “Thank you” whilst placing a big tick next to Mars on her list

A few minutes later, reflecting on my answer I realised I hadn’t eaten a Mars bar for ages. In fact, I couldn’t remember when I last bought a Mars bar. So how can it be my favourite chocolate bar? Had I lied?

This may have been a very clever question to establish what the strongest brand was in the chocolate bar market, in which case she may have got the question right. But if this was a study to find out the publics’ favourite chocolate bar the young lady who stopped me had at least one false response, and I expect many others.

Now, had this researcher observed me in a confectioners/garage/corner shop as I approached the chocolate bar stand, watched on as I pondered, then reached for a Crunchie only to change my mind and pick up a Yorkie bar, then have another scan of chocolate bars to confirm I’ve made the right decision, and then asked me what is my favourite chocolate bar, the response will be real (I don’t really have a favourite but I probably buy a Crunchie bar more than any other).

Not only is my response more accurate, if the research was not restricted to tick boxes, the conversation can continue to establish why I normally go for a Crunchie, and what made me buy a Yorkie this time.
The critical aspect of this research method is observing users in context while they are engaged in the experience rather than asking them to reflect on it at some point in the future.  This highlights one of the problems with choosing traditional market research techniques over usability testing when you’re looking to understand why users make the choices they do.

We often see this in action when asking users at the end of a usability test to describe the experience they have just had with the website. They often say it was ‘really easy to use’, but what we observed was them getting very frustrated with the site and failing to complete the tasks we gave them.

What examples can you give of asking the right question at the right time? Oh, and what’s your favourite chocolate bar ;o)

UX Consultant Emma Peters

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