In this episode of the Human Tech podcast we talk with Caroline Jarrett about the user experience of surveys. Besides being an expert on forms design, Caroline has recently written a book on survey design.
‘While designers have evolved over the last 25 years to be advocates for the audience/customer, we now need to be advocates for the rest of everyone else, democracy, society, and the planet, itself.“
I was taught design in a world and a time where the word primarily referred to things you could see, touch, and maybe hear. Design craft is often focused singularly on pleasing our senses. Fair enough, but design has changed a lot since my undergrad days. It wasn’t OK to ignore the impacts and outcomes of our work then, and it’s much, much less now.
It’s Not About You
The kind of design I was taught essentially told us designers to “go out into the world and redesign it in your vision!” If we did that, we were told, we would be rewarded—with money, with recognition, with awards, etc. Mostly, that isn’t what happens. It’s been very recently that popular appreciation for the kind of design that wins awards has emerged. For most of the past, the “design aesthetic” of the moment did not align with what most people appreciated or wanted. One of the biggest achievements of companies like Appen and Nike has been the promotion of design qualities that design industries mostly emphasize. Never before have non-designers cared about, let alone sought-out, design that the “experts” agree are well-designed. This is particularly true in UX/UI design though there are disagreements, often.
Happily, the majority of how design is taught today has changed drastically, partly because many more people have entered the field but, mostly, because the design industry has steadily leveled-up its process, aims, cares, and context. Sure, there’s a few programs and faculty who only care about appearance and the plastic parts of “craft.” But, most reputable programs teach the process of design research, which extols the virtues of understanding our audiences/customers/etc. before we begin making things for them. This is a huge advancement! While some industries still reward and recognize only the starchitects of their worlds, most design organizations have started to refocus themselves around impact.
The famous Frog Design, under its original founders, thought their incredible innovation was to put the client CEO at the center of the design process. Today, even Frog Design puts the customer at the center now. Progress.
UX/UI/interaction/interface/etc. design has led much of this progress. It’s now no longer acceptable to jump straight into screen design without first investigating customers—well, unless it’s an agile project. It’s still the case that much of that customer research is really, really, poorly done, but at least the step is there in the process chart and, sometimes, there’s someone designated as the researcher.
It’s Not About Us, Either
But, designing for others isn’t enough. Therefore, design research isn’t enough, either. There are still too many steps in the process and people in the system who don’t understand, care about, or want to create designs that work for others, instead of merely for themselves. Even when designers know and do better, everyone else in an organization, from CEO or client to layers of managers, to peers in other divisions, can foul this process and prevent better design responses. This is simply the reality of systems made from real people, instead of idealized ones. It’s not a reason not to design, but it complicates our efforts and stifles progress. It requires us to not only better understand the context of our own work but levels of context above, below, and to the side that impact our work and, more importantly, are impacted by it.
This is why designers need to be taught so much more than traditional design. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t understand the basics of form, shape, color, light, seeing, composition, etc. By all means, these are probably more important than ever. But, we need to find ways to add in much more about the impacts of our work, which I’ll admit, isn’t easy.
It’s About Everything, Now
I know this sounds daunting, and we’re definitely adding levels of complexity and context, but these levels are necessary, not only for ethical and just work but also for financially successful work, too. Today, in order to be a successful designer (or, rather a designer creating work successfully), we also need to understand (in no particular order):
• The social contexts of our work (including impact, issues, and meaning)
• How to lead and manage people (I, know, ugh, right?)
• How to respect (and transcend) the quantitative data available to us (and sometimes foisted upon us)
All of the above helps us be more ic in our work (which is another, critical issue, entirely)
That’s a tall order, I know, but necessary if you want to practice design successfully now and in the future. For sure, you’ll be able to inquire with and be joined by others. You won’t be alone (though it may often feel that way).
I’ll try to make it simple. I’ve been working on these issues for quite a while now. You don’t even need to go get another degree to know the above. There are even tools in existence for these (and several more on the way). There aren’t a lot of books that describe the list above, but there are many videos.
The first context for design is the environment around us. Nature supports everything else on this planet. If it falters, changes, or ceases to support us as we’ve become accustomed, everything else changes—sometimes radically. You don’t have to spend the rest of your life, or even the rest of the year, reading about this. I wrote the book, Design is the Solution, to cover it all, in fact (though others have, too). But, you need to know the basics because nothing else works otherwise. It’s your duty as a designer to know these things. No, scratch that. It’s your duty as a human on this planet to know these things. Period.
The second realization is that while society is supported by Nature, society supports (or suppresses) everything else. You can’t have an economic system without a social system. The main context you will design around will be the social ones (there are many). You don’t get to skirt this one either. It permeates everything. It governs what is considered good or bad, successful, or frivolous, important or not. And, there are more social impacts and issues than I can list. But the most important are going to be: equity, justice, respect, desire, need, privacy, and safety. If all you do is investigate how your audience understands and relates to these, you’re doing better than 90% of the rest of people you work with.
The only thing I’ll say about the economic context is this: markets are incredible optimizers. They really are. However, they only optimize what you put into the equation and the things we care about most have been left out of the economic equation by economists and “businesspeople” for far too long. And, optimization may not be called for at all. Just know that that uneasy feeling you have that business is missing some important things is absolutely true. I won’t get into the entire argument (you can read an intro here) but know that:
People are NOT rational actors
People don’t only optimize for money (they absolutely WILL pay more for some things)
Rich people do NOT create jobs
That will keep you busy for a while.
Next, the same way we can measure the ecological impacts of a product, service, or other experience, we can also measure social impacts of what we create. We probably can’t measure everything (there are so many) but we can measure enough—if we care to. Someday, we may even be able to put these into business terms.
This isn’t a case of garbage-in/garbage-out. Instead, it’s about what we don’t put into the process—we can still get garbage out. Remember those Segways? They aren’t even mostly Segways anymore. But, a LOT of money was wasted to get there. That’s what you’re trying to prevent for your companies and clients.
We should have to perform all of these roles. It should be standard operating procedure for all of this to be covered in the process—even for start-ups. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. While designers have evolved over the last 25 years to be advocates for the audience/customer, we now need to be advocates for the rest of everyone else, democracy, society, and the planet, itself. That’s the design job ahead of us. Sorry, but it is—because few others in organizations will rise to the challenge (and the challenge doesn’t go away).
Or, you know, we can evangelize and recruit others, too. There’s plenty of work to go around and we don’t have to go it alone. But, we’ll have to leave the safety of our design ghetto studios to do it.
Have you ever seen a chameleon? They instantly change color to adapt to whatever their background is.
There’s a theory that humans can do this too. Of course, we can’t change our skin color to match our environment but the theory is that if you see someone behave in a certain way, you’ll follow that behavior. Public myths including yawning being contagious, or sneezing. Indifference to suffering. There’s lots of myths floating around.
Well for each myth there has been a study and since we’re romping around in behavioral economics land I wanted to look at a paper by Chartland and Bargh entitled aptly “The chameleon effect: The perception-behavior link and social interaction.”
Their experiments require a “primer”. Usually they used what in psychology they call a confederate; which is someone who appears to be part of the study along with everyone else… but is actually an inside imposter, planted by the researchers to get interesting results.
In Experiment 1 subjects participated in two consecutive sessions. Both had a 10-minute interaction with a confederate. They were told to describe photos in the sessions but of course the photos were simply a distraction from the real study.
The confederates, who were trained actors, varied their mannerisms throughout the interactions. During Session 1, the confederate either rubbed his or her face, or shook his or her foot. During Session 2, the confederate did the inverse of Session 1; so if Session 1 was a foot shake, Session 2 would be a face rub.
Afterwards they did a post-experiment interview and only 1 person guessed the other person was a confederate, and no one guessed what the confederate was up to.
Here are the results:
Even though no one noticed the confederates doing face rubs or foot shakes, when the confederate rubbed their face, participant face rubbing increased about 25%. And when the confederate instead shook their foot, participant foot shaking more than doubled (108%).
So clearly there is some sort of monkey see monkey do unconscious thought going on. I’ll discuss why after we go through the other Experiments. One more interesting data point for Experiment 1 involved smiling. Participants smiled more times per minute when with the active confederate (median smiles per minute of 1.03), than with a neutral confederate (median smiles per minute .36). I should also note that the confederates were instructed not to make friends; only to smile.
Further, participants performed the intended action more times with the nonsmiling confederate than with the smiling confederate (median .56 vs median .40). Very interesting indeed…. Put a pin in this and let’s move on to Experiment 2.
Experiment 2 (electric boogaloo) was all about the “need to belong”. Now Dr. Susan Weinschenk has written extensively about this in her book “How To Get People To Do Stuff” as it is one of the 7 drivers of motivation.
The goal of this experiment was to see if they could unconsciously manipulate people into enjoying their interaction with a confederate. After a 15-minute session with a confederate people were asked to report how much they liked the confederate and how smoothly the session went on a 9-point scale, with 1 being extremely awkward or unlikeable, and 9 being extremely smooth or likeable.
The confederates either engaged in neutral nondescript mannerisms, which acted as the control, or the confederate mirrored the mannerisms of the participant.
I think this is a brilliant evil theory that people like people who are like them. If a participant folded their hands, the confederate would fold theirs, etc…
The confederates, being talented actors, played their part beautifully. Only 1 person “figured out” that they were being mimicked, and an outside panel of judges was used to rank the openness and friendliness to the participants.
This is very important to point out; there was NO difference in scores between the neutral control, and the mimicking. It is not the case that the mimickers were being more friendly, making more eye contact, smiling, or were judged to like the participant more. This was controlled for. So the results are not simply friendly vs. not-friendly.
The results are fun. Participants in the experimental condition reported liking the confederates more (M=6.62) than the control (M=5.91), and also reported a smoother interaction (M=6.76) than the control (M=6.02).
Now there are certainly potential large implications in this study; from politics to sales to friendship. Let’s again put a pin in this and talk about the last Experiment before we sum everything up. The thing to take away from Experiment 2 is that human interactions go smoother and are more positive if you just mimic the movements and actions of the other person.
Experiment 3 was the same as Experiments 1 and 2, except that subjects were also given an empathy questionnaire (a perspective-taking subscale). For example, “when I’m upset with someone I try to put myself in their perspective”, sort of thing.
What they found was that people who were high perspectivers (highly empathetic) joined in with the face rubbing and foot shaking more times per minute than low perspectivers (M=1.30 vs M=.85 and M=.40 vs M=.29).
This makes sense. People who are highly empathetic find it easier to feel what you’re feeling. When you feel empathetic the same parts of your brain light up that are lighting up in the brain of the person you’re observing.
If you see someone hurt their leg, a small ghost reflection of mirror neurons in the leg area of your brain will also light up. It’s why stories are so powerful. It happens completely unconsciously. And if you’re the type of person who can more easily slip into that state, then you are more prone to have an unconscious reaction to the external stimuli of others.
Okay so our first pin was that people in Experiment 1 performed the action more when the Confederate was NOT smiling. My theory is that we are always looking for a way to bond unconsciously. We as humans want to relate, we want to connect on whatever level we can. Obviously smiling and laughing together is our natural go-to. But when that’s not available our brains may slide into other ways to bond, such as face rubbing and foot tapping. BECAUSE as we find out in Experiment 2, our second Pin, people like interactions more with people who are mimicking them.
Maybe we know and understand this innately so our brains are one step ahead of the research. Perhaps Experiment 1’s outcome occurred exactly BECAUSE of the results in Experiment 2. We like people more who mimic us. We crave people to like us (unconsciously), and so we (unconsciously) mimic others to the extent we can to get them to like us. It’s an empathy circle.
And those who are the most empathetic also reach out the most to connect, so they mimic unconsciously the most.
There is a long list of practical applications. Sorority bonding, concerts or sporting events in unison, people in fields with lots of human interaction being more animated and reactionary (HR, sales, customer service). If you want people to like you and try to bond with you; try mimicking their energy, behaviors, and mannerisms.
Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1999). The chameleon effect: The perception-behavior link and social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(6), 893-910. doi:10.1037//0022-3522.214.171.1243
In this Human Tech podcast episode we talk about behavioral economics, specifically about the idea that people don’t calculate the value of products and services rationally, but they do so by following how they feel about what something is worth. Guthrie walks us through the research and the practical implications.
If you ask someone how much they know about a particular topic they tend to overestimate their own knowledge. And we tend to rely on our social network to fill in our knowledge gaps.
This illusion about how much we know is the topic of the latest Human Tech podcast episode, where we talk with Drs. Steve Sloman (Brown University) and Phil Fernbach (University of Colorado) who wrote the book, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone.
If your job involves designing anything, or communicating information to others, then I think you need to read this book.
On this episode of Human Tech we interview Karl Fast and Stephen Anderson about their recently published book: Figure It Out: Getting from Information to Understanding.
On the episode I act like a fan girl at the beginning, but really, the book impressed me that much. It may change the way you think about thinking and how people process information. It should change the way you present and share any kind of information, whether text, visual, digital or physical.
It’s not a “quick bites” type of read. It’s fairly substantial, but it is so well written and with lots and lots of examples, that I recommend it to everyone involved in any kind of information design/communication.
The publisher, Rosenfeld, has a coupon code for us: Go to this webpage:
I teach courses in user experience as an Adjunct Professor at a campus of University of Wisconsin (the campus in Stevens Point Wisconsin). Like campuses around the world we are shut down because of the Covid pandemic. We’re teaching remotely on Zoom and students are trying to finish their coursework while sheltering at home.
I’m used to working remotely and teaching remotely, but it doesn’t mean that students are used to learning this way.
I’m teaching a class this semester “Evaluating User Interfaces”. The class has been learning about heuristic evaluations, cognitive walkthroughs, and user testing. When the campus closed down we were in the middle of our unit on user testing. The students tried out conducing in person user tests first (using Zoom and doing the tests remotely for the most part).
Then they used Userlytics to run unmoderated tests. Userlytics arranged for the students in the class to have credits so that each student could run 3 tests. For most of the students this was their first experience at planning, conducting, and analyzing unmoderated remote tests.
Because they are all sheltering in place this was especially important to them. It allowed them to continue learning and to do their project even while staying at home.
So a big THANK YOU to Userlytics for providing this opportunity.