Uncovering subconscious experiences in user research

February 18, 2021

Incorporating better probing into user research

As researchers and designers, the big achievement of a research project is one where it challenges your assumptions, brings new understanding to your team, and even, get surprised a little (or a lot!)

We’re all familiar with times where we go through the motions of doing research.

Whether it’s getting stuck in the rut of using the same tired methods, or not really engaging with your research plan or research questions, you’ll likely end up only accessing surface level insights from your users. This wastes your time, and your organization’s investment in the research. Not good!

So, how can we dive deeper into people’s genuine emotions and perspectives? With a focus on those “subconscious insights” that often users themselves may not even realize they hold.

Capturing deep sentiments

The pivotal point for me in learning how to access these user emotions and sentiments was while working on a project focused on data privacy and data governance where we conducted generative user interviews.

We kept these interviews fairly open ended, and left a significant chunk of time for participants to share in depth anecdotes and stories of their experiences with data, data privacy, and the various organizations that have made them think differently about these issues.

Throughout the process of conducting these interviews and synthesizing the data, we quickly realized that one factor was the key in really uncovering the genuine sentiments of our participants: tapping into their “unknown” feelings about the topic.

Iterating on interview question design

With a topic like data governance or data privacy, it’s pretty easy to get participants to share their surface level, relatively shallow feelings on the topic.

For example, participants would frequently start out by speaking generally about social media data, or an example of a data breach they had heard about.

However, by leveraging sensitizing questions and open-ended, but careful questions, we were able to witness participants diving more deeply into feelings and thoughts they might not have even consciously known they held about the topic.

As the interviews continued, participants had “out loud” realizations of all the other ways their data was collected and used throughout their day to day life (e.g. when they cross the street or enter certain buildings.)

There was no direct prompting from the facilitators, but clever use of probes to recall experiences and feelings often surfaces subconscious sentiments.

The use of a storytelling approach, where we allowed them to talk for long periods of time within a single question slot, and phrased them with “tell me about a time when..” and when they got stuck, prompting them with “explain to me how that made you feel, or how it impacted you” usually got the conversation going in a more meaningful direction.

What’s the impact of these kinds of sentiments on your design research methods?

Interview question design is key: the right questions help you avoid more shallow insights, and dig into what your participant’s more subconscious beliefs and behaviours are around your service

Every person experiences services or products so differently that there’s no one “right” way to probe for this experiential information, and often it comes out in the most unexpected points in a conversation, which is what I love the most about user research!

Do you have any ways that your team sensitizes users for deeper user research? I’d love to hear more about how other user researchers tackle these challenges.