How dual research facilitates deeper UX insights

By Chris Spalton @chrisspalton

All UXers know the importance of building rapport with your research participants. Whilst you're there to observe, document and analyse the research, if your participants don't feel comfortable, they won't speak or act freely or naturally. By interviewing couples UXers can benefit from the natural conversations that will inevitably take place during research.

The heart of the matter is that you can’t always gain the insights you’re testing for by interviewing individuals. Fortunately, dual research techniques are a way to get around this stumbling block. 

Qualitative research is often unnatural

During a typical research session, we welcome our participants warmly, offer them a drink, ask them how their day has been and get them to tell us a bit about their hobbies and interests. We do these things so that when we sit down to start the session they’re as comfortable as possible. As design researchers, this comes as second nature to us.

For the participant, this isn’t the case at all.

From their perspective, it’s easy to see how it might be stifling, being in a strange building, in a room with someone you don’t know, looking at a product or service you’ve never seen before and being asked questions about how you feel about the product you’re being presented.

Often the research settings we invite people into aren’t natural. Often, natural would be relaxing at home after work, browsing your phone while watching television.

In this setting, you’d be talking to your partner about the options and products you’re looking at, bouncing ideas off each other, asking questions and clarifying information as best as you can. You’d be working together to identify the best options for you and your partner. 

The problem with the single participant approach

When interviewing a single participant, you have to run through both products, observe and then discuss with them the thoughts and feelings they have about what they’ve been presented with during the research.

Sometimes we ask participants:

“If you had to explain this in your own words to your partner, how would you do that?”

They relay what they think and understood about the product. Often participants will mimic language they’ve just seen on screen. This can be useful — it ensures we can gauge how much they’ve absorbed, the areas that cause friction or confusion, and what/how to refine/iterate upon. However, there’re a couple of fundamental flaws with this approach:

  1. They wouldn’t explain it in these terms to their partner. Financial language is not natural, conversational language and most people don’t use financial language and terms on a day-to-day basis.
  2. You’re not their partner! As mentioned above, you’re a stranger — in a strange place. When coupled with an unnatural setting your participants are not going to talk completely normally to you. They may imagine they’re in an exam and try to recite what they’ve read to the best of their ability in hope of being marked ‘correctly’.

This means that the insight you’ve gathered could be biased, which could have a direct impact on the analysis and recommendations you can provide to the client and your team. It’s unavoidable, and something we have to acknowledge – as well as potentially even discount completely - when formulating our deliverables.

Interviewing a couple makes an impact on the insight you gather, but where do you start?

As design researchers our job should be to facilitate and encourage the natural conversations, queries and teamwork that is often involved in making complicated decisions.

In my recent experience, we were conducting research to explore the understanding and appeal of two new innovative mortgage products. Before this session I’d never conducted research with a couple, in a room together, making decisions as a team.

Spoiler: if you hadn’t gathered, it was eye opening. What I find startling after having conducted this dual research is that this technique isn’t more commonplace.

As always, I greeted the participants warmly, offered them a drink, asked how their day had been, and brought them both into the research lab together.

I asked them all the ‘context of use’ questions as a pair, finding out about their relationship, their situation regarding buying a house, and their finances, etc. I ensured that both participants had an opportunity to speak as individuals as well as together.

This provided me with a greater understanding of some of the dynamics at play in their relationship (her parents had given them a deposit, they both worked for his family’s firm, etc.), and a better appreciation of what their situation and their priorities were as a couple, not as individuals.

What I did differently 

First, I asked the husband to leave the room and have a coffee. I placed the wife in the situation that a friend had recommended she check out only one of the two products we were testing. She began to explore the prototype to discover more about it. I captured the usual spontaneous thoughts and feelings and usability feedback as she moved through.

After around fifteen minutes of exploring, discovering and learning more about the product, I invited the husband back in. I asked her to explain the product to him, and how/if it would be a good option for them.

The female participant had been positive about the product she’d seen. So, she pitched it to her husband, listing all the benefits it offered with enthusiasm. These included how the product could work given their situation, how they could discuss it with their respective parents — and, most importantly, how it meant they’d be able to borrow more money and move into a house with a garden (a prospect that had seemed out of their reach).

In return, the husband raised questions and concerns - would it work in this scenario? What impact would it have? He remembered his father had just retired — would that effect the deal they could get? Would their needs be putting their parents at risk in anyway?

In this exchange between long-term partners, the wife would clarify aspects which she was certain about. She’d also realise that she wasn’t so sure about particular aspects of the product when specific questions were raised,

“Ah yes, we’ll need to look into that in more detail, and we’d have to make it clear to mum that she’d need to do this…”

Together they walked through how it might work given scenario X vs scenario Y.

It was like they’d forgotten I was in the room, and what I was observing was a pure, natural and honest conversation between two people with an established relationship and a clear understanding of each other’s situation, goals and desires — something that would never happen in a typical one-on-one research session.

The insights that this single session provided me with were more valuable than the other 5 one-on-one sessions I’d held that day combined. As a design researcher, you can’t recreate a relationship in the hour you spend with a single participant; the couple I was interviewing had years of shared life experience together that had led them to this point, and here they were discussing that in front of me.

Richer insight

This research session was one of the most interesting I’ve ever conducted, and I feel that by embracing this technique I gained far more than if I had interviewed them individually. The richness of the insight provided impacted on the programme of work itself, and allowed us to impress the client with our deliverable.

Here's a supplementary sketchnote I created to illustrate my above points. It can also serve as a guide for conducting your own dual user experience research. PDF available here

A version of this blog was originally published here on UX Planet. 

Chris Spalton

As a Senior Consultant, I work closely with our project teams & clients, to deliver a range of experience design programmes. My favourite part of any project is when all the research, ideas, sketching and prototyping finally ‘clicks’ and we’ve identified a clear path to delivering a useful and engaging solution.

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