Last week we ran some research in the lab. We were testing comprehension of some new concepts in the communication space. Usually this would be straightforward – create screens/flows for key tasks and see if people understand what is going on and what to do next. The issue though is that sociability is full of subtleties. I may do one action for one friend, but something different for another. And when looking at a user interface, I might think one thing if I have one friend in mind, but something different if I have another friend in mind. For example, if I have a close friend in mind I may be concerned about privacy of our conversation, but maybe less so for a friend of a friend. So to try and uncover some of that subtlety, we did an exercise to make the tasks as “real” as possible. We created a fake “real-life” social network…
…and asked research participants to substitute real people in their life for these fake people. So they took the print-out of this diagram and scribbled names of real people in their life on top of the fake people. Then when they encountered a mocked up design with the fake names, they could substitute the real people. Likewise, when they were asked to do a task, they substituted the real people and we learned a lot more about the context of that task in their real life. For example with fake names we may get this feedback on a particular part of U.I.:
“…I’d type the message here and then click ‘send’…”
But with real people substituted in, we got this instead:
“…well, I could type in here and click ‘send’ but I wouldn’t do that because Joe never checks his email, so I’d phone him to make sure…”
We were worried that the cognitive load of substituting people would be too high, but it wasn’t – it worked out really well and we learned a lot about the broader context of what we were proposing. One thing we did have to do was constantly remind people to reference their sheet of real names. People slip into “hypothetical mode” very easily.
I think this tactic of “substitution” could work well in many lab research studies. Try it out!