The AwkEng Flexes Some UX Research Muscles and Asks More Questions

Hi all!

This post is about developing my UX research skills and how I've practiced those skills to learn about internet/phone addiction. In short, I'm blown away by the things people will tell you if you just ask them the right way. (Although Asking the Right Questions has maybe been a theme for me.)

I'll talk about past mistakes, my current model for interviewing, and some insights shared from these interviews. The punchline: people have deeply personal motivations for changing their behavior, often triggered by some sort of life event (birthday causing reflection, a breakup, death of a relative). Their specific habit is different (YouTube, TikTok, email, video games, Insta), but there are common themes.

Motivation for Developing UX Skills

I've been working to develop my UX research skills, ever since finding out (the hard way) that I'd heavily biased my research when I was working on Interrobang. Oddly enough, being able to bias people that way is a great sales skill, but when you're trying to do research, it leads you to fall in love with your own ideas and just reinforces confirmation bias. After all, look at all these people who agree with you!

A Simple Mistake

The mistake I made with Interrobang was to ask forward looking and opinion based questions when I was talking to users. I've learned from The Mom Test and other books that there is real data in past behavior and real data in live reactions. (There is also real evidence in people actually paying and using for things, but the whole point of good research is to figure out what those things will be prior to actually spending the time to build them. Even if you don't nail it, good research will at least move you in a better direction where you can build less, learn, and iterate.)

So if you ask a question like "Would you use this?" or "Do you like this?", human nature just makes it very unlikely to get a valid answer. In the worst case situation, which I learned the hard way, they'll say "of course I want this" and you'll run off thinking you already have a win.

Super Quick, Basic Interview

So for a super quick, basic interview, you'll ask a question like "how often do you..." or "when's the last time you...?". I asked a few people, "when's the last time you tried to manage your internet/phone use" and people would say they tried the Screentime setting on their iPhone, got frustrated with it after a little while, just turned it off, and they were back to where they were. That's the whole interview and it takes maybe 2 minutes or less.

Deeper Interviewing: The Switch

I'm a big fan of "jobs-to-be-done" theory. There are a lot of people developing the concept, and you'll see different definitions and approaches, but they all sort of revolve around the idea that people are trying to do things, and they'll "hire" whatever product helps them get the job done best. It's hard to design a product to do the job best without knowing what the job is, and understanding and characterizing that job is the goal of the research.

The specific technique I'm trying for deeper interviewing is something called the "switch interview." The idea is to recreate the timeline of events (all past behaviors!) around a customer action. What happened when they "hired" a different product to do a "job"? And why did they swtich?  I'm still asking about the last time they took steps to manage their internet/phone use, but I'm going a lot deeper, and asking for more detail. I'm also asking what lead to slipping back to their bad habits.

Now, most people haven't formed a neat little linear narrative of what happened, so much of the interview is asking for specifics. There are all sorts of techniques to get people to build up these timelines, like asking them to move sticky notes, having them draw it, intentionally misstating things so they'll correct you, etc...

As I'm building up these narrative timelines, I'm looking and listening for four things: 1) the "push" that's causing them to take action 2) the "pull" that's telling them which action to take 3) "friction" that makes it hard to do something new, and 4) "inertia" that makes it hard to stop something old. This will reveal a lot of information about what's important to them in getting their "job" done.

People Just Tell You Things

Putting this into practice is as fast and easy as getting coffee in the morning. I printed up an 8.5" x 11" sheet of paper that said "Have you tried to manage your internet/phone use? I'll buy you coffee to talk to me about it for 30min." and then I went and I got coffee. It doesn't take long at all to find someone, and usually they decline the offer to pay.

Here's an example from one session: Interviewee is a documentary film maker. She had sought out an ADHD therapist/coach the day before (note: evidence of willingness to pay to solve a problem.) We refocused the interview on the previous incident of behavior. She'd been struggling with focusing to hit a client deadline (that's the push!), and installed chrome plug-ins on her laptop and used Screentime on her iPhone to block Youtube. (that's the pull, it's not hard to know about or be aware of these tools. In the case of the iPhone, they're built in already. Chrome install and Screentime use are relatively low friction.) She uses Youtube for her job as a filmmaker, and the temptation is constant, so she can't give up Youtube entirely (inertia!). Eventually, she'll "treat" herself to celebrate finishing a milestone, turn the time limit off, and then slip into her old bad habits. In her own words "this is negatively affecting my life."

Common Themes

So, the common themes across a few interviews:

  • push - breakups, death of a close one, evaluating stress level after a deadline (grad school, client project), self reflection at Christmas/new years/birthday. In short, a general, deep seated cause for self improvement. (That's the job.)
  • pull - general awareness of Screen time tools, general knowledge that phone addiction is bad for you. people want to fill their time with connection with loved ones, physical health, education/career.
  • inertia - losing connection to friends/family, need the internet for work
  • friction - installing a limit or deleting an app is low friction, but that's part of the problem, it's so easy to undo once you've installed it.

Other notes:

  • everyone has a different thing that sucks them in (youtube, insta, tik-tok, news, etc...)
  • going cold turkey is the most effective when it's an option.

Wrap Up

So it's possible to develop my UX skills and get a lot of really rich, deep, insightful information, just getting coffee in the morning, which I already do. And there's something about the human connection and the humanity of what people are sharing that I find moving.

I have a lot of thoughts on how to solve these problems, but that's a post for another day. Whatever the answer is, there's plenty of "push", but I think there are bigger challenges to overcome the inertia of not want to give up a connection to friends/family, and then the "pull" towards a specific solution means the solution needs to work and be marketable. (Cold turkey may be most effective for quitting TikTok, but you can see situations where cold turkey doesn't work for everyone.) I'm also curious if there's an adjacent space to research, but specifically around RSS and feed readers.

As for my little newspaper project, I'm now automatically sending Trello screenshots to the printer and my next steps are figuring out how to get a daily Gmail set added to the mix.

best regards,
Sam Feller
aka THE Awkward Engineer

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