Episode 011: Conducting Research on “Difficult” Topics: What to Know, Think About, and Plan For

Hosted by:
With guest: Rebecca Grazzini
July 31, 2017

Mahtab   Hello, and welcome to Episode 11 of The Crux of It. I am Mahtab Rezai. I am the Principal and CEO of Crux Collaborative. We are a User Experience Consulting firm specializing in regulated industries. Today I'm joined by my colleague Rebecca who is a Senior User Experience Consultant who works with me. We're going to be talking about conducting usability testing for and around "difficult or tricky topics." Hello Rebecca.
Rebecca   Hi Mahtab.
Mahtab   So, let's start with a little bit of context. What do we mean when we say: quote…
Rebecca   …end quote.
Mahtab   Yeah, air quotes “difficult or a tricky topic”?
Rebecca   Well, we mean things that, as you know we work in regulated industries, so we talk to a lot of people about their money and their health, so things that are personal.
Mahtab   Yes. That can definitely be tricky…
Rebecca   Yes.
Mahtab   ...when you're talking to someone about how much money they make or don't, how much money they have saved or haven't.
Rebecca   Yes.
Mahtab   So, personal, things that are personal-
Rebecca   Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mahtab   ...things that we typically, in this society anyway, consider private.
Rebecca   Yes, very much so, especially in American society.
Mahtab   Yep.
Rebecca   We have big taboo talking about those subjects.
Mahtab   Yeah. We just need to throw in politics and sex, and it will be great.
Rebecca   Right. Then it will be…
Mahtab   Super comfortable... research sessions. Thankfully, we don't deal with those.
Rebecca   No, so the politics and the sex we can set aside.
Mahtab   Yeah, those are not…
Rebecca   We can just deal with the personal money and health issues.
Mahtab   Yeah. We'll stay there. We'll stay there. So, that's number one.
Rebecca   Number one.
Mahtab   What's another one?
Rebecca   Another one are things that are difficult, things that are hard to deal with, so medical conditions like chronic conditions that make people's lives challenging and that bring a level of anxiety or frustration.
Mahtab   Yes. Yes. A lot of times when we're dealing with a piece of software that has to do with something that's a chronic condition, say something like Parkinson's, it's something that in the later stages really impacts absolutely every aspect of someone's life. They've been suffering, it's difficult, the people caring for them are suffering, they're suffering. It's not an easy topic, and it's one that they're weary of. Another one, diabetes, a lot of times after dealing with it for a number of years people get burn out. They get depression around it, that, something that they just do not want to be talking about.
Rebecca   Yeah.
Mahtab   It could something that's considered embarrassing. We've dealt with devices that have to do with things like bladder incontinence and it's just an embarrassing, difficult thing to have a conversation about.
Rebecca   Absolutely.
Mahtab   Anything like that that's difficult that is not something you typically talk to people about, let alone talk to a stranger about while the conversation is being recorded.
Rebecca   Right.
Mahtab   Another one is the sad or unthinkable.
Rebecca   Yes.
Mahtab   You just had one of these.
Rebecca   I did. Childhood cancer.
Mahtab   Yeah.
Rebecca   Yeah. Anything relating to deaths, tragic loss, chronic disease, those kinds of things…
Mahtab   Yeah.
Rebecca   ...can obviously bring out a level of anger, sadness, emotion.
Mahtab   Yeah, absolutely. Whether you're dealing with something that's going on, or around death that way, or around death having to do with insurance…
Rebecca   Yes.
Mahtab   ...and beneficiaries, and how wealth gets distributed, and things like that, just death related…
Rebecca   Yes.
Mahtab   ...very difficult. For each of these, there's a few things that we have found that we like to think about or plan for each of these categories for the things that are personal, private, for the things that are difficult, and then for the things that are sad or unthinkable. We just want to talk through some of those.

For things that are personal or considered private, let's talk about some of the things that we have found that help in that research study and help make that go better.
Rebecca   Sure. The key things, I think, in the personal things that are make the objective of the research very, very clear so—that you're testing the interface, you are not testing or concerned about how much this person has saved for retirement, how well they truly understand their health insurance plan…
Mahtab   Yes. Yes.
Rebecca   ...and their ability to get care. So, really taking their personal experience out of it and reminding them, "We're here to see if the interface makes sense to you."
Mahtab   Absolutely. Absolutely. When you make it clear that what we're trying to do is see if this piece of software helps you understand this, communicates clearly to you—it eliminates that sense of, "We're here to see if you have saved enough," or…
Rebecca   Right.
Mahtab   ..."If you are using this benefit correctly," or whatever.
Rebecca   Or, "To remind that you may not have saved enough…"
Mahtab   Yes.
Rebecca   ...or whatever. We don't want people leaving the lab…
Mahtab   Yeah.
Rebecca   ...with that sense of anxiety.
Mahtab   Yes. What else?
Rebecca   One thing that we often do is we will come up with personas and data based on those personas so that we're not using someone's personal information or asking for their financial information, their health information. The key with that however, as we've seen in some of our financial services studies, is those personas need to relate pretty closely to that individual participant's life experience. So you want a scenario for someone who's retiring that is: your participants are 65 years old. You want a persona that is 65 years old that is in a similar kind of socioeconomic situation as your participants.
Mahtab   Because I think if you show someone who makes $40,000 a year a set of data for somebody who makes $150,000 a year, after the, "Oh, wouldn't that be nice," you get... it just turns into just a fake scenario.
Rebecca   Yes.
Mahtab   It becomes a play scenario for them…
Rebecca   Yeah.
Mahtab   ...and that one in which they're really taking a look at, "Do I understand what would happen over the course of my retirement with my spending and my income?," or…
Rebecca   Exactly.
Mahtab   ...whatever it is that they're doing. Okay, so what about for the difficult?
Rebecca   For the difficult, like as you mentioned earlier, if someone has, for example, Parkinson's, you need to leave more time for that person to get through the test plan and not be exceedingly aggressive with getting through the test plan. You don't want to make the participant uncomfortable, or feel like they're failing because they physically struggle to work through something. As well as from an emotional standpoint, you want to leave the time if people are experiencing or expressing some emotion to do that.
Mahtab   Yes. Yes. For those things I think one of the things we found is: keep it simple.
Rebecca   Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mahtab   You're not going to get through a whole variety of things in the course of a single session.
Rebecca   Right.
Mahtab   Another thing I think we found is to pay attention to what type of physical accommodation we need to make in those scenarios. So if you are dealing with someone with a painful physical condition, you need to make sure that you have plenty of seating options available so if they can't sit in one type of chair, they can sit another, or if they need to stand, or if they need to pause and move, or just needing the ability to, for some people, change the configuration in the U Lab of where they have the keyboard, where they have the mouse, if they have it on the right or the left, or how are they using it, so that type of thing that you don't necessarily plan to spend a lot of time on with other studies.
Rebecca   Right.
Mahtab   Where in these, for the difficult ones, you need to plan for that. You need to keep it simple so that you can get through what you want to get through.
Rebecca   Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mahtab   Then last, the sad and the unthinkable. What are some things that we consider for those?
Rebecca   I think the most important thing, as people come into the lab in those situations there is just a lot of... There are tragic stories that you hear. It's a matter of how much you address or ignore those as you move through the test plan, and being very mindful and attuned to the person that you're sitting and talking to and really reacting appropriately to give them the space.
Mahtab   Yeah. I mean, you said something earlier, you said about the importance of bearing witness…
Rebecca   Yes.
Mahtab raw emotion, to preparing yourself to bear witness to emotion, but also recognizing that your role is just to bear witness. It's not to fix it. I thought that was a really astute thing to say about that.
Rebecca   Right. Right. It's tragic and awful, and you simply have to sit and listen.
Mahtab   Your role is to listen…
Rebecca   Yep.
Mahtab   ...and to understand, and then to the degree possible understand how that raw emotion impacts usage of the site, of the software…
Rebecca   Yes.
Mahtab   ...but that you're not going to make that better for that person in the course of a 45 minute or hour long session.
Rebecca   You're not there to comfort them…
Mahtab   Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Rebecca   ...and that is not what they're looking for from you.
Mahtab   Yes. Yeah, which can be hard because, I think…
Rebecca   Yes.
Mahtab   ...we're so wired to want to help when someone is sad.
Rebecca   Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, absolutely.
Mahtab   Yeah. All right. Well, I think that was the points we wanted to cover on that topic.
Thank you for listening, you can find us on SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and on Bye.
Rebecca   Bye.


Hosted by: Mahtab Rezai
Principal & CEO

Mahtab has spent nearly two decades as a user experience designer, researcher, strategist, leader, and mentor. She has designed user experiences for companies ranging from startups to the Fortune 50.


With guest: Rebecca Grazzini
Senior User Experience Specialist

Rebecca has worked on user experiences in a variety of industries including online education, health care, financial services, tourism, energy, and agriculture. She has spent much of her career developing complex transactional experiences under strict regulatory constraints.
View Rebecca’s Profile


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