The Power of Words in UX Research

It’s said that a picture paints a thousand words. But it’s also worth considering that a single word can evoke a powerful image. Consider, for example, what comes to mind when you encounter the word ‘gambling.’ Alternatively, consider the word ‘gaming.’ Likely, different mental images are triggered by each word. Every day, during the course of verbal and written discourse, people have a choice of words to pick from. And it turns out that which words are used can have a significant impact on how the message is received, or the question is interpreted.

Consider, for example, the following pairs of words:

  • Liberal v. progressive
  • Liquor v. spirits
  • Used v. pre-owned

Although the words in each pair are similar to each other, I suspect that each word in the pair brings to mind a slightly different mental image, along with a slightly different emotional response, as well.

Research on the power of words

Researchers were interested in learning about the effect of wording, and how different ways of asking the same question might affect judgments. They devised a study where research participants were shown a video of a car accident and were then asked to estimate the speed of the car that had initiated the collision.

But individuals in each of two groups who had viewed the video were asked a slightly different question:

  • Group 1: At what speed did the first car contact the second car?
  • Group 2: At what speed did the first car smash into the second car?

The difference between these two versions, of course, is that the first example uses the word ‘contact,’ while the second example uses the words ‘smash into.’ Would this difference in wording affect people’s estimates of speed? It turns out that:

  • When the word ‘contact’ was used, people estimated the car to be going 31.8 mph, on average
  • When the words ‘smash into’ were used, people estimated the car to be going 40.5 mph, on average

When asked to recall what had been shown from the video, those who had encountered the words ‘smash into’ also claimed they had seen broken glass, even though in reality, no glass had been broken. The words themselves, then, had a powerful influence both on how people remembered the incident as well as how fast they judged the car to be traveling.

The power of words in UX

But why is all of this important for UX designers and researchers? Well, not surprisingly, the choice of words used when interacting with research participants and with business partners, matters. As we’ve seen, word(s) are powerful drivers of what happens in the mind of the receiver.

As UX researchers, we ask a lot of questions. And how we ask those questions – the actual words we use – can have a significant influence on how participants ‘hear’ and interpret the question and consequently, on how they make judgments and respond. So how do we manage such a situation effectively?

My recommendation is to think carefully about the various ways a question can be phrased, and pay attention to how responses might be influenced. You could also ‘usability test’ the wording prior to your actual study to glean how your questions are being received and interpreted by a potential participant. Using language that is more neutral can also work to your benefit, as stronger language tends to drive mental perceptions and images that are more vivid and ‘extreme.’

Another option is to take a step back and ask a broader question. For example, let’s say you’re trying to learn how research participants feel about a specific aspect of the thing being tested, and you’re particularly interested in any negative emotions they express. The question could be phrased such that any of a variety of terms could be used:

  • Is there anything about this [thing being tested] that makes you feel [aggravated / annoyed / confused / frustrated / irritated]?

Likely, each of these terms brings to mind a distinct mental image and type of emotion. So here, it might be better to take a step back and ask a more open ended question, such as: Tell me about how this [thing] makes you feel. The broader nature of this question leaves room for the participant to express positive and/or negative feelings, rather than being directed to think more narrowly about a specific type of feeling or emotion.

In summary

How we communicate is a vital aspect of life in general, but even moreso for those who facilitate and moderate research studies. Never underestimate the power of words. Although it’s true that a picture does paint a thousand words, a single word can also paint a very vivid picture in the mind of your research participant, thereby driving their behavior and responses, and consequently, your research outcomes.

This is a post by Colleen Roller.  Colleen is forever fascinated with the workings of the human mind, and with the art and science of designing for it. She has written extensively on this topic, authoring columns for UXmatters and UX Magazine. On the personal side, Colleen is a classically trained musician and enjoys performing on alto and soprano recorder. She also designs jewelry, and you can find her necklaces in a popular shop in West Concord, MA.

Usability test questions: does wording matter?

Interaction Designers have a tough job. Designing is hard work! It requires the ability to be simultaneously creative and analytical – not an easy thing. When I changed jobs from being an Interaction Designer to being a UX Researcher, I initially assumed I would escape the rigors of the design role. However, I quickly realized that to be a good researcher, I had to have good research design skills. To get good research outcomes, you need to design effective research studies.

I also realized that, just like in interaction design, there are multiple ways to design in order to achieve a given objective. Each design option has a set of tradeoffs – each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, I have come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a perfect design. But even so, a critical requirement of an effective research design is that it addresses and manages potential bias that can leak into a study and potentially skew or pollute research findings.

It’s important for UX researchers to be sensitive to the many ways that bias can affect a study, and to the extent possible, control for it. A key aspect of research design is how we craft the questions asked of research participants. It turns out that how we ask a question has critical implications for how a participant responds, and consequently, on research outcomes.

To see just how important this is, let’s consider a research study where a number of individuals were asked to determine how a judge should rule in a child custody case. After reviewing a list of characteristics about each parent, some individuals were asked which parent should get sole custody, while others were asked which parent should not get sole custody. Would simply asking the question in either a positive or negative way affect people’s response? After all, both questions are just different ways of asking essentially the same thing.

What they found is that the decision to either award or deny custody was indeed influenced by the way the question was asked. When people were asked which parent should get sole custody, they quite naturally focused on and compared the positive characteristics of each parent. When they were asked which parent should not get sole custody, they automatically compared the negative characteristics of each parent.

We can see that the wording of the question actually drove people’s thought process and what they focused on in the decision problem. This is huge! It means that the actual wording of the question has the power to drive attention and focus, and therefore, decision outcomes.

Sometimes as UX researchers, we get into the groove of only asking certain types of questions –
• What did you like about…?
• What would make this better?
• Describe your optimal experience….

Note that all of these questions are framed in a positive way. But what would happen if we asked the question differently?
• What don’t you like about…?
• What would make you stop using….?
• What would happen if the [thing you’re testing] didn’t have this feature/functionality….?

Sometimes the negative version of a question opens the opportunity to get insights from participants that you wouldn’t get otherwise. And asking both the positive and negative version of the question can result in a more holistic understanding of the user experience.


Instead of asking… Ask a broader question…
1. What are the differences between….? 1. How would you compare….?
2. How often do you use….? 2. Tell me about how you use….?
3. How would you rank these….? 3. Which of these is a better approach….?


Another way to glean insights is to consider how broadly or narrowly you frame the question. Often, when you take a step back and ask a ‘broader’ question, you open the door to obtaining answers to questions you hadn’t thought to ask. Asking a broader question also helps control for assumptions that can affect and bias your interpretation of what you observe.

Let’s take a closer look at the questions above. Question #1 makes the assumption that the participant actually notices the differences. But what if s/he doesn’t? Now the participant feels uncomfortable and needs to ‘save face.’ Always remember that the participant will supply an answer to your question. That’s what s/he’s getting compensated for, after all. But, the answer you get may not reflect the reality of the situation.

The narrow wording of question #2 leads the participant to focus only on frequency of use, whereas the revised version allows the participant to answer in a way that allows you to see what’s most important to him. The wording of question #3 leads participants into a mindset of ‘ranking,’ which is a very different task and thought process than answering a broader question about which of the options is a better approach.

It’s worth taking the time to think through various ways of wording your research questions to appreciate how the wording itself may affect participants’ thought process, and consequently how they respond. Truly, research design is both an art and a science – and that’s what makes it so fascinating.

This is a post by Colleen Roller.  Colleen is forever fascinated with the workings of the human mind, and with the art and science of designing for it. She has written extensively on this topic, authoring columns for UXmatters and UX Magazine. On the personal side, Colleen is a classically trained musician and enjoys performing on alto and soprano recorder. She also designs jewelry, and you can find her necklaces in a popular shop in West Concord, MA.

6 common challenges in managing UX projects and how to overcome them

As of today, Ive been involved in Web and UX design for 12 years. The last three of them have been shared with my partners at Continuum, leading UX projects for a wide range of clients. Its impossible not to notice certain patterns on how user experience projects wind up, regardless of the scope, the team size or even the deadline and the budget.

These patterns, and the continuous iteration on how to better deal with them, have led us to identify some principles that pave the way to a better experience design. Well talk about them in a future post. But first, lets talk a bit about the most common problems we have faced when doing UX:

Feature creep

This is a well-known problem. Too many stakeholders with similar power positions trying to inject their own vision, insecurity and fear of being the poorest competitor and a lack of prioritization lead to products stacked with functionality that has not met real user needs.

The main assumption behind feature creep is that if its in the product, users will find it. If this were true, certainly we could make more useful products by simply adding more stuff (thats the way Microsoft Office was conceived). A better understanding of our userslimitations and lack of interest in our product makes the team feel the painful need of simplifying and prioritizing.

Google Docs understood this, and they basically offer fewer features but with the big differentiator of sharing and real-time editing. By replacing barely-used functionality with a game-changer offering (plus a free price tag), Google Docs has become the only real threat to Office in two decades.

Deadline creep

Products launching way past their original deadlines (and sometimes even becoming instantly obsolete when launched) is also a documented issue. Besides from feature-creep, the second most common cause we have observed is a constant back-and-forth between the team, where decisions are reversed/undone until the very end and noise is introduced as new stakeholders join late to the table.

The underlying assumption behind deadline creep is “this moment is as good as any other to pitch my idea.” We try to get past our original assumptions as early as possible. From then on, the driver for new changes and pivots should solely be user feedback.

Something that has worked for us is to start the project negotiating with the client deadlines for key decisions and mutually agreeing that these deadlines will be respected, regardless of who shows up later with ideas. Deferring changes until they can be balanced with user feedback is another good technique; get used to saying that is a great idea, we can include it in Iteration Two, after we have launched.

Products that solve no ones needs

Pressure to meet budgets and deadlines already exhausted by theoretical discussions and power plays slowly disconnect the team from the users and their needs. Sometimes the connection was never made in first place, and entire products are built based on overconfident hunches or late-night inspirations that crash painfully and expensively.

We as humans have a tendency to live in denial of things. Sometimes the reality is too harsh, so we exclude ourselves from it to prevent it from spoiling our dreams. This might be ok for our personal realms, but its fatal when developing products that are intended for other people to use. Thats a pain that can be postponed, but never avoided. The earlier this pain is welcomed on the project, the more useful it is, and the less damage it causes.

Sometimes you have to be harsh, even at the cost of losing a client. Our role as UX leaders is to uncover value and create it where it doesnt exist. But you will sooner or later face a lost case: a mix of a really bad idea (or a good idea with terrible timing) and a delusional team or founder. In these cases, saying sorry, we believe theres nothing we can do to make this product usefulwill keep you honest to yourself and to your client. Sometimes this slap in the face earns you extra respect and even encourages the team to reconsider.

Incomplete or defective research

Sometimes we, as UX researchers, trust our gut too much and take shortcuts from meeting an appropriate number of real users and extracting the right insights.

In some cases, an excess of emphasis is put in validating an abstract idea instead of a real solution; in others, too much effort is put into polishing specific controls, losing perspective of the overall value. Our very experience can get in the way if we are not disciplined enough to contrast and challenge all of our assumptions with proper user feedback.

It is important not to work alone as UX practitioners. When theres a team, its harder to keep a bias, because your teammates will remind you of where the project should be focusing. Even you will have a heightened need of objectvity. This is probably because its far easier to see biases in others than in ourselves.

Gap between design and development

Designers and developers often view themselves as separate entities: design feedsdevelopment with designs and specs, and development implements them mechanically, without questioning. But a UX professional cannot unbundle herself from whats being implemented, because thats where the actual experience for the end user is going to take place.

Handing the design to someone else and then forgetting about it causes the experience to break apart; value is not transmitted to the ones in charge to make it a reality. Designers and developers are equally responsible for the user experience. Doing it right takes a lot of communication and a willingness to be mutually influenced towards a unified mindset.

Embrace Agile UX at the development phase. Bring a chair, sit down next to the developer and work in pairs. Free the dev team from having to make user interface decisions; be ready to respond in real-time with graphics, new screens, error handling and copy. This is probably the most overlooked phase in a UX process, and its by far the one which produces the most tangible results for end users. All those little big detailsthat make you fall in love with products exist because someone cared for them long enough to make them appear.

Tendency to Waterfall UX as a way of reducing uncertainty

An approach to UX too close to the academic, the bureaucratic and the theoretical is self-satisfactory: structured, thoroughly executed methodologies are rewarded, regardless of the results they produce or their impact on the end user.

Projects take forever to complete and the team is lost making reports and Gantts look pretty to the board, instead of being in the field, trying, failing and observing. The focus is diverted from effectiveness to mere compliance. Sometimes it’s the client, bound by regulations and standards, that pushes it this way; sometimes are the UX practitioners themselves, trying to validate their work with name-checking and blind following of established practice.

Whatever the cause, everyone the users especiallywill benefit from a flexible approach, rich in tools but always listening for what the project needs, and more reliant on direct feedback than processed and standardized reports.

Keep an obsessive focus on the end experience dont let the methodology blind you. Your end users will never see or appreciate your process, they will only see your results. Nobody says wow, what I love most about this product is that the team got Agile values totally right. Thats what you would say about it. Dont lose sight of your users.

All of these are problems because they ultimately make the user experience suffer. A good UX management maintains the team focused on solving real needs and being effective, from the start to the end. It calls for a holistic involvement; as a UX lead, you cant really disengage any stage of the project, as all of them involve being in touch with users and fine-tuning the output.

Thats why at Continuum we strive to keep our projects as close to Lean UX as they can be. This is not only for the sake of efficiency, but also because its the approach that makes the best use of our common sense and our flexibility as a team. In a future post, well discuss the principles that guide us down that path.

This is a post by Sergio Nouvel, partner at Continuum, a UX, innovation and software boutique. He’s also co-founder of Get on Board, a job board for digital professionals in Latin America.

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