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The Power of Words in UX Research

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1 April, 2015

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.

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