When Words Are Not Enough

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The frequently-raised objection when it comes to quality research, UX research included, is that the conclusions are drawn based on the participants’ declarations. However, there exist some methods which allow one to grasp the real behaviors of participants, and they can be easily implemented into the research scenario.

During exploratory research, the respondents are often unable to articulate their needs or opinions. In turn, when it comes to usability tests or satisfaction surveys, it very often happens that the respondents’ answers are limited to vague opinions which, without being further explored by the moderator, don’t bring in much data.

Very often, they hide their opinions, because something is “not quite right” to say, something makes them feel ashamed, or their behaviors are controlled by mechanisms which they don’t even perceive—because who would admit to having certain prejudices or not fully socially-accepted desires?

Then how does one find out the real opinions of respondents?

One method is observation, which is a fundamental element of every research. However, observation brings us limited information, and without other methods such as an interview, based on declarations it’s difficult to obtain a complete picture of the situation.

The other way is to use psychoanalytic techniques, such as projection, during the marketing survey.

From Freud to marketing

According to the classic concept of Freud’s psychoanalysis, people have a natural tendency to protect their ego. It happens through an inside “censor”—the “super-ego”—which is a part of person’s personality structure and filters all instincts and desires while allowing in our consciousness only those which are socially acceptable. That is the reason why, in many situations, people do not realize their basic attitudes, motivations, or desires. However, it turns out that people are able to assign them to others. That is called projection.

Projection is used most often in the marketing surveys, such as in research about a brand’s image. Usually, the projection methods consist of describing brands as people or objects. The respondent might be also asked to assign people with certain traits to a brand. For example, one might be asked to complete a sentence: “People with traits such as ___ drink X brand beer.”

How to describe modernity?

A current Studio EDISONDA project is a sales platform for a client working in the tourism industry. We’ll call them Green Roller Coaster. During the exploratory research, I used one of the projection methods to deepen the respondents’ answers.

In the initial stage of design for Green Roller Coaster’s new web site, we wanted to find out what kind of image our client has among business partners. During the in-depth interviews, we asked how Green Roller Coaster’s business partners would rate their cooperation with company.

Most of the answers were positive: The respondents praised their relationship with the Green Roller Coaster. The surveyed partners were also asked to describe Green Roller Coaster as a person, a personalisation technique. The company was most often described as a nice and reliable but also as quite old, old-fashioned, not progressive, or even conservative.

This example illustrates some of the many benefits that accrue from the use of projection techniques. On the declarative level, the company was rated neutrally or positively, probably in accordance with the real opinions of the respondents. The interesting thing is that nobody mentioned that they view the company as not really modern. Only after using the projection technique could we obtain the complete image.

In UX research, projection methods might bring a range of valuable information which will be useful while designing the project, such as information about colors, shapes, or words associated with a certain brand, situation, or impulse. Thanks to that, we can utilize the potential hidden in the users, and they can actually participate in the design we are working on.

My dream university

Not too long ago, we worked on redesigning Adam Mickiewicz University’s web site. To get to know the environment better—its problems and the needs of different groups of recipients—we used exploratory research.

We conducted focus interviews (group interviews) with research workers, administration employees, doctoral candidates, students, and student applicants. Additionally, we conducted several in-depth interviews and computer-assisted web interviews (such as online surveys) with the Adam Mickiewicz University’s students.

During focus interviews with applicants and first year students, apart from the standard scenario, we also used the collage technique. The surveyed group was asked to create a collage titled “My dream university.”

On the declarative level, the respondents talked mainly about the didactic offer, the university as a preparation for a future job, the university’s infrastructure, and international cooperation. Of course, these things were also reflected in the collages prepared by the surveyed group, but what really stood out were values which were never mentioned during the group interview.

The collage works contained many themes alluding to having fun, fine dining, sex, sport, and slogans mentioning freedom, openness, and lack of restraints. When creating a web site which aimed to convince the applicants to choose Adam Mickiewicz University, such knowledge was invaluable for the designer.

What convinces young people is not only an attractive way of presenting one’s didactic offer but also showing what will they be able to experience at the university aside from the classes. Collages not only helped us to obtain very valuable data, but they were also an inspiration for graphic designers and copywriters, and they showed how to effectively communicate with the applicants.

Projection as a supplement

The projection techniques allow one to look “deeper” into the respondents’ minds and in many cases let one obtain valuable information which wouldn’t be otherwise easily found with classic survey methods.

It has to be kept in mind, though, that the results obtained from the projection techniques are often ambiguous and usually difficult to interpret correctly without a wider context. Interpretation of the data is based mainly on intuition and experience of the researcher, not on specific criteria.

It also sometimes happens that projective methods do not bring any valuable information, such as when it is difficult to observe any trend in the results. For instance, if students have created collages titled “My dream university” and we could not see any factor in common, a projection as an independent method does not bring valuable results.

Because of this ambiguity, projection techniques should be treated more like a valuable supplement method than the main way of obtaining data. However, in conjunction with other, more established techniques, projection often provides key marketing information which we would not be able to reach based only on declarations or observation. Projection methods are based on natural human psychological reactions to a stimulus and in combination with other methods often have a full picture of the situation and help in interpreting the other test results.