The materials in the Social Psychology course I’m currently studying include a video of a conversation with psychologist Elliot Aronson, Professor Emeritus at University of California, Santa Cruz, reflecting on what he learned as a graduate student of social psychologist, Leon Festinger:
“…what I learned from Festinger was how to do it, how to do experiments. It required very special skills and very special training. You had to be a playwright, you had to be a director, you had to be an actor, because you had to sell the procedure, because the laboratory is a very sterile place. A person comes in to be the subject in an experiment, he’s in a sterile environment. What our job was, to embed that person in a scenario where he’s not stepping back and making decisions about ‘what would a person normally do in this situation?’, but where he’s so embedded in the scenario that we constructed that he’s behaving the way he or she would behave in his or her real environment if it were happening, and for that you needed those skills: actor, director, playwright, so you wrote a scenario that was powerful.
The difference between simply sleepwalking through the instructions and doing it in a dramatic way is the difference between the hypothesis coming out and not coming out.”
This description of crafting experiment scenarios rings true in design research as well. When exploring a problem space or testing a concept, a designer’s intention is to understand behaviour rather than just collect checkbox data about attitudes or task completion. Rich research data comes from setting a scene that encourages a person to speak openly and honestly, and where they can demonstrate the types of reactions they would have if the facilitator wasn’t present.
Practice goes in to learning how to ask “Why?” without sounding like a broken record, and listening for cues that suggest the participant has slipped in to saying what they think you want to hear. Some people need reassurance that their personal opinion, whatever it may be, is perfectly valid and valuable. A considered environment, script, and activities, and the ability to riff and deviate where required without forgetting the objectives of the research, will help a participant reach a comfort-level quickly, and before you know it, they’re saying “Wow, that was quick and easy!” at the end of an hour of conversation.