Improve your research technique - Reflexive thinking, 5 practical tips

Reflexivity is a research concept that comes from anthropology, but is actually applicable to all kinds of research. It’s likely that you’re already doing it without realising it. In this article I explain in more detail; what it is, why it’s important and how to get more out of it.

What is reflexivity?

Reflexivity is the process of reflecting on yourself the researcher, to provide more effective and impartial analysis.

It involves examining and consciously acknowledging the assumptions and preconceptions you bring into the research and that therefore shape the outcome. None of us are detached, objective observers. We are all human beings who hold opinions and pre-formulated ideas, based on our experiences and what we have been exposed to in our lives.

Our understanding of the world is based on our own patterns of thought and behaviour, our personal values, political leanings, culture, ethnicity, religion, age, gender and the job we do.

What bearing does this have on UX research?

When we try to be empathetic within our research, it’s easy to forget about our own influence on the process. However the experiences that we all carry with us can inherently influence research decisions. For instance, the selection and wording of questions before and during the interview. Or what aspects are emphasised in our notes or findings report.

By thinking reflexively throughout the entire research process - by reflecting on ourselves and making the research process itself a point of analysis -  we reduce the risk of being misled by our own experiences and interpretations.

Example: During a project involving an emotive subject such as talking to people who care for their elderly parents

The researcher may project their own feelings into the interview - how they would feel if they were in the same situation. However, their relationship with their parents will be completely unique, and therefore different to the participant’s relationship with his or her parents.

The researcher’s reaction to the participant’s answers may influence what questions the researcher chooses to ask and how they ask them. This therefore influences the answers that are given.

Or, the researcher’s feelings towards their own parents may influence what they emphasise in the findings report e.g. guilt, regret or resentment.

If the researcher reflects on this, they will recognise these things. They can ensure they mitigate the influence this has on conducting following interviews, the report or the rest of the project.

Reflexive Thinking

How can we be more reflexive in UX?

Here are 5 practical ways in which reflexivity can be incorporated into your research process:

1. For usability testing and depth interviews: 

  • Involve at least two UX practitioners in an interview.
  • Have more team members, including the client, listen to the interview as it’s taking place.
  • Allow enough of a gap between participants for discussion with the rest of the team.

These are likely to be things you already do, but it’s good to encourage critical reflection on the interview and to consider different perspectives.

It’s not about asking someone else to ‘confirm’ that one person’s take on the findings are ‘correct’. It helps the researcher to look at things from angles that may have been overlooked, or dismissed without taking the time to consider them thoroughly.

Example: A user may be describing what their job entails. What they describe sounds confusing and stressful to the researcher.

This is because it’s something they have no prior knowledge of and is very different to anything they have experienced. It would be easy for the researcher to therefore assume, without acknowledging, that the participant must also find it confusing and stressful too.

If this is discussed amongst colleagues, it may come to light that this is not what the participant was describing at all. What they actually meant was that they enjoyed the challenge of their job.

2. When you don’t get the response or reaction you expected from a participant, inappropriate assumptions and preconceived ideas will be brought to light

  • Use these experiences to reflect on any preconceptions you brought into the interview.
  • Use this experience as something to keep in mind for following interviews, helping you to avoid it going forwards.

Example: The researcher is showing the participant a design that forces the user step through a series of add-ons and answer yes or no. This feature has been requested by the client.

The expectation of the researcher is that this will cause annoyance for the participant. However, the reality is that the participant doesn’t react in this way at all.

The researcher reflects on this and acknowledges the assumption they’d made. They can then use this experience in the next interview to prevent them from making similar speculations.  

3. Keep a diary of how you’re feeling on each day of the research

  • Reflect on your emotional state and what happened that day.
  • When you come to write up the findings, refer back to this diary to help you make allowance for the way you were feeling.

This is particularly useful if you are conducting interviews on your own and have not been able to discuss the interviews with a colleague.

Example: On the second day of interviews the researcher may have had an argument with their spouse or child before coming to work.

The tension that they are experiencing when conducting the interview will inevitably have some bearing on the way they ask questions and interpret answers.

They make note of this in a diary, and refer back to it when writing up the findings and when discussing the interviews from that day at a later date. Because they have done so, they can take this into account and possibly adjust their interpretation of what they heard, if necessary.

4. During the write up of the findings report, reflect on how you have interpreted what you heard during the interview

  • Consider how your experience in life so far may influence what you choose to document.  

Example: When writing the report, the researcher may remember feeling sorry for a participant because of some hardship they described.

Without reflecting on how their privileged experience of life so far might impact their feelings towards this, the researcher may unwittingly over-emphasise the powerlessness of the participant in the report.

5. As a learning exercise, with a colleague watch a recording of yourself carrying out an interview.

 

  • If possible, choose a recording where you can see your whole body as well as your facial expressions.
  • Both yourself and your colleague make notes on how you, the interviewer, are coming across.
  • Take into account what you say, how you say it and what your body language and facial expressions are saying.

Afterwards discuss the notes that you made. What can be most interesting is when you disagree! Use the insight you gain from this exercise to inform your interview technique going forwards.

Example: The researcher might unwittingly make overly sympathetic facial expressions and noises when the participant is telling them about a negative experience of something related to the product they are testing.

The consequence might be that the participant takes this as encouragement to tell the researcher more about this than they would have done otherwise.

Without knowing that they were making such overly sympathetic facial expressions and noises the researcher might have assumed that the participant was really preoccupied with this experience that they were talking about.

But in fact the participant was just doing what they thought the researcher wanted.

Ultimately rather than requiring a drastic change to the research process, reflexivity is about being transparent

It is a subtle readjustment to your self-awareness that can make a profound difference to what you get out of your research.

If you’ve got any more tips for reflexive thinking, or if you have any anecdotes from situations where reflexive thinking has improved your research, I’d love to hear them.

Further resources:

A User Experience Consultant whose background is art and anthropology, Anna puts her eclectic skills to use in helping create simple and beautiful interfaces, that people will delight in using.