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Physics tells us you can't measure something without altering the thing being measured.

The judge in a courtroom also tells the lawyer "to stop asking leading questions". Of course, the witness hears this adjudication. Does it matter when the judge says "The witness will please disregard the question."?

Likewise, to what degree do you influence your interviewee just by the way you ask your questions?

If you say, "tell me how you feel about these colors" have you biased your listener?

You bet. You just told them that colors are more meaningful to YOU than some other element on the web page was meaningful TO THEM. Suddenly, their priorities (and thoughts) shift.

This kind of "biasing" of interviews remains a significant problem when trying to probe into the fundamental emotional appeals of your site. If you seek a fresh perspective on branding, or product features, or site themes, how can you avoid such biasing?

How do you ferret out the "truth" from that user? That is the question.

Speaking of questions, here's some research that shows that your approach to questionnaires has its own problems.
Toyota Prius

Likert Scale: Like-it or not!

Three researchers looked at whether people responded differently when questions in a Likert format had the "Strongly Agree" component first versus last.

Here's a sample question, out of 10 questions presented to 104 undergraduate students (Strongly Agree on the left).

[My] college has an excellent reputation.

Strongly Agree
Strongly Disagree
1 2 3 4 5

Another 104 students got this version (Strongly Agree on the right).

[My] college has an excellent reputation.

Strongly Disagree
Strongly Agree
5 4 3 2 1

What is your prediction? Will Strongly Agree on the left tend to get greater agreement than when it's on the right?

Have you ever wondered if it made a difference?

What should you do about this?

The answer sheet, please

Our three researchers found that taking all 10 items into account, the two approaches gave different overall scores. Three of the questions in particular contributed towards the difference. For those three questions, "Strongly Agree" was on the left and received greater agreement than when "Strongly Agree" was on the right.

But note this important qualification. All three questions were "favorably worded" (out of five favorably worded).

The researchers had carefully avoided the "automatic response" problem typical for questionnaires. Sometimes participants automatically circle everything on the right or left. Perhaps you've done this, yourself.

Therefore, five of their ten questions were worded positively, like "College courses are useful". The other five were negatively worded, like "College faculty is extremely unqualified." The questions were mixed more or less at random.

The authors suggest that in this study, the students liked their college.

"Thus, their responses to unfavorably worded items required some degree of active participation considering the effort necessary to overcome any yea-saying response tendency. Since the responses to the unfavorably worded items did not require this kind of cognitive effort, the bias towards the left side of the scale would be more in evidence."

The authors state their findings were in agreement with other research.

Our usability recommendation: Beware of "observer effects" with Likert scale questionnaires.

Putting "Strongly Agree" on the left may unduly enhance scores when the question is favorably slanted and participants are favorably disposed to the topic.

How to minimize observer effects

Psychologists have long been aware of the need to "let the patient speak their piece". Carl Rogers invented "unconditional positive regard" as a means for cultivating a non-judgmental relationship with his psychotherapy patients. That's one way to avoid the observer effect.

However, a more systematic approach to discovering the "mental constructs" used by people for interpreting their world can be found in the "Repertory Grid Interview" developed by George Kelly.

Many usability studies have adopted the Repertory Grid Interview (RGI) technique. A 2009 study by Veronica Hinkle is easily found on the web, as are other references to the RGI method.

RGI provides a straightforward model that helps you minimize "observer effects" as you interview participants about their goals, mental models, and even their PET (Persuasion, Emotion and Trust) expectations.

Marketers regularly use RGI to understand attitudes about product branding, functions, usage, and even product concepts.

Simple steps in discovering user mental constructs

Here's the steps for discovering what your end-users feel is important about your website and the offerings it presents. I report our author's story.

Assume you provide the UX for a high-end cooking and specialty food website. You're driven to enhance your competitive position by discovering what design elements affect the "first impression" the most.You locate five other home pages to compare with your own.

You want to avoid biasing participant responses with the same old drivel. You want to discover something new, exciting, and innovative for your team!

The research involved eight participants individually going through the following process. Reflecting their interest and involvement, seven agreed they liked to cook. One was neutral. Here are the sites.

Phase 1. ("Construct elicitation")

1. Veronica created 6 sets, each with three home pages ("triads) that systematically compared all six pages. (NOTE: your own study could include your own 6 alternative designs, or some other useful set of comparisons.)

Here is a table to illustrate the "combinations". Present them randomly across participants – I indicate only one such sequence in the left column.

Sequence Site A Site B Site C Site D Site E Site F
1 x x x      
6   x x x    
2     x x x  
4       x x x
3 x       x x
5 x x       x

2. Each participant examined three of the website home pages at once. The author asked: "tell me what two of these pages have in common and give me a name for that." Participants received a briefing on the interview goals and an example of this process before starting.

During the process, Veronica wrote down their answers. They might have said "Sites A and B both have pictures of people at the top of the page. This reflects the construct used by the participant when forming their first impression.

3. Veronica then asked: "For the other, third website, tell me what it does not have in common with the first two."

She wrote down their answer. They may have said "This site has a picture of a laptop computer." This reflects the contrast used during the first impression.

Repeat steps 2 and 3 for all sets of pages.

4. If the participant previously gave the same construct, Veronica elicited a "deeper" response using laddering techniques that probe for the reasons underlying the emotional appeal of that construct. It was also acceptable if a participant could not think of a construct.

5. Veronica listed the "constructs" she heard. Each construct received a name: e.g., "Picture of people" versus "Picture of computers". This process elicited an unbiased response because participants generated the construct by themselves.

6. Participants wrote their various construct and contrast pairs on index cards. Each card also had a horizontal rating scale ranging from 1 to 5 where 1 = matches construct and 5 = matches contrast.

The construct count ranged from 10 to 19 per interview, with an average of 14.

Phase 2. ("Rating phase.")

1. At the end of the interview, the participant rated all six web pages using their own construct/contrast pairs. For each construct/contrast pair they entered a score from 1 to 5 where 1 represented the construct and 5 represented the contrast.

2. Veronica converted the participant's scores into a computational score as follows.

Since zero falls between the Construct and Contrast, zero reflects a neutral point. Other scores reflect departure either toward the Construct (negative score) or towards the Contrast (a positive score).

Construct/Contrast Scale Score Conversion
1 -2
2 -1
3 0
4 1
5 2

3. Veronica averaged the participant scores by "meta-category" to accommodate the differences in "construct" between participants. Meta-categories reflected the mix of participant constructs contributing to the overall first impression. They also reflected the averaged aggregate of each participant's scores across their constructs.

Aesthetics received the most extreme scores and thus was most influential in creating the first impression. Williams-Sonoma did best across the meta-categories as well as across individual participant scores.

Aesthetics Functionality Information
Products Company
Dean & DeLuca -2.5 0.20 -1.0 3.3 -0.5 2.3  (4th)
Williams-Sonoma 3.8 2.8 3.2 0.8 0.3 11.8  (1st)
Balducci's 2.8 0.2 0.2 0.2 1.2 3.3  (3rd)
Crate & Barrel 3.2 2.6 2.0 -3.7 -0.8 6.1  (2nd)
Zabar's -1.67 0.4 0.6 1.5 -1.5 -8.25  (6th)
Bloomingdale's 2.8 1.4 0.8 -5.8 -2.5 -0.6  (5th)

4. After the scores were converted to -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, Veronica then summed the scores within a meta-category and took the mean for a given store. Thus, a -2.5 (for Dean & DeLuca) means the "construct" characterized that store for the group of 8 participants within the Aesthetics meta-category. The constructs for Aesthetics included "colors, pictures, font styles, page layout, and seasonality". A positive score, like 3.8 for Williams-Sonoma means participants favored the "contrast" within the Aesthetics meta-category.

Participant comments illustrate this Aesthetic construct: "colors and font professionally done and pleasing, seasonal themes are predominant, colors blend better and are softer, pictures interest you in the products."

5. Veronica indicates the most important meta-categories appear to be aesthetics/layout, promotional products, and ease of browsing and shopping.

6. In summary, the interviews lasted from 30 to 60 minutes, averaging 40 minutes. The researcher suggested having participants rank the websites in order of preference. This would corroborate the averages given by the meta-category scores and the home page scores.

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

The observer effect subdued?

Do you feel this process could help you avoid the bias you might introduce into an interview?

You would not be pointing to any elements of your own design to start the conversation.

Better yet, you will have put any web page of special interest to YOU in a context that lets your PARTICIPANT decide what's interesting.

This is the achievement of the Repertory Grid Technique.

Veronica made these additional observations...

  1. Pictures and layout greatly influenced participants. They gave visceral responses like feeling "hungry" or when seeing figs, wanting to "buy figs".
  2. Participants needed the probes and stimulation of "laddering" to provide details of interest.
  3. Repertory Grid Interviews can help determine specifics of what drives a first impression of a website.

"This in-depth information about important features allows researchers to create benchmarking goals for the first impressions of a home page."

Ah, tell me, just how do you feel about that?

What name or "construct" would you use to label that feeling?

And how does this contrast with asking direct questions – or even administering a Likert questionnaire?

Bon voyage!


Friedman, H. H., Herskovitz, P.J., and Pollack, S (1993). The Biasing Effects of Scale-Checking Styles on Response to a Likert Scale. Proceedings of the Survey Research Methods Section, American Statistical Association. pp. 792-794.

Hinkle, Veronica (2009). Using Repertory Grid Interviews to Capture First Impressions of Home Pages. Usability News, 11 (2). (See references in this article for other usability studies using Repertory Grid Technique.)

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

Leave a comment here

Reader comments

Jose Alves

Very interesting and useful. For Culture assessment, for instance, the design of a good survey is a big issue. Congratulations.

Victor Ingurgio

The RGI seems useful for so much more. I might try it out with some symbology efforts that I have coming up; trying to decide which symbology format is "better" than another.

David Ballou
Iowa Foundation for Medical Care

Interesting, useful article – thanks! I've always considered questionnaire bias to be an extremely thorny thicket. "Favorably worded" to one subject can be "unfavorably worded" to another. "Neutral" can be favorably or unfavorably slanted, depending on the user's bias, which seems difficult to determine. The testing environment can play a role, as can the dress of the experimenter. For that reason I always try to track actual user behaviors as a key to preferences instead of using questionnaires if at all possible. Least bias of all, perhaps, enters into experiments using passive measures, which involve no direct interaction with users, but simply reviewing physical written records or wear patterns.


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