Dan Berlin, editor of the book 97 Things Every UX Practitioner Should Know, and host of this podcast, kicks off season three of the 97 UX Things podcast with a discussion of his book chapter "Leverage Your 'Psychologist Voice' for Effective UX Research Moderation."
Dan Berlin: Hi everyone and welcome to season three of the 97 UX things podcast. Thank you to everyone out there listening for helping to make the podcast more successful than I anticipated. Honestly, it’s a little weird for this researcher to just throw content out there into the world with no meaningful feedback mechanism to learn if and how it resonates with folks. But the fact that we haven’t released an episode in almost a year, yet downloads have picked up over the past few months inspired me to dig back into the podcast and record the next season.
For listeners who are new to the podcast, 97 UX Things is a companion to the book 97 Things Every UX Practitioner Should Know, published by O’Reilly. Our book has 97 chapters, each authored by a different person, and topics include career, strategy, research, design, and content. During the first two seasons of the podcast, I interviewed the authors about their chapter topic and careers. But in season three, we are going to change things up a bit. In addition to interviews with authors from the book, I’ve invited some other guests to the podcasts, and I’ll be doing some solo episodes.
The plan is to release episodes every other week and the season will go as long as I can keep up the pace without getting burnt out. We have a few episodes ready-to-go, and many more scheduled to be recorded. It’s gonna be a great season for the podcast and I’m really looking forward to expanding upon the content we discuss here.
If you have any suggestions for or comments on the podcast, please email me at email@example.com. This includes if you’d like to be a guest. If you have something novel to say about UX that has practical take-aways for listeners, let’s chat!
Considering this is episode number 33 and I haven’t even introduced myself to y’all, I figured a good way to kick off season 3 is to fill you in about my background and my chapter in the book, entitled Leverage Your Psychologist Voice for Effective UX Research Moderation.
So, hi everyone, my name is Dan Berlin and I host this podcast. I’m an independent UX research consultant based outside of Boston, MA. My company is called Watch City Research and I struck out on my own in 2021 after just over 13 years living the agency life. In my current role, I conduct generative and tactical user research for clients in different industries. During the past two years, I’ve done research about pharmacist processes, sexual health, potential insurance products, the needs of hospital patients, e-learning content and user interfaces, and many others. I’ve spent the past 15 years consulting because I love the variety that comes with working with so many different types of companies. It’s allowed me to spend two weeks driving around California and Minnesota interviewing store employees, a week in a warehouse store watching people use a customer service kiosk, and my absolute favorite which, quite honestly, may never be topped: two weeks observing trainmasters and rail yard operations in Texas and Washington State.
My career journey began with a psychology degree from Brandeis University. There wasn’t much I could do with a BA in psychology, but I was, and am, a computer geek. So I spent the next four years picking up the phones doing technical support for SeaChange International, a company who, at the time, sold digital ad insertion and video on demand software and servers to cable companies. The technology was really interesting, and I spent a total of seven years there. After doing tech support, I moved into a more business analyst role before making the transition to my UX career.
But while in the tech support role, I had the opportunity to be a participant in a usability study on the product I was supporting. The product manager had hired what is now the Bentley University User Experience Center to conduct the study and as I sat there conducting the tasks, I had my UX serendipitous moment where I discovered this wonderful field that melds computer geekery with psychology. After that study, I took the first class in the Bentley University UX certificate to see if a career in UX would be for me and I was instantly hooked.
In 2006 I started a full-time two- and half-year program at Bentley to earn an MBA and MS in Human Factors in Information Design. After the program, I spent two years at a digital design agency, starting up their formal UX research offering, then moved onto Mad*Pow, an experience design agency based in New England. I spent the next ten years at Mad*Pow, building up their research team and conducting UX for a wide array of clients. It was a wonderful decade and I met some of my favorite people ever during that time. But in 2021, I decided it was time to open my own business and so far, so good. Two years later, I’m still feeding myself and my dog Shadow. So if you need some UX research help, please let me know.
My chapter in the book is entitled “Leverage Your Psychologist Voice for Effective UX Research Moderation.” Study moderation and extracting insightful, useful information from study participants is my favorite part of being a user researcher. There’s nothing more satisfying than asking a series of probing questions on an interesting topic to uncover the root cause of a person’s behavior or desire and leveraging that understanding to build great designs.
It’s important to remember that facilitating an hour-long session with a participant is much more than sitting down and asking someone a series of questions. You have to know when to be quiet, when to ask probing questions, when to follow the participant’s lead, and so forth. And generally, UX research best practices often discuss study preparation and documentation; how to ask meaningful, non-leading questions; and how to choose the best methodology and participant activities to address your study goals. These are important topics, but there’s an opportunity to discuss how we speak while facilitating interviews and workshops, and that’s what inspired my chapter.
Mindfulness is the active attention to the here and now, and it’s generally not something we do in our daily lives. We’re often on autopilot, busily moving from one activity to the next, or thinking up a response to what someone is saying to us. But when moderating an interview or workshop, it’s critical that we actively listen to what others are saying and pay attention to how our questions and interactions affect study participants. Our time with participants is precious and expensive, so we want to maximize the information that we can extract in the limited time we have with them. We want them to feel comfortable and relaxed so they keep talking, and we can accomplish this through active attention to what we’re saying and how we’re saying it. Leveraging what I call your ‘psychologist voice.’
Before delving into the components of the psychologist voice and how you can use it, a brief diversion to its origins. Back in high school, some of my friends and I had a regular session with the school psychologist, Dr. Serkin. We had been doing these for a while but one day, Dr. Serkin’s voice changed. He was talking much slower, calmer, and a bit deeper than usual. I distinctly remember asking him about the change and he replied, “I’m practicing my psychologist voice.” At the time, I didn’t think anything of it. But twenty years later, as I started doing more and more interview sessions, Dr. Serkin’s psychologist voice came back to mind, and I realized how leveraging this technique could result in more productive interviews. Here’s how you can do so.
There are five elements of your psychologist voice: pace, volume, timbre, emphasis, and inflection. Pace, or how fast you talk, is the most important because speaking at a calm, even pace will help people clearly hear your question or task the first time you say it. We generally don’t pay much attention to how quickly we speak, which isn’t a problem when interacting with coworkers, family, or other less formal conversations. But when interacting with study participants, slowing down from our normal cadence inserts formality and clarity, which will help participants better hear us.
Volume or loudness is the next component. Your everyday voice may be a bit too booming, or potentially too light and hard to hear. When chatting with study participants, you want to be audible enough to lead the conversation, but not so loud that you are intimidating. Volume goes hand-in-hand with timbre – the warmth or smoothness of your voice. While keeping a medium but audible volume, you want to speak with warmth and a smooth flow, avoiding staccato, or separated sentences. By keeping a smooth, warm flow to your questions and tasks, you can then use emphasis to stress key words that you want to stand out to participants. Emphasis is tied with the final component, inflection, where we use the ups and downs of our voice to avoid putting the participant to sleep with a monotone delivery.
Active mindfulness about these five elements of your voice is the first step to using your psychologist voice. The next step is to be mindful of your choice of words and when you speak. During a conversation, people often start formulating a response before the other person is done speaking. This doesn’t allow for active listening and may result in missing a key piece of information. To keep study sessions on track, researchers still need to prepare the next question while participants are speaking, but the key is to focus on listening to the participant and then very quickly coming up with the next question when they are done speaking.
Your next question will either move the conversation along to the next topic, or it will probe deeper into what the participant just said. Never let participants get away with a surface answer – our primary goal as researchers is to get at the root causes of what participants have to say. The way to get at root causes is to ask “Why” multiple times when the participant says something particularly interesting or relevant. Not like a petulant child asking, “Why why why,” but through the use of a few phrases that we’ll use throughout a study session: tell me more about that, how does that make you feel, what makes you say that, and so forth. If you follow up a participant utterance with one or two of these phrases, you’ll be on the path to getting at the root cause of what they said, resulting in more robust qualitative data for your study.
Another moderation tactic is to have participants answer their own questions. Not ALL of their questions, of course, since we don’t want them to get annoyed. But hearing what participants expect the answer to their question to be is a great source of information. After hearing their answer, you can decide whether to answer their question or not, based on study parameters.
Confirming you heard the participant correctly is another way to enrich your qualitative data. Summarize what you just heard, repeat it back to them, and ask for confirmation. This shows the participant that you are listening, hopefully encouraging them to speak more and it also helps to ensure your notes are accurate.
Another way to get more information out of participants is to simply shut up. During one-one-one interactions, people are generally uncomfortable with silences and will try to fill the void with words. We want the participant to fill those uncomfortable voids, but they won’t be able to if you start talking. Embrace silent moments and don’t just jump in with the next question – give the participant a moment to decide how to fill that void.
It’s also important to convey to participants that there are no wrong answers. We should literally say this at the beginning of each session as part of our introductory spiel. But we can also convey this throughout the session by always showing that we’re interested in what the participant has to say and never sounding even remotely disappointed in an answer. Our voices should convey positivity through our actual words and the intonation of how they’re said.
The only way to master these techniques is through practice and critique. Just like designers have design critiques, researchers should make a point to receive moderation critiques. Start by reviewing your session videos and critiquing yourself, but then try to find a peer or mentor to help take the critique to the next step. Small adjustments to your moderation style can have a big impact on the amount of useful information you collect during each interview session.
So, in review, be mindful of the elements of your psychologist voice: pace, volume, timbre, emphasis, and inflection. Then leverage your inner psychologist to truly listen for understanding, probe for root causes, and keep the participant talking.
Thank you for listening to the first episode of season three of the 97 UX Things podcast. I hope you enjoyed it and I look forward to providing you with some great content this year! Please send any feedback or guest suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks everyone!