Sunday, February 20, 2005


cognitive interviewing

The mantra of usability research is to watch what people do, and not necessarily to believe what they say. It is common to find people who say they like something they can't use, and you will occasionally find people of a grumpy disposition who will trash something that works fine, just because they don't like the color. So why talk to users at all? Because there are many situations where you can't just watch -- designs aren't articulated enough to see all the steps involved, or because there are tangential issues entering the situation that are not visible to the moderator.

The standard method for listening to users is the talk-aloud protocol, getting a running commentary from the user on what she or he is doing. It's valuable when tied to observing a specific activity, but doesn't address past situations or outside events that can't be observed.

From the world of medical social research, which has vast experience in developing reliable information from interviews, comes a useful technique called "cognitive interviewing." The approach addresses the many biases that can creep into facilitators' questions and users' responses. Taken to heart, the approach offers a path for usability researchers to develop to a dialog with users, instead of making lab rats out of them. Gordon Willis, a pioneer in the technique, will shortly publish a book on the topic. For a preview of the approach, consult his
cognitive interviewing "how to" guide (pdf).

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