Lies are an important source of design insight. Design research ought to embrace lies as potential sources of creative inspiration. Lies are indicators of a gap between what we are and what we think we ought to be. Well-designed products soften and assuage the effects of this gap.
The other day, one interviewee asked me, near the end of the interview, what “is this all about.” At first I was confused, having explained the study we were conducting and what specifically we were interested in finding out. Yet she pressed me further, wanting to know the “mystery” behind the study.
I reflected and realized that she was expecting a great “reveal” of the “real” purpose behind the study. She was expecting me to pull back the curtain and tell her what I was actually interested in.
If you have ever participated in a university psychology study, this story will sound familiar to you. You had likely been recruited as an undergraduate, incented to participate with the promise of a few percentage points tacked onto your final grade.
Or perhaps you attended a focus group, which had a one-way mirror at one end of the room that you were directed to “try to ignore.” Or maybe you have answered a telephone survey that had a mysterious combination of questions the meaning of which you could not decipher.
Perhaps you, like my participant, have been conditioned to believe that “unbiased” or “scientific” social research involves trickery or outright deception. Proponents of this approach may argue that in order to get “the truth,” researchers must mask their true intentions, lest participants lie. This kind of research seeks to sanitize the results, to make them somehow untainted by “bias.”
What underlies this idea of deception and lying in social research? There is an assumption that The Truth is something that lives within the minds of your participants and your job as a social researcher is to pry that nugget out of their minds. Your job is to eliminate any “bias” that would filter this truth.
This is the same assumption ethnographers make when they believe a year’s fieldwork is essential. The classic anthropological model is a one-year field assignment. But ethnographers who hold this view are actually similar to market researchers who assume participants may “lie.” They are hoping to establish “rapport,” so that participants will eventually “drop their guard” and show the ethnographer their “true” or “authentic self.”
But if you assume that the truth is something we create, in tandem with our participants, authenticity or truthfulness become irrelevant concepts. Instead, a researcher can assume participants do indeed lie, but that lying is an interesting data point. The savvy, design ethnographer can ask, “Now why did she lie about cleaning her oven weekly, when she clearly hasn’t cleaned it in months?”
These kinds of questions can lead to interpretive gold.
Perhaps oven cleaning is considered “proper,” and women are encouraged to act “properly” by cleaning their ovens regularly. Perhaps a better-designed stove looks “clean” on its exterior, whether it is actually clean inside or not. Perhaps a better-designed stove provides women with mechanical “excuses” of why it should NOT be cleaned regularly, thereby absolving its owner of any shame.
Both design solutions assuage the guilt and the shame of having not lived up to a perceived norm.
Indeed, the Swiffer provides exactly this kind of “cover.” Hardwood floors are supposedly “different” than regular floors and require a “different” kind of broom and mop. It just so happens that the Swiffer is faster, more ergonomic, and less messy than a regular broom. It requires less effort, yet Swiffer uses are told they are doing the “proper” thing by using this “special” kind of broom.
When you are hunting for design solutions, become a lie detector. Do not question the veracity of a participant’s statement, but go deeper. Why did he say that he “tries to not be the dad on the cell phone”? What ideal is not living up to?
Design interventions based on lies could promise to be the most user-accepted designs.