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Lies: a source of design inspiration

by Sam Ladner on June 28, 2010 · 9 comments

in Blog, anthropology, culture, design, ethnography, home, innovation, interaction design, market research, qualitative research, sociology

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.


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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?”


This is not a clean stove

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.

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Categories: Blog · anthropology · culture · design · ethnography · home · innovation · interaction design · market research · qualitative research · sociology

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Leanne Labelle June 29, 2010 at 9:09 am

I’m very interested in this idea of digging beyond the lie to expose deeper meaning and am wondering how you propose exposing that deeper meaning. In your example of the stove – you need to know that the woman’s stove has actually not been cleaned. Deeper understanding required knowing the truth – being aware of the lie. What happens in an instance when you know a participant is responding based on “should behaviour” and not fact?



2 Sam Ladner June 29, 2010 at 9:14 am

What happens, indeed! There are many choices for the researcher. I often choose to confront the participant with the lie, though this must be done quite carefully. Such as, “That’s interesting that you said the stove is cleaned once a week. Is this a week’s worth of grit?” Oftentimes they do not realize they are lying. They may say things like, “That’s interesting, I never thought about that.” I find this particularly fruitful because it opens a whole line of other kinds of questioning, such as, “Well if you couldn’t clean the stove last week, what got in the way? Would you say it is realistic, then, to clean a stove once a week?”

Sometimes you don’t have time to confront the lie, or maybe the situation is not right, or you simply can’t get the courage to do so. You can reflect on the lie and note the difference between real behaviour and “should” behaviour, and perhaps draw conclusions about that.


3 Hank Delcore June 30, 2010 at 11:12 am

Sam, thanks for the thoughts. Your observations about how we are sometimes very canny about what we are studying hit home. In the past, I’ve given more general explanations of the goals of a study but avoided specifics with participants, not out of epistemological naivete (I agree that we create truth with our participants), but because I don’t want the rote or the common sense to creep into the picture. Coming at it obliquely does help sometimes. But thinking about your call to look at lies – this reminds me of the old lesson, “what people say they do and what they do are often different.” This is one of the main reasons for fieldwork in the first place – to get away from reportage of behavior, which – if the goal is to understand behavior – is so notoriously flawed. Recently talking to a potential client, she said that in her own preliminary investigations, she had found that what the participants said and what they did were different, and my assistant, a former anthro student of mine, said, “That right there is the whole reason for anthropology” – meaning ethnography, I think, but this could be extended to any field-based methodology that requires close up engagement with people. Thanks for this and for kicking off that great thread of discussion on anthrodesign.


4 Sam Ladner June 30, 2010 at 11:25 am

You’re absolutely right, Hank. That is the whole reason for field work! One of these days, I’ll collect every lie I’ve been told in the field, and make a big lie canvas, just to show people what they could potentially miss.


5 Dave July 1, 2010 at 12:55 am

You are saying here that there is a truth, she doesn’t clean her stove. The truth is what let you identify the lie, “i clean it weekly”. “Hey, that’s not true. That is a dirty stove, she is lying right now” – and hence leads you to a very interesting piece of design inspiration.

I think you have taken a great point, “Everyone lies at times. Those lies can be fantastic sources of design inspiration” and went way off track with this odd “But if you assume that the truth is something we create, in tandem with our participants, authenticity or truthfulness become irrelevant concepts” statement that you destroy with your own examples. Not sure what saying that buys you, other than making sure we all know you aren’t judging people for lying or something…


6 Sam Ladner July 1, 2010 at 7:19 am

Hi Dave, I guess I’m trying to say that worrying about “lies” is that that the word itself is pejorative. If someone is “lying,” then we are likely to infer a malicious motivation, or maybe a kind of weakness. But if we simply notice a difference between what actually is and what they perceive, we see something entirely different. We are seeing that the world is not a fixed place, that we are not always the correct judgers of a situation, that reality itself is unstable. When you say, “Reality is unstable,” the notion of “lying” is completely irrelevant.

And, if you assume that reality is unstable, you are never to be fooled again by assuming you have the “right” answer. There are only a multiplicity of answers.


7 Qin Han July 23, 2010 at 10:37 am

Interesting observation Sam, actually I realised that we get a lot of that gray area between lie and truth in teaching (I on a teaching fellow on a post-graduate course for years) and it’s not the student would lie to pass exams, it is that they are trying to meet the expectation of their teacher or even their peers. It is interesting to see people trying to answer a question, in very interpretive terms, trying to hit the ‘jackpot’. Sometimes, people ‘lie’ to present the ‘truth’ in a way that they believe is proper to others.



8 Sam Ladner July 25, 2010 at 8:23 am

Very interesting analogy, Qin. I hadn’t thought about it that way. You seem to be saying normativity affects all sorts of performances, even academic ones! Interesting.


9 Qin Han July 27, 2010 at 6:58 am

definitely, I mean especially in field like art and design, where thing are interpretive and you never have a ‘right’ answer for many things. The notion of ‘multiplicity of answers’ is an interesting one to understand performances. I mean a student test is not that far away from a user test, because the teacher is trying to figure out what they can do to support student develop the capacity they need. And teachers don’t know what to do till they have some test running – not to judge right or wrong, but to find out what’s missing.

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