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How to apply 6 principles of journalism to UX research and consulting

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I’m Katie Sola, a senior UX researcher and consultant here at ExperienceLab. In this post, I’ll take you through six principles of journalism that I use as a researcher and consultant.

Before I made the transition into consulting, I started my career in journalism in 2014 and spent three years working as a reporter at Mashable, then the Huffington Post and finally Forbes. I wrote a huge range of pieces, from aggregated stories to original reporting. I also had the privilege of learning from some of the best editors and reporters in the business.

Now that I’m a researcher and consultant, I work for private clients rather than the general public, and my findings are confidential, rather than published and tweeted out to thousands of readers. But I still refer back to these six principles of journalism that I learned as a reporter.

Principle 1: Find the gold coin details

A professor of journalism I studied with at Brown taught me to look for little details that make a story hit home and bring the characters to life for the reader. It’s often a sensory detail, like the way someone ran their hands through their hair, or the sparkling clean surfaces of their home. Gold coin details are powerful because they make the story less abstract.

As a researcher, I now know to look for the little details and the big story at the same time.

I use gold coin details to spark clients’ empathy for participants. For example, a question like “how might we help Elizabeth after she’s shattered her iPhone screen while her child is screaming in the waiting room of A&E” is more powerful than “how might we make A&E more family friendly?”

Principle 2: Structure a narrative around reader questions

When I was drowning in information about urban farming, an editor suggested I structure it around reader questions. The headline sparks interest and makes readers read on. Each new piece of information should raise a new question and answer it.

As a consultant, I use this technique to storyline reports and evaluate when to use which data point.

When we’re drowning in information, I know to take a step back and start with the first question that the reader will have. In our case, it’s often something like “how can we give patients a better experience?” or “what should our new vision and strategy be?” It’s tempting to overload our reports with all the fascinating things we learned in research. For each data point, we can ask ourselves, what question is this data point answering for the client?

Principle 3: Maintain reportorial objectivity  

Traditional newsrooms aimed to strictly separate editorial choices from business decisions, and trained reporters to tell stories using only reported facts. In an ideal world, reporters would have no idea how a newspaper was doing financially, and readers would have no idea how a reporter felt about their story. The advent of digital media has changed these norms. But the principle is the same – reportorial objectivity creates trust with the reader, and makes stories more powerful.

As a researcher, I try to maintain reportorial objectivity, and remember that the purpose of research is to get to the bottom of the facts.

This helps me avoid ethnocentric description, and reduces the emotional wear and tear of challenging interviews. Our research may reveal participant behaviours that we think is unhealthy or counterproductive, or that’s simply different to what we would do. I always double check my reporting and my notes to make sure that the reader can’t tell how you feel about what they’re doing.

Principle 4: Pique readers’ interest with headlines that create a knowledge gap 

Have you ever seen a headline you just couldn’t resist clicking on? I spent a lot of time as a journalist trying to make my headlines as ‘clicky’ as possible. One way to do this is by creating a knowledge gap. For example, ‘7 Reasons This News Matters’ is much clickier than ‘This News Is Important’, because the reader can’t help wondering what those seven reasons are.

As a consultant, I engage my readers with ‘clicky’ slide headers and email subject lines.

I brainstorm with my team to coin great active headers in decks that pull the reader through the narrative, and evaluate what knowledge gap they create. I also boost my chances of getting an email reply by phrasing it as a question. E.g. “Dreaming of travel post-COVID?” or just “Jane & ExperienceLab?”

Principle 5: Fear your editor more than your interviewee

An editor told me this when I admitted to chickening out about asking a source something. Newsrooms are rowdy places and editors can be lacerating. You should always be more afraid of your editor asking why you didn’t ask a tough question than you should be of asking it.

As a researcher, I never want to have to tell a client “I don’t know”.

When an interview is difficult or awkward in any way, I remember the pain of having my manager or a client ask something I can’t answer, because I didn’t push hard enough in the session. Remembering this boosts my perseverance and stops me shying away from difficult questions. That said I never take it too far – our participants’ comfort and safety is more important than getting the killer quote.

Principle 6: Trust, but verify

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” is a journalistic bromide. Journalists need a healthy dose of scepticism to avoid embarrassing mistakes.

As a researcher, I take the same approach to structuring my research questions.

I always question my assumptions when I’m starting a project. It can be useful to interrogate the client’s assumptions at the beginning of the process, in a respectful and productive way. An assumptions matrix can help here too.

In summary

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my thoughts on how my journalistic experience makes me a better researcher and consultant. My colleagues at ExperienceLab have a diverse range of professional experiences. Everyone brings a different kind of expertise to the table, which strengthens our research approach and helps us solve our clients’ toughest problems.




How to use eye-tracking to uncover what consumers really do on your website – and why

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For marketers undertaking customer research, whether an interviewee’s responses are truly genuine or not is always a nagging concern. The answer could be in the eyes – eye tracking technology is a powerful method of understanding how interviewees are using a website or other digital service, and recent technological advancements have made it an increasingly indispensable tool.

It’s become a crucial weapon in our arsenal, helping to provide definitive answers as to whether users’ perception of how they use a service matches up with the reality. When an interviewee says the first thing they look at on an e-commerce page is the photos, is that necessarily true – or are they looking straight at the price? Eye tracking gives a definitive answer.

While any experienced researcher will always work to eliminate ‘distortion factors’ – such as subjects providing motivations that they incorrectly believe to be accurate – the dispassionate evidence that eye tracking provides is key in not just eliminating these inaccuracies, but in finding out why they appear.

In fact, it’s once an interviewee’s assumption about their own activities are proven unreliable that some of the most useful discoveries can be made. It’s at that stage that you can re-interview them about the discrepancies, helping to form a three dimensional understanding of why they did what they did on the site.

What Is Eye Tracking?

But what is eye tracking, and how does it actually work? In the purest sense, eye tracking refers to measuring eye activity of a subject. It works by using a combination of a high resolution camera and what’s called near-infrared light. This light is fired at the centre of the eye, where it reflects off the cornea and is measured by the camera.

In practical terms, this means the eye activity of a subject looking at a webpage can be accurately measured and mapped, and we can get a detailed understanding of what is drawing the eye and when. Applied to a large group of participants, it enables the creation of ‘heat maps’ that show areas that are attracting the eye as the hottest, and the areas users are ignoring – whether consciously or unconsciously – as cool or cold. ‘Gaze plots’ are also possible, and show which areas users look at first, and for how long.

Top, an advert for products similar to the client’s. Bottom, the same image, showing where user’s gaze fell – in this case on the words, rather than the pictures.

Above, a gaze plot. The circles show where users’ gazes were concentrated – the numbers inside them indicating in what order they looked at the areas, and the size of the circles signifying how long they looked at them.

When To Use Eye Tracking

Eye tracking is a powerful tool for e-commerce research where the key goal is to discover what drives user behaviour, and which content and calls to action are truly effective. Are users looking at price first, or are they more concerned with the pictures? Are detailed descriptions useful, or are users ignoring them in favour of customer reviews?

These were some of the questions posed to us recently by a global prestige drinks group, who wanted to better understand what was helping to drive sales of their whisky and champagne products online. Since their strategy is to use third party distributors rather than selling directly, the goal was to gain detailed evidence and understanding of users’ conscious and unconscious criteria when buying – an understanding that could then inform recommendations they could make to their distributors on how their products could best be represented to maximise sales.

This was a perfect opportunity to employ eye tracking, and to understand not only how users thought they shopped for these products online, but how they actually did. More importantly, it would help us understand why there might be a discrepancy between perception and reality.

How We Used Eye Tracking

We undertook research simultaneously in San Francisco, London and Paris for this project, spending over sixty hours talking face to face with participants. We interviewed them in detail about how they bought whiskey and champagne online, then seated them in front of a PC outfitted with eye tracking equipment. They were then challenged to search Google for a bottle of whiskey or champagne in a range of imaginary scenarios – as a gift for someone, for example, or as a treat for themselves – while we logged and tracked the searches to understand the keywords that participants used most.

They were then transferred over to the distributor websites used for the test. Participants were asked to browse the website, finding a whiskey or a champagne suitable for the scenario that we suggested to them. While they did so, we tracked and recorded their eye movements.

As they browsed, we continued the interview with questions about their champagne and whiskey buying habits. Did they buy them often? Did they buy online or in a shop? What influenced their buying decisions?

The interview answers, Google search keywords and eye tracking data were then compiled, analysed and cross-referenced, giving us highly actionable information to supply to our client. The key result for the client is that eye tracking has taken the guesswork out of e-commerce design, providing unequivocal evidence of consumer behaviours and preferences. This means detailed briefs for their distributors, and maximised sales of their products.

Find out how ExperienceLab’s expert researchers and eye-tracking technology could provide empirical evidence upon which to base your future product marketing and development. Contact us.