Within user research, there are various cognitive biases that can mislead both the researcher and the participants (unintentionally). They can be present in both the session moderation (through the questions that may bias the participants) and the final presentation of findings (through poorly crafted statements that can mislead the audience/stakeholder). This article will focus on one particular cognitive bias within UX research, the framing effect, along with its nature, potential occurrence, and strategies for mitigation.
What is a Frame?
Nelson and Norman describe a frame as “the context used to describe an idea, question, or decision. Frames heavily influence our interpretations and conclusions by emphasizing (or ignoring) certain aspects of a situation.”
A frame affects decisions by focusing on certain pieces of available information. When presented with the same information, but phrased differently, the audience can arrive at different decisions. One example is marketing:
- A product can phrase an attribute positively (this cleaning wipe kills 99% of all germs!)
- Or phrase the same attribute negatively (only 1% of germs survive after this wipe!)
While the attribute is the same between two phrases (kills 99% of germs, lets 1% live), a customer can be affected to prefer one version over the other. In this case, the conventional practice is positive phrasing.
Mitigating the Framing Effect in UX Research
For UX researchers, the framing effect can commonly manifest in two ways; first when presenting a question to participants, and second when presenting findings to stakeholders. When speaking to a participant, the phrasing of the researcher’s discussion guide can affect the participants’ responses. For example:
- What was positive about your experience using the prototype?
- Tell me what you liked about your experience?
- “What parts of the interface drive you up the wall?”
When a discussion guide is designed without care, the questions can lead the participant to answer in a certain way. The first two sample questions above, while mostly innocuous, tend toward the positive experience, while the third sample leans towards the negative. When presenting findings of the research, the framing effect can also affect the stakeholders, in much the same way as the marketing example mentioned earlier:
- 80% of the participants rated the prototype highly
- 20% of the participants rated the prototype poorly
Having only one of these two statements can affect the stakeholders’ decision making either positively (“Oh 80% of the participants liked the design. We should use it!”) or negatively (“Oh 20% of the participants hated the design. We should change it”).
Strategies for Mitigating the Framing Effect
Strategies for mitigating framing are, in short, giving other frames an opportunity to be considered. For participants, having neutral language in the study questions (“Tell you me about your experience.”) and giving participants the time to consider all parts of their experience (start with the “what do you like” question, then following up with the “what do you not like” question) can help the participants provide an unbiased and complete response.
When presenting findings, explaining all facets of the findings (“80% of the participants rated the prototype highly, but the other 20% have these common issues”) can give a more complete picture to help the stakeholders make more informed decisions. In a sense, a presentation of research findings should provide more than one frame, and allow the audience an opportunity and time to take their time and consider all relevant perspectives (another word for “frames,” really).