I sat contorting my shoulder towards my ear, a frantic balancing act, while I pounded the keyboard of my rundown Windows desktop. On the other end of the line was an A-list celebrity, and I had barely 15 minutes for her pre-interview. She was set to appear on our nationally syndicated talk show the next day, where her interview would be seen by millions of people across the country. The quality of our 15 minutes together would inform the majority of her on-screen interview the following day. I was nervous, but prepared.
I started my post-college career in television talk show research. While I did not know it at the time, television research proved to be the perfect training ground for my next career, in User Experience.
Talk shows rely on research to inform content, understand competing markets, and discover unique and exclusive information. Similarly, UX design relies on research to discern user thoughts and goals, understand competing products, and uncover unique design solutions. In both cases, common research methodologies such as competitive analysis, interviews, and storytelling are used to reach the desired results.
In this article, we’ll first look at how television talk shows are produced while exploring some specific television research methodologies. Then we will compare those research methodologies to similar UX practices. Specifically, this article will demonstrate how television talk show research informs and enriches UX research practices through its emphasis on:
- competitive analysis
- interview question style
- the power of storytelling
How do television talk shows work?
In order for a talk show to be competitive in the ratings, there must be a guest. Television guests are brought in by talent bookers and assigned to a producing team. The team then works to create a show around that guest, beginning with in-depth research. The research is parsed and distilled by the producers who go on to select topics and talking-points. The producer then conducts a pre-interview with the guest, typically a day or two before the show tapes, to uncover further details. At the conclusion of the pre-interview, the producer writes questions for the host to ask during the on-camera interview. The power of the final product relies heavily on the quality of the research. User Experience Designers would agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment.
Conducting competitive analyses
On most production teams, there is a designated researcher position. The researcher’s primary task is to create a “guest packet” for the producers. This packet on the show guest consists primarily of information from third party sources and often includes biographical information, career highlights, filmographies, hobbies, skills, and interests—but most importantly, the packet includes information from competing talk shows. It’s crucial to understand how the guest was interviewed in the past, so that the production team can discern what sorts of questions and topics the guest will respond well to. As a result, a critical portion of the guest packet is dedicated to previous interview coverage from print, radio, and television appearances.
When I moved into the UX world, I found that the process of creating in-depth research packets was much the same as the process for conducting a competitive analysis: exploring and understanding competing companies, products, and services. In the same way that it is important to know what a guest talked about on competing shows, it is crucial for designers to understand what competitors are doing within the same market and how their offerings and strategies may differ, for better or worse. The Nielsen Norman Group defines the goals of competitive analysis as, “allow[ing] you to take an in-depth look at how others solve the same design problems. The goal of any competitive evaluation is to see what competitors are doing, how they’re doing it, what’s working and what’s not.” Such strategies are great initial research activities, again because they provide much needed context. If a competitor’s strategy failed, it should not be repeated. The best way to keep from repeating a competitor’s mistake, is to know about it in the first place.
While user-centered design focuses on user needs/tasks, and information architecture focuses on content, these two aspects alone offer an incomplete picture. What is missing is the context.
-Jason Withrow, Boxes and Arrows.
Here, Withrow explains that it is this deeper exploration that provides the context and in turn, sets up the background for the user research plan. A television interview would never begin production without the producing team first understanding the guest’s context. The same should hold true for the development of a new product.
In the talk show world, the pre-interview is a designated time with the show guest, used to help fill in the research holes and hopefully uncover “exclusive content” that has not been shared on television before.
When interviewing a guest, the goal is to sift out the best and most useful information. This is the same goal UX practitioners have in mind when interviewing a user. It is important to firstly engage the subject by creating a conversational tone. People are more comfortable and open when having a conversation, rather than sitting on the receiving end of an intensive interrogation. The other key component is to ask smart, pointed questions.
A sure-fire way to get useful answers from an interview subject is to ask open-ended, non-leading questions. The interview subject should do the vast majority of the talking. Interviewers can only absorb and learn as much as they hear, so silence is key.
In my experience as a talk show researcher it was clear that a pre-interview with a random show producer was not always high on a guest’s priority list. As a result, there was little excitement or effort typically exerted, at least initially, on the other end of the phone. Therefore, it was my job to tease the information out. The combination of open-ended questions along with palpable silences tended to do the trick. Most people are uncomfortable in long silences. Therefore, if a guest did not answer a question thoroughly enough, I learned to wait a few beats for them to continue. It was in this moment that some of the most candid information was revealed.
These interview tactics translate perfectly across disciplines and are commonly utilized by UX researchers in user interviews. UX practitioners ask open-ended questions and maintain silences to provide users time to think through their answers. Active listening allows the interviewer to pick up on body language or vocal tonalities that in turn, give the interviewer time to digest and ask insightful follow-up questions. Overall, interview tactics give both the interviewer and the interviewee time to connect in a more thoughtful and engaging manner.
The power of storytelling
Dr. Susan Weinschenk has a Ph.D. in Psychology, and is an expert in usability. In her book, Neuro Web Design: What Makes Them Click, she asserts that stories are so powerful that just hearing the word “story” is enough to grab someone’s attention. Weinschenk goes on to emphasize the enormous role that stories play in our everyday lives and how nearly every interaction human beings have with each other consists of some form of storytelling.
The storytelling tactic during pre-interviews proved extremely useful in engaging with a show guest and later the television audience. Nearly all people relate to stories. Therefore, a successful question during the pre-interview phone call usually began with “Tell me a story about a time…” Such questions led to the most interesting and unique responses.
This is a win-win for everyone. The guest can easily talk about a topic that does not require much strain to recall, and the show audience can engage with the content more strongly because it is easily processed and stored in the brain. Weinshenk discusses how stories activate numerous parts of the brain including the auditory, visual, and emotional centers. Television is an exceedingly powerful medium when it touches each one of these chords. This is why producers will tell their staff time and time again to, “Find me a great story!”
Human beings use storytelling as a means to relate to one another. User experience designers rely on storytelling to understand their users. UX tools, like scenarios and user journeys, represent research findings through stories in an understandable and digestible manner. Scenarios provide a context and understanding for the user’s motivations and actions. Scenarios can be used throughout the entire design process and serve as a constant reminder of where the user is, in their day, and why they are interacting with the product. On a similar note, a user journey traces a user’s path through a product, typically noting thoughts, feelings, and pain points. When such information is presented as a story, it makes the UX research accessible and easily understandable.
In short, stories are a universal way to connect with all kinds of people. In the same way that great stories on television draw people in and captivate them, great UX “stories” captivate us as designers, and help us connect to our users. Stories are also easily understood, and can therefore help UX practitioners connect with people outside of UX (i.e. developers or stakeholders) through a common language.
While it is obviously not realistic for everyone to get a day job as a television researcher before becoming a UX Designer, there are some great resources to expand and diversify user experience research skills:
- When watching a talk show, pay close attention to the questions that are asked and try to think about where and how the research for that question was discovered. When developing user research questions, imagine being a talk show researcher and getting background information for an interview.
- Read more about the influence of other mediums on user experience, such as that of film editing.
- Read Susan Weinschenk’s book Neuro Web Design: What Makes Them Click to get a deeper understanding on the power of storytelling and to better discern psychological motivations of users.
- Share stories (yes, stories), even if it is just with co-workers, because everyone brings a unique background and perspective to her work. It is that perspective which truly enriches the UX community.
UX research - or as it’s sometimes called, design research - informs our work, improves our understanding, and validates our decisions in the design process. In this Complete Beginner's Guide, readers will get a head start on how to use design research techniques in their work, and improve experiences for all users.