James recently gave a talk at the Polish IA Summit on How Context Effects Behaviour. One of the stories from his presentation outlines that there is a lot that usability experts can learn from cockroaches. The background of the story comes from Dan Ariely’s latest book “The Upside of Irrationality”.
Usability experts often forget the affect context has on human behaviour. Most usability evaluations are still carried out in labs with an evaluator peering over the participants shoulder. And the affect that the evaluator may have on the participant’s performance is often forgotten about.
But even simple creatures such as cockroaches are affected by another cockroach watching them while carrying out a task.
In his book, Dan describes an experiment that was carried out by 3 scientists in 1969. Zajonc, Heingartner, and Herman evaluated how fast cockroaches could accomplish a task in 2 different test conditions. In the first, they were alone. No other cockroaches were around. In the second, the social condition, they had an audience. Another cockroach was watching them through a Plexiglas window that allowed both creature to see and smell one another, but that did not allow any direct contact.
What the experiment found was that, carrying out an easy task – simply walking down the length of a corridor – the performance of the cockroach in the social condition increased. They walked down the corridor faster.
However, when carrying out a difficult task – navigating through a complex maze – the cockroach in the social condition performed worse.
This is an example how context affects behaviour. It is not just a trait that affects humans, but even for cockroaches’ behaviour is affected by changing external conditions.
Of course Dan Ariely does not generalise the findings from research with cockroaches to humans. He carried out many other experiments that looked at how bonuses affect behaviour. Bonuses change the social context too. People plan in advance what they will do with their bonus – go on holiday, buy a car, a present for their partner.
What Dan found in his experiments was that bonuses are a tricky business to get right. If the bonus is too great, the pressure on the person becomes too great and they actually perform worse.
Changing the social context in which we evaluate websites and design, will change the way people behave.
Lab testing has value to get in depth interviews with participants. However, for evaluating people’s real behaviour on a website as well as their performance, usability experts should look to compliment their tool box with methods such as our un-moderated remote usability testing tool Webnographer, where people participate from their natural environment without an evaluator being present.
Dan Ariely “The upside of irrationality – The unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home,” (2010): 17-52
Robert Zajonc, Alexander Heingartner, and Edward Herman, “Social Enhanacement and Impairement of performance in the Cockraoch,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 13, no. 2 (1969): 83-92