Twice this week I’ve advised different colleagues to ignore most of what research participants say when the statement begins with “If I”. So I thought I’d write a short note about it.

“If I was less IT literate”

This one is quite common. People see something they understand, but believe others wouldn’t. When you’re with a research participant, it’s usually them you are interested in and not their hypotheses about other people.

There may be valid reasons for speaking to one type of person because they are the closest contact you can get to the person you’d really like to speak to. But when you do that, you’re not asking them to become that other person.

If you want to know how someone less IT literate or with less domain knowledge uses your designs, then recruit them into your research and find out first-hand.

“If I were thinking of/doing…”

Sometimes your participant is trying to flex the scenario you’ve given them. They think that everything they say is of equal value to you, so they hypothesise about other scenarios based on things they experience in the one you’ve given them. They want to give you as much juice as possible and are trying to be helpful.

What they are saying might be true, but equally it might not. Concentrate on their behaviour and knowledge, and how it relates to the current scenario.

“If I hadn’t…”

They are trying to reinvent history and explaining if something they had experienced or done in the past hadn’t happened, then they might have trouble at the present point. If their parents hadn’t had special hugs that night then they wouldn’t be talking to you right now. But they did and they are, deal with this dimension, not parrallel ones.

It’s not Sliding Doors, the version of themselves at that present point is the person you are interested in. They learned some stuff in the course of the scenario which helped them later on, that’s what happens when people use stuff.

An exception to this is when you’ve given them a few task scenarios and one of the previous ones has taught them stuff about the current one. That’s one for your judgement and it’s why I recommend you begin with your most important task.

What to do

It’s a question of judgment what to do when this happens. You can give some sort of feedback that this was useful, in the hope they quickly move on. A nod, “uh-huh”, “I see” or take a note. I have a code for the notes I’m actually interested in reading back at a later point and the rest I take just to cement things into my brain.

Just don’t write anything you wouldn’t want them to read, because if they are close enough, some will try to read what you’re writing.

The problem with this approach though is giving positive feedback to their hypothesising is rewarding the behaviour. If you reward it, they might keep doing it, so instead I tend to say something like this

“At this point I’m more interested in you than other people, so let’s concentrate on what you do or don’t understand”


“We might get on to that scenario later, but let’s concentrate on this one for the time being”

There might be very many valid reasons for you to take note of what someone says when it begins with “If I”. But it’s a good indicator to ask yourself what you should do with what you hear next.

What do you think?

Have I missed an example? Do you disagree? Let me know in the comments.

If you agree and are helping people run their own research then perhaps you could share this with them.

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Independent UX consultant |

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