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Observing the behavior of users is one of the essential things we do in UX design. Doing so also has an impact on individual behavior. 

In this article, Hawthorne Effect UX Design, we will discuss why this effect is common in user research. This article aims to help you understand to moderate its impact when it comes to your user research and design.

This article also covers the following sub-topics:

Before we discuss today’s topic, let me give you a scenario. 

Imagine that you are in an office setup. The company CEO came and discussed with you a little experiment conducting to increase productivity. 

The experiment involves replacing the office light with new and better lighting to see if this affects productivity study. 

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During your break time, you discussed with the officemates about the experiment. 

On the day of the experiment study, you decrease the lighting in your place, and some of your officemates also did the same after knowing that they can control the lights. 

After the experiment, you and your officemates discussed the results.

So, what do you think are the results of this office experiment? Will it see an increase in productivity? You and your officemates will probably assume that all lighting conditions are the same and that the results show an increase in productivity levels. 

The peculiar result

In this little experiment, it really does not matter whether the lighting is increased, decreased, or the same. More likely, all of you in the office reported the same levels of increased productivity.

However, as soon as the experiment has ended, all of you in the office will find that you’ve returned to your everyday routines. The productivity levels will be just the same as it was before the experiment.

What is the Hawthorne effect?

This scenario is what you call the Hawthorne effect. It is a term referring to the tendency of people to work harder or perform better in the experiment process.

This effect suggests that individuals may change their behaviors because of the attention they are receiving from the observers and not because of the changes of the independent variables.

Where it began

The term Hawthorne effect is first coined in 1958 by Henry A. Landsberger during investigative user research that we performed between 1924 and 1932 in Hawthorne Works, a factory based in Chicago.

Landsberger’s research and investigation concluded that productivity improved when the work environment was altered, such as lighting changes, working hours, and breaks. 

The workers were still productive even when the lights were dimmed. The project observation research showed that by enabling workers with the knowledge of altering the work environment, even the littlest changes, the working hours and productivity performance improved.   

The researchers concluded that given the knowledge of these changes, cthe thought that the administration is experimenting on the working conditions with higher profitability triggered and influence the workers to act on the expected outcome.

There are so many studies on the Hawthorne effect, and many also have conflicting conclusions. 

Regardless of the controversy, when it comes to user experience research, the Hawthorne effect can have significant implications that we should know and avoid.

Why it matters in UX

In User Experience, we discussed that user testing and testing are only valid when it was conducted with proper experimental strategies. In light of this, if you will observe your users for human research, you need to know that observation can significantly impact the user’s behavior. 

This, when the user changes behavior during the testing, is a sign of a Hawthorne effect, and the results will not be realistic. The bigger problem lies with these faulty findings that may be used in the UX design decisions, leading to a product that may not solve an existing problem. 

In short, the Hawthorne effect likely gives designers false reports that do not necessarily reflect the users’ reality daily. 

How to minimize or avoid the Hawthorne effect

As UX designers, we all know that usability testing plays a significant role in the success of a website, product, or app. It also plays an essential role in the conversation rate. Thus, lessening the Hawthorne effect is also a crucial step to your product’s success. 

There are a number of ways we can lessen its effect or avoid this phenomenon ever happening: 

Use the right tools

The proper testing tools enable us in conducting user tests in the comforts of their own homes. They have immediate access to these tools whenever they want to use them at the start of the test. These test tools also help in walkthroughs, assisting participants anytime when they are ready to take the test. 

Since users can do the testing in their homes, on their own online devices, it eliminates the problem of them being watched. The users can feel comfortable taking the test and not feel nervous at all, which also helps remove any bias.

Using tools also eliminates observation in real-time. This way, users are not pressured on whether they are doing the test correctly or not.

This helps in making users comfortable, and in return, they can provide us with more authentic test answers.  

Keep the users unaware of the expectations

You need to keep your users from getting the idea on what to expect from your usability research. If we can keep our participants unaware of our expectations, we can reduce and avoid the Hawthorne effect and hope that they provide us with accurate and unbiased usability results. 

Avoid giving cues

Another problem that we see and can result in the Hawthorne effect is giving cues to the users. Design researchers sometimes make the mistake of providing clues to what they hope to find in the results. 

As a result of this, users may alter their behaviors just to give you what they think is the correct answer.

So, it is essential that you do not make the expected answer evident to your users. 

To avoid this from happening, you can set tasks with open-ended questions, so you won’t give clues to your users. 

Make short but clear introductions

When making introductions, try only to make your users aware of what their mindset should be. For example, you can only say, “You are a user who is looking to book a taxi using this application.”

Make your introductions short, simple, and precise. 

Conduct a longer follow up period

A longer follow-up period can pave the way to examine user behavior, which helps us see whether this behavior is sustained in time.

You can also compare if the behavior only exists in a short time or it changes over a more extended period. If the user behavior only exists within a short period, then your user may be displaying a Hawthorne effect. But if the user behavior is seen throughout a more extended period, then the Hawthorne effect is irrelevant in this case. 

Always be on the lookout

The design researchers should always be on the lookout for users who may display the Hawthorne effect. If you spot one, it is best to remove it and replace it with a new user. 

The takeaway

Now that we know what the Hawthorne effect is and how it can potentially contribute to unreliable results to our user research design, we can do something about it to minimize its impact or to altogether avoid this from happening.

The suggestions that we have provided in this article are helpful enough for you to use and check when you conduct your usability research and design testing. 

Minimizing the Hawthorne effect gives you a greater chance of creating a valuable and satisfying product design for the end-user, which also delivers a great user experience for them.

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Mary Ann Dalangin

About the author

A content marketing strategist and a UX writer with years of experience in the digital marketing industry.

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