Although I interned in a usability lab while a psychology undergrad at University of Maryland, my undergraduate senior honors thesis was actually in the field of cognitive neuropsychology. Specifically, I conducted in-depth qualitative research on patients with frontal lobe damage, focusing on their ability (or in most cases, lack of ability) to perceive the emotional states of others. Emotional perception has thus been an interest of mine for a long time.

I am frequently impressed by my children’s perceptive awareness of the emotions of others – not only others who are close to them, but others who they do not necessarily know very well. In many ways, it mirrors one of my own strengths – perceiving and staying in tune with others’ emotional states.

But that strength, I’ve discovered, can also be a weakness. Similar to what I sometimes observe in my children, too much emotion, particularly negative emotion, can be overwhelming to the senses. I’ve also noticed that interacting with someone else who is emotionally perceptive can cause an unstable back-and-forth emotional feedback loop.

So is emotional awareness a good thing or a bad thing when doing user research? I have heard colleagues argue that usability testing should represent real “scientific observation.” Ideally, the user experience researcher should be hidden as much as possible. In the best case, the user researcher should be in a separate room and should give directions using a “voice of God” technique, that is, short instructions sent over an intercom. The user experience researcher should not allow “feeling” to get in the way of an impartial assessment of the participant’s interaction with any given interface.

Well known author Steve Krug recommends making recordings without a picture-in-picture of the participant. He argues that the picture-in-picture view distracts from the actual user behavior. But does this really make sense? It does if you believe that usability research is focused on the interface and the actions, but not on the person. I don’t think that this is necessarily a wrong angle, but it certainly does not resonate with me.

What I love about the usability testing that I often do is that I get to share time with someone as they interact with a web interface. But I don’t just get to observe their actions. Rather, by staying in tune with their emotions, I get to feel what they feel, and thus better see the interface through their eyes. Although I heard a recent talk where this more “touchy feely” approach to usability was spoken of positively, this is not necessarily a mainstream view.

I submit, however, that there is no one right answer. The end goal is to understand how to improve the system. For some people, the value of emotion is negated by the deviation from “pure science,” but for others like myself, the emotional layer of usability testing is something to be embraced.

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