UX of Social Desirability

We all want to be liked. Even people who "DGAF" unconsciously fall to the pressure in certain situations. One of those being self-report, direct interviews (not the kind where you can make comments and hide behind a computer).

This is called the social desirability bias: users/participants will respond in a way they feel will make them look better to others.

An example: If you are to ask someone directly (either on the phone or in-person), they tend to report higher levels of satisfaction than they would if asked anonymously

I've done it. During my graduate studies, everyone would help out each other by participating in each other's studies. And, no matter what, I wanted to "do things right" even if there was no right way.

Regardless of how many F's user's give, when in a lab setting, or over the phone, they are more likely to tell someone what they believe you want to hear by under-reporting unfavorable behavior and over-reporting good behavior or feelings.

They aren't weak or bowing to peer pressure, its an unconscious psychological effect.


So what does social desirability have to do with UX?

In the realm of user research & data analysis, a lot. It can skew data and give false positives that might indicate a product is doing much better than the user's actually feel. This effects a study's validity and the ability to generalize your finds to the larger population.

It can lead to:
*Not improving something that needs to be changed
*Lack of iteration
*Absence of direction
*Losing customers for "no foreseeable reason"
*Decrease in ROI
*Low team morale due to lack of solutions & understanding
*Spinning wheels

These are things everyone wants to avoid. And, luckily, there are solutions.

Social desirability bias solutions:

  • Collect data anonymously by assigning numbers to participants 
  • Make it very clear to participants that all data is anonymous & confidential
  • Leave the room (or sit far enough away) while participants fill out surveys 
  • Utilize the "think out-loud" concept in conjunction with moderated interviews
  • Avoid phone calls - send anonymous email surveys instead
  • Offer participants the choice to take a post-test survey when they get home (although this might contribute to significant drop-off rate)
  • Empathize with the participant by making them as comfortable as possible - they may be nervous in a lab/testing situation 
  • Use an anonymous online testing service to distribute surveys (such as Qualtrics)

Remember, data is not helpful without validity & the ability to synthesize and take action


Have you ever encountered social desirability bias - either with a participant or with yourself?

How would you recommend avoiding social desirability bias?

Nikki AndersonComment