Versions of the Truth

When doing user research we often talk about mental models and peoples versions of the truth. What I mean by this is the fact that what you think is a universal truth is often quite different for someone else.

Here is an example.

In my office we have bins dotted round in useful positions. Each one has at least two sides normally split between general waste (which has a lid, because this stuff is normally a bit smelly) and recyclable waste (which is left open).

It drives me crazy to see what people have put under recyclable - plastic food wrappers, tissues and banana skins, things that really cannot be recycled, just because they cannot be bothered to lift the lid on the general waste bin. And there really is no excuse - there is a list on each bin of the things which can be put in each side.

So I found it very interesting when this got brought up in conversation last week. Someone who I have seen putting unrecyclable things in a recycle bin said,

"It doesn’t matter which bin I use as the chap who empties them just puts it all in the same bin anyway."

But as I thought more about this I could not help but wonder if he does this because the bins are so badly mixed up that there is not any point in separating them because they are all contaminated. (Or he might just be lazy as my colleague thinks.)

So you can see there are several different versions of the truth here.

  • There is my assumption that people are lazy and this is why they do not bother to separate their rubbish.
  • There is my colleagues truth, based on something she saw.
  • And there is our cleaners version of the truth (which is an assumption until we speak to him)

Which one is right?

Well each person believes they are right, and if I was trying to design a solution, for instance to get people to use the correct bins, my solution would fail if I did not know about all these different truths.

It is only by combining them that we get the full truth, but we can only get to this place if we are willing to speak to people and do a little research.

And changing people’s beliefs is really difficult, so we need to take this into account in our designs too. In this case we would want to communicate to staff what was happening and how this will change and why, emphasising their part in this.

It is so easy to make assumptions about anything and everything, we really need to remember this when doing research so we get to the real problem and not what we think the problem might be.