Unbiased questions for everyone

I was speaking once to a user researcher about her work. One of the things she mentioned was the importance of asking unbiased questions. When she said this she was referring to survey questions, and making sure surveys are designed well. This is important because a question that’s accidentally biased can yield misleading results, and that can lead to costly mistakes, such as follow-up research in the wrong area, or important information remaining hidden.

For example asking, “How much of an improvement is the new feature?” is probably not as useful as asking “How has the new feature impacted your work?” The former biases the answer towards an assumed improvement; the latter is much more open.

But asking unbiased questions is an important skill for many of us, too.

It isn’t just important when we want to introduce ideas into our workplace and want to test out those ideas with others. It’s also important when someone is telling us something that seems significant or sensitive. If we want to probe further then asking a question in the wrong way can lead the conversation in the wrong direction.

One of the most useful insights for me here was when I first learned about Clean Language. The core belief behind this is that we often unconsciously introduce our own bias into conversations, particularly when we start using words which the other person has not used.

For example, if someone says “I was having a really hard time getting heard” we might respond with, “Well, sometimes it’s difficult to be assertive.” But this may not be an issue of assertiveness; it might be about speaking without being understood, or something else.

When we start introducing words and phrases we are also introducing our own meanings and mental models associated with those words and phrases that may not match those of the other person. Clean Language encourages us to match our phrasing with that of the other person. Even without being trained in the technique, I find it very useful to recognise that introducing new phrasings can lead to bias.

If we can be neutral when we ask questions then we’re much more likely to get the most useful information.

Photo by World Bank Photo Collection