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Understanding the Hawthorne Effect in User Experience Research

The Hawthorne effect, also known as the observer bias, is a phenomenon where individuals modify their behavior when they know they are being observed. While the effect has been widely studied, there are questions about the validity of the original experiments from which the effect gained its name. However, the impact of the Hawthorne effect can be seen in many aspects of modern management practices, including promoting desirable behaviors and measuring employee satisfaction. In user-experience research, the Hawthorne effect can influence observation of users in a variety of settings. In this article, we will discuss the Hawthorne effect in UX research and strategies to mitigate its influence.

What is the Hawthorne Effect?

The Hawthorne effect is the tendency for individuals to modify their behavior when they are being observed. The effect is named after a series of studies carried out in the 1920s at the Western Electric phone-manufacturing plant in Hawthorne, which aimed to understand how different lighting conditions impacted productivity. Despite challenges to the validity of the original studies, the impact of the Hawthorne effect can still be seen in management practices today.

The Hawthorne Effect in UX Research

The Hawthorne effect can occur in all types of user research, including field studies and user testing. Participants may modify their behavior to appear more positive or desirable, leading to inaccurate observations. Below, we discuss strategies to mitigate the effect in both field studies and user testing.

Mitigation Strategies for Field Studies

Field studies can be a valuable tool for UX research, allowing researchers to understand how users live, work, and interact with technology in their natural environment. However, participants may be hesitant to show their true behaviors if they believe they are being judged. To address this issue, researchers can employ the following strategies:

1. Do not make people feel judged: A judgment-free environment is essential for accurate observations. Researchers should avoid making participants feel guilty or ashamed, which can lead to self-censoring behaviors.

2. Consider longer sessions: Longer sessions can build rapport and encourage participants to feel more comfortable around researchers. This, in turn, can help reduce the Hawthorne effect by enabling participants to return to their default routines.

Mitigation Strategies for User Testing

User testing can be susceptible to the Hawthorne effect, as participants may modify their behavior to please the moderator or appear more competent. Strategies for mitigating the effect in user testing include:

1. Design natural task scenarios: To reduce the impact of the Hawthorne effect, researchers should design task scenarios that are familiar to users, rather than completely novel ones. This can help reduce the pressure to perform in a certain way.

2. Ease people into testing: Small talk and subtle feedback can help participants feel more at ease during testing. However, moderators should be careful not to be overly friendly, as this can lead to participants modifying their behavior to please the moderator.


The Hawthorne effect can impact user experience research in a variety of settings, leading to inaccurate observations. However, by employing strategies such as creating a judgment-free environment and designing natural task scenarios, researchers can mitigate the effect and obtain more accurate data. Ultimately, understanding and addressing the Hawthorne effect is essential for conducting successful user experience research.

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