Don’t use one way mirrors for ux research

Do you use one way mirror labs? Do you value research that gets you the best results? Then you might want to re-consider using one way mirrors. Here’s why…

Talking to users is fascinating! It’s something I still love doing despite having conducted thousands of them over the last 10 years. When it comes to location, you can test almost anywhere but there’s one place that I now advise against, and that’s one way mirror labs.

What is a one way mirror lab?

A one way mirror lab (also known as two way) consists of two adjoining rooms with a mirror between them. One room is used to interview people and the mirror functions as a normal mirror from this side. On the other side of the mirror is the observation room where people watch the research taking place, from this side the mirror behaves as a window, enabling the observers to secretly observe what’s happening in the research room.

The negative consequences for research

I’ve used this setup many times and I’ve sat on both sides of the mirror. These are the problems:

Nervous users

As a researcher you should always tell the participant that there are observers behind the mirror. However, if I say to you now, don’t think of a pink elephant, the first thing you think about is a pink elephant. In psychology we call this the Ironic Process Theory or the White Bear Principle and it refers to the human tendency to continue to think about something after being told not to think about it.

So we’re ethically bound to tell people there are people behind the mirror but by doing that their attention is being drawn to it. Many users are fine with this and they’ll forget about the mirror. There are other users who will interview ok but afterwards they will mention how they felt like they were being watched and finally, some people simply do not interview well. They may appear nervous, glance at the mirror throughout, whisper some answers to you because they don’t want the people behind the mirror to hear any negative feedback, etc. And the mirror is a difficult thing for people to get over once they have a problem with it, because it’s such a huge object in the room and therefore a constant reminder.

Ask yourself, wouldn’t you feel uncomfortable knowing there were people watching you behind a mirror in the room?

Positively biased responses

If you knew there were a group of people watching you behind a mirror wouldn’t you be more inclined to give positive responses and to withhold negative opinions? But it’s really important that we understand negative feedback in order to make things better.

Sound leakage

Your observers need to be relatively quiet. I’ve seen labs provide headphones so that observers can turn audio volume up without sound leaking into the testing suite.

When two rooms are next to each other, it’s impossible to soundproof them completely. If the observers next door get quite loud, the sound can leak into the adjoining room. This can be fatal if they laugh and the user hears this. In some labs, the doors don’t close quietly either – this is then another reminder to the participant that there are people watching them.

Noisy cameras

One way mirror labs almost always have cameras that can be controlled in the observation room. These aren’t always silent though. You might be in the middle of a really interesting insight when suddenly you hear the buzz of the camera. Off-putting to say the least and yet another reminder to the user that they are being watched.

Dark, uninspiring observation room where no one speaks

Observation rooms in labs are awful places really. There are no windows and therefore no natural light, the lights have to be turned off (otherwise you can see straight through the mirror) so it’s a dark, dull, uninspiring room to be sat in all day. In one way mirror labs sometimes the observers can be much quieter than in labs without a mirror, because you can see how close the participant is to you.

The problem is these are great setups for observing research, especially focus groups, not UX research. If you have a team of designers observing research, the one thing they’re guaranteed to want to do is sketch, but how do they do that well when they’re sat in a dark room? It’s not an environment that encourages team collaboration, makes a team feel energised, inspired and creative. Conversation and teamworking should be encouraged – now’s the perfect time for the team to collaborate and get to work on designs.

Ironically, no one really observes what’s happening through the mirror!

We spend most of our time watching the TV screens, which give us consistent detail, clarity and control. The glass, for all its glamour, doesn’t always fulfil its worth.

In UX research, the most important interaction to focus on is that between the user and what’s being tested, and in this regard you can’t see anything through the mirror, the detail is through the cameras pointing at what the user is doing. Therefore, the majority of the time, observers are focussed on the tv screen – where the action is. Compare it to UX design…if you want the users attention to focus on something you might give it a more central position, make it bigger, put everything else around it. So when the UI is the most important thing for people to observe, why do labs show this on a small tv screen and give the highest visual prominence in the room to the mirror? It’s crazy!

The solution

The alternative, better solution is to use two rooms that have all the same technology to record and observe the user and their interaction but in the observation room, there are TV screens and no mirror. GDS (Government Digital Services) also use this setup which you can see here. Without a mirror, you’ll get better insights from your more relaxed users and the observation room can now be a creative haven. You can turn up the lights, have natural daylight (windows), have dynamic team discussions and work together on sketches and ideas.

It suddenly becomes an exciting and inspiring workshop to turn user feedback into better designs! And this, is the whole purpose of user research.

A note from me:

This is a post I recently published on Linkedin Pulse. If you like it, you can follow my future posts or connect with me Linkedin

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