User Research: Holistic Profiling

lizard-brain-300x300People are weird.

People are more weird when they are anxious.

People get anxious about all sorts of things.

This is my tin-pot theory (well more of a metaphor), using the Triune Brain theory by Paul D. McLean, a neuroscientist. Mclean initiated the concept of the Reptilian Brain, which keeps us alive, the Mammalian Brain which enables us to feel emotions and the Frontal Cortex or Rational Brain which allows us to problem solve & apply logic to situations we encounter.  When people are happy the Reptilian triunebrainBrain slumbers, with one eye open.  When people are extremely anxious, their Reptilian Brain awakes in an instant and takes over.   The Reptilian brain is horrible. It does not feel, it just acts.  Decisively.   the Reptilian Brain has only one interest:



In such circumstances, the Reptilian brain will deploy any means available to it in order to eliminate the threat that it rightly, or wrongly, has identified as posing a clear and present danger.  It is irrational, selfish, cruel and heartless.

Sometimes, when a person is mildly anxious, the Reptilian brain doesn’t overwhelm the other 2 brains.  It just talks to the limbic brain (which deals with the emotions – roughly speaking) and the Frontal Cortex (which deals with logic, language and planning).  The Reptile becomes devious – it works from the inside out.  It cajoles the Limbic Brain and persuades the Frontal cortex to conspire with it to distract the person from the task which is making them anxious.  This means that the person avoids the matter which has caused the mild anxiety and allows the Reptile to return to its watchful slumber.  Their avoidance can sometimes appear quite logical and compelling, yet ultimately boil down to a socially acceptable Reptilian response to whatever issue is causing them to feel anxious.

Mild anxiety can be really debilitating because it saps people of their resilience and occupies their rational brain, preventing them from engaging with the world in the way they would ordinarily do.  Some people are only anxious in certain situations. Often those are the very situations which mean that they need to engage with Government, increasingly through digital means.

I’m interested in how we design services to help mitigate against those low level anxieties and engage meaningfully and successfully with services.

Digital Inclusion Scale

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a GDS User Research Meet Up on the topic of Assisted Digital.  (For those readers who are not part of the Civil Service, this is a way of ensuring that a new service meets the needs of Users who lack either the skills or the equipment to access the service in its default digital setting.)  This was most illuminating and gave me pause for thought and prompted me to revisit some thinking I did in the spring.

The argument put forward was that it is reductive to design a service for pre-determined groups of people with designated sets of skills, firstly because they may not exist as likely groups of users for your service and secondly you may end up devoting too much energy to chasing Unicorns to fit those abstract groups of users.

digital inclusion scale

I find this scale problematic. It is a fair measure of technical ability and opportunity to be online.  It is very poor at measuring motivation. Take me as an example.  I am an to all intents and purposes, an Expert.  I keep a blog, tweet, use facebook, instagram and what’s app.  However, you will find very few images of me in a Google search, I post more pictures of dogs and cats than I do of myself.  I choose to manage my web footprint because I am suspicious of the Borg.  I use the internet to meet my own agenda.  I am reluctantly online and an expert at the same time.  So how would you categorise me as a user for your service?  I’m a 4 and a 9 at the same time.  I am a paradox.

I think that designers and researchers should establish holistic profiles of users which help ensure that you design an inclusive service, one which does not alienate any of the populous.  The DI Scale is one tool available to help understand User needs & perspectives.  It is not enough on its own.

Establishing User Profiles for an Inclusive Service

In this piece, I am not addressing inclusive design in terms of following good accessibility design principles.  I’m taking that as read.

There are a number of reasons that a user might struggle with a new digital service.

  1. Digitally disenfranchised – anxious because they feel left behind by the digital world, this may be because they lack the skills and/or the resources to access the digital world.
  2. Socially disenfranchised – anxious because they feel threatened or isolated  by society.
  3. Technophobic – anxious because of their attitudes

The common thread in these examples is anxiety.  Therefore a key focus of User Research should be to explore how to mitigate User Anxiety, not just

The DI scale certainly helps researchers understand the digitally disenfranchised.  It makes no attempt to address social disenfranchisement or technophobia.

I’ve long maintained that change prompts strong reactions from those affected by it.  Attempts to mediate change through technology further polarizes reactions.  The anxiety that the socially disenfranchised or technophobic user experiences when using a digital service is magnified exponentially.  Returning to the Reptilian metaphor, anxiety is anxiety, reptiles are reptiles, regardless of the source of the anxiety, generally, the behaviour exhibited by the User, the external symptom of the anxiety, is the same.

So, what is available in addition to the DI Scale to support Researchers and designers in recognizing or anticipating the anxiety Users may experience?


Technophobia is not as straightforward as it seems.  In my early career as a consultant helping schools implement technology in schools, I have a clear memory of a teacher lifting the mouse to the screen in an attempt to move the cursor.  This is not technophobia it is technical illiteracy and covered by the DI Scale.  Technophobia is more subtle.  I am a technophobe.  This is because I am suspicious of the impact of big data and search engine influence upon society.  The DI scale does not cater for me and I may well find myself excluded from a service because my perceptions of the higher intent or concerns about how the data I am providing might be used.    Donat and her buddies Brandtweiner and Kerschbaum wrote a really interesting paper on perceptions of the internet.  It is worth a read, as is Brosnan’s somewhat ancient but still relevant tome: Technophobia.

Understand the whole person.

We are social scientists, that should mean that we try to understand the whole person.  The DI scale on its own doesn’t give us insight into the other levers on a Users behaviour:

Understand situational anxiety levels caused their personal circumstances.

There are well used and tested ways of establishing levels of depression and anxiety in people. The NHS has one online here.  It would be totally wrong to perpetrate this on a User, but its worth knowing what the questions are so that you can listen for clues as to their mood, which might help you understand their anxiety levels more.  Take time to find out what kind of a week they have had, what they have planned for the weekend, their answers will give you hints as to their state of mind.

Understanding their level of technophobia.

I have unearthed a somewhat ancient but none the less still relevant questionnaire which explores Users’ attitudes to ATM machines. I’ve taken a screen shot to preserve the ideas, the full article is by Sinkovics and Saltzberger and can be found here.

I think there is something in this and I want to modernise it by discussing users attitudes to Loyalty Cards and Self-service Checkouts.  I favour this approach because there is no way it can bias the research to follow and will provide valuable insight into the underlying levels of technophobia in Users.

I think that this may well influence the design of the messaging and management of a User’s journey through a service, rather than the physical design of the pages.  It will improve the soft stuff – the fluffy bits around the edges of the service, which as a social scientist is what really interests me.


2 thoughts on “User Research: Holistic Profiling

  1. Pingback: User Research Meet up – UR and Performance Analysis (…long but excellent…) | The Grinch Manifesto

  2. Pingback: What is a user anyway? – UX Collective | Full Software Development

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