By John Olson
Qualitative & UX Researcher
March 07, 2021
Among the countless social novelties of the past year, the mighty “Zoom Boom” ranks undoubtedly as one of the most prolific. And at some point during that boom—the timeline gets foggy, but somewhere in the middle—people began discovering in droves that clever feature of Zoom where you can turn your background into the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.
Or an underwater seascape from the Pixar film Finding Nemo. Or a scenic shot of Paris or the Mojave Desert. Or perhaps just a photo of your normal office—the one you might be sitting in if you weren’t compelled to work from home.
A few of my favorite examples, courtesy of CNET:
But whether there’s a cluttered dining room and a crib in the background, or a perfectly sunlit shot of the Grand Canyon, a participant’s backdrop can be fodder for their backstory. Let’s explore how we can learn from that.
WHAT ARE RESEARCHERS SEEING?
Participants in online video research—focus groups, IDIs, user interviews, etc.—have been a little slower to incorporate virtual backgrounds than our tech savvy and creative colleagues have. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course. One of the many benefits of virtual focus groups (aside from the absence of a commute) is that the backdrop of a subject’s home can sometimes provide contextual and ethnographic insights.
In just the last couple months, for example, I’ve discovered opportunity in noting the guitars on the back wall in one case, the diplomas under glass in a second case, and the painting on an easel in a third case. Discovering these hobbies and accomplishments became a vehicle for conversation, for exploring their interests and gaining their trust.
But it’s not always the case that the “real deal” backdrop is interesting to begin with. In the Zoom-from-home era, that virtual image is arguably less likely to cover up a valuable insight than it is to hide a blank wall, the corner of a bed, or (in my personal case) a hamper and an open closet of flannel shirts.
And that’s when a virtual background can tell you as much about a person as a real background.
SOCIALIZING FROM SPACE
I struck gold on the virtual background recently while conducting a series of user experience IDIs. The goal of the research was to gain user insight to inform a website redesign and the relaunch of a digital service.
On my fifteenth interview, I had the pleasure of meeting a young woman from the West Coast who appeared (via Zoom) to be floating somewhere spectacular in outer space. She’d chosen to upload a trippy, deep-purple image of the cosmos as her virtual background, and it rather perfectly framed her trendy, dark purplish hair.
I acknowledged the space image quite early in the interview, and it had a pretty stunning effect on our conversation. The subject knew she had deliberated over the image, and likewise over what color to dye her hair recently—but she hadn’t noticed until just then that the two color choices perfectly matched.
Suddenly seeing it, she seemed almost mind blown—and she began to share with me about the anxiety and disconnectedness she had been feeling lately under all the lockdown measures: unable to leave home, separated from friends and family, forced to attend university online away from other students, feeling isolated like she was alone in space, feeling very…well, dark purple.
We didn’t dwell on the subject, as we still had a whole interview to get through—but it was all valuable context to the research at hand. The website being redesigned heavily leaned on a feeling of community. Certain options and offerings we explored involved the idea of partnering with friends and family. The digital services being developed could, themselves, provide an actual means of connecting with others remotely.
Just acknowledging the interesting choice of her Zoom background flung the doors wide open. It revealed a wealth of meaningful, personal, life experience—and that learning provided relevant context for a subsequent wealth of user experience insights.
DESIGNING SCIENCE FICTION
Ironically, I hit pay dirt with a second “spacey” Zoom background last month. I was conducting early stage UX research for a would-be creative writing app. The project was still squarely in the discovery phase, and we were conducting contextual user interviews to learn about the user group, their process, the problem space, what unmet needs might exist for them, and what the conditions surrounding those needs might be.
On the first interview, I found myself facing a participant who had chosen an epic, sci-fi/fantasy image as her virtual background (much like the one above). She was a novelist who had just advanced from amateur to professional. She’d published her first book and was now swiftly working toward completing her second. Asking her about the Zoom background, I learned very quickly it was concept art pulled from the series she was developing.
The research itself aimed to learn about the source of her passion and inspiration as an artist, what might be getting in the way of the work, what aspects she found most difficult, how it all felt, what her vision of a successful and fulfilling future might be, and what obstacles she faced in reaching her life and career goals. And this one science fiction image, almost by itself, cracked that conversation wide open.
Her virtual background became, for that hour, the galaxy’s most perfectly crafted stimulus—helping the participant walk me through her goals, motivations, work patterns, pain points, and bottlenecks as a budding professional author. And the insights we gained from that discussion were instrumental in guiding the early sketches for the would-be storytelling app.
If I’d had a visualization or projective exercise lined up for that interview, there’s a good chance I would have skipped it. The participants own Zoom background was as effective as anything I could cook up.
Keep a careful eye out for virtual backgrounds when you conduct your online focus groups, IDIs, and user interviews. Those images don’t get there by accident. Participants often deliberate over them, make careful selections, and invest small but meaningful pieces of themselves in those decisions.
Just like someone’s real life backdrop, a virtual backdrop can hide (in plain sight!) golden opportunities to learn about your subject and provide context and insight for the research at hand. But the door doesn’t open automatically—you have to knock.