Laddering: A Research Interview Technique for Uncovering Core Values

By Michael Hawley

Published: July 6, 2009

“The laddering method of interviewing … is a technique that is particularly helpful in eliciting goals and underlying values, and therefore, possibly helpful during early stages of user experience research.”

A number of my previous Research That Works columns on UXmatters have focused on semi-structured user research techniques. My interest in these techniques stems from my desire to get the most out of my time with research participants and to leverage foundational work from other disciplines to gain unique insights for user experience design. With this in mind, a colleague of mine recommended that I try the laddering method of interviewing, which is a technique that is particularly helpful in eliciting goals and underlying values, and therefore, possibly helpful during early stages of user experience research, as I learned after a brief review of the literature on this topic. This column introduces the laddering technique and describes my first experience trying it for myself.

Background—From Laddering to the Means End Chain

Clinical psychologists first introduced the laddering technique in the 1960s, as a method of understanding people’s core values and beliefs. The technique is powerful, because it provides a simple and systematic way of establishing an individual’s core set of constructs on how they view the world. Laddering is well established in the field of psychology, and its success has led researchers in other industries to adapt its core tenets to their fields.

“Early marketing practitioners conceived and refined a model for describing the linkages between customers’ values and their overall purchasing behavior: the Means End Chain theory.”

Specifically, market researchers have adapted the laddering method for use in consumer and organizational research. However, in addition to adapting the research method itself, early marketing practitioners conceived and refined a model for describing the linkages between customers’ values and their overall purchasing behavior: the Means End Chain theory. This theory provides both a framework for capturing qualitative laddering research data in the consumer space and a model for assessing consumer values and behaviors.

According to the Means End Chain theory, there is a hierarchy of consumer perceptions and product knowledge that ranges from attributes (A) to consumption consequences (C) to personal values (V), as follows:

  • attributes—At the top level of this hierarchy, attributes are most recognizable by individuals. Individuals recognize the attributes of a product or system easily. For example, “I like this car, because it is a convertible.”
  • consequences—In turn, the attributes have consequences for the individual. For example, the convertible makes its driver feel young and free. Each attribute may have one or more consequences for any given individual.
  • core values—Finally, each consequence is linked to a core value of the person’s life. For example, the sense of youth makes that driver feel attractive.
“An A-C-V sequence forms a chain, or ladder, that indicates the relationship between a product attribute and a core value.”

In theory, for each area of a product or application, an A-C-V sequence forms a chain, or ladder, that indicates the relationship between a product attribute and a core value. We can collect all the ladders for a given domain to form a Hierarchical Value Map that illustrates all the major means-end and attribute-consequence-value connections and describes individuals’ behavior based on their core values. Typically, these maps contain many product attributes that are linked to a smaller set of consequences, which are, in turn, mapped to a core set of individual values.

While particular individuals are likely to have specific nuances to their sets of ladders and value maps, we can recognize and document high-level patterns across different customer types or personas. The real power of the Means End Chain model is that it emphasizes why and how products are important in an individual’s life, going beyond a reported description of functional attributes or properties.

Attributes

“When you first ask individuals why they bought a product or like a particular application, they will likely respond by describing product attributes.”

To better understand the limited significance of attributes, consider the following example. When you first ask individuals why they bought a product or like a particular application, they will likely respond by describing product attributes. These attributes may include quality, price, brand name, or the inclusion of particular features. However, while such product attributes may be recognizable to individuals, they don’t necessarily get at the underlying reason for purchase or use. For example:

Q: “Why did you select those wedding invitations?”

A: “I really liked the traditional design and the heavy card stock.”

This answer from a research participant accurately describes the reason for the purchase. However, a researcher who focuses only on such responses will miss the opportunity to explore the consequences that the individual associates with those attributes.

Consequences

“The consequences of particular attributes reveal more personal aspects of the individual’s relationship with the product or application.”

Understanding the impact of certain attributes—rather than just recognizing the presence of the attributes alone—reveals a significantly greater number of insights about the individual’s behaviors. The consequences of particular attributes reveal more personal aspects of the individual’s relationship with the product or application. Often, inexperienced researchers fail to follow up on the consequences of various attributes. Neglecting to do this is, obviously, not recommended, because we can use many of the insights we gain to inform strategy decisions for our products. To continue the previous example:

Q: “Why is the heavy card stock important to you?”

A: “The heavy card stock makes the event seem more formal and substantial.”

By asking Why? to get research participants to elaborate on their initial answers, we can elicit responses that reveal more about the emotional values of an individual. Compared to lists of product attributes, the responses at this level are much more thoughtful and come closer to the real reasons an individual chooses a particular product or behaves in a certain way. From a marketing perspective, understanding the consequences of product or application attributes can provide the basis for marketing messages or branding.

Values

“If we can uncover the core values that relate to a given product or application domain, such insights can have significant potential to inform product strategy and design decisions.”

The reasons people buy something, opt-in to a community or service, or adopt a process are not always clear, even to the individuals making the decisions. As I noted above, people usually respond readily to questions about their selection of a given product or service at the attribute level, but their responses usually do not reveal their core reasons for adoption. The Means End Chain theory suggests that personal values play the most dominant role in directing individuals’ choices. These personal values are individuals’ core beliefs and are relatively stable perspectives that have a strong emotional impact. Examples are security, belonging, happiness, fun, and enjoyment.

Q: “Why is it important that the wedding be more formal and substantial?”

A: “My friends had fabulous weddings, and I really want to do something on par with them.”

According to the Means End Chain, if we can uncover the core values that relate to a given product or application domain, such insights can have significant potential to inform product strategy and design decisions.

Conducting the Laddering

“First, ask participants to describe what kinds of features would be useful in or distinguish different products. The goal of this first step is to elicit the main product attributes from the participants.”

Laddering is the actual interview technique we can use to uncover the attributes, consequences, and values that the Means End Chain defines. To envision a laddering interview, think of the traditional image of a psychologist interviewing a patient, attempting to uncover the root cause of some behavior or problem. The patient may not be able to make connections between underlying issues and their manifestations, but through skilled interviewing, the psychologist can dig deeper and deeper to unearth insights that have relevance. A laddering interview for user experience research is similar.

First, ask participants to describe what kinds of features would be useful in or distinguish different products. The goal of this first step is to elicit the main product attributes from the participants. Initially, if you’re lucky, participants may provide some answers that actually identify consequences, but most likely, they will describe attribute information. So, you must ask them to expand on their answers later in the interview.

“You can next turn to questions that address the consequences of the identified attributes.”

Based on their initial responses relating to attributes, you can next turn to questions that address the consequences of the identified attributes. You should lead the participants to a higher level of questioning that forces them to think about the reasons for their attribute preferences. To achieve this, ask questions such as the following: Why is this important to you? What does it mean to you? What is the meaning of this product having this attribute? If necessary, ask such questions repeatedly, with the goal of understanding the consequences of the attributes you elicited during the first round of questioning.

To uncover personal values, employ the same type of Why? questions. While participants may not be able to enunciate a value for every consequence, your goal is to ask questions at higher and higher levels of abstraction and assemble a good picture of each participant’s ladder for a particular area of a product.

“To uncover personal values, employ the same type of Why? questions. While participants may not be able to enunciate a value for every consequence, your goal is to ask questions at higher and higher levels of abstraction.”

For a given product or application, there may be several areas under consideration in your research. Typically, during a laddering interview, you will lead participants through one area, or ladder, at a time. This allows participants to remain focused on each particular line of questioning. However, you should maintain a broad list of topics to cover and be aware of any areas that may overlap. Optionally, you can jump between consequences and attribute sets, but this requires a significant amount of cognitive focus on your part to keep track of everything.

With all of the data you’ve collected, you can perform a typical qualitative analysis to identify affinities and patterns across participants. In a formal study, you might detail a Hierarchical Value Map for each participant and identify areas of similarity and differences across participants. The end result of the analysis is a set of qualitative findings whose aim is to identify actionable insights for product strategy and design.

My Experience

“When doing foundational research, I try to uncover the mental models of the target audience and understand their language and values.”

Having read some of the literature on laddering and the Means End Chain model, I thought these concepts would be particularly appropriate for the foundational research I do on UX design projects. When doing foundational research, I try to uncover the mental models of the target audience and understand their language and values. Designing for emotion, value, and meaning is becoming more important in user experience, so I was anxious to see whether laddering could help me uncover these dimensions of my intended audience.

During the initial research phase of a recent design project, I had the opportunity to give laddering a try. I arranged for 90-minute, one-on-one interviews with representative users in the target group. While I did not reserve the entire time for the laddering exercise, I started with it, and I allotted at least 45 minutes of each session to get through it. There was a lot to keep track of during the interviews, so fortunately I was able to record them and had the opportunity to go back and review the sessions. While laddering was helpful, there were definitely several lessons I learned along the way:

  • Laddering can be tedious for participants. Repeatedly asking Why is that important? is a bit like a three year old asking Why? in response to every answer his parent gives him. This is especially true when the response to the Why? is obvious. After experiencing the participants’ tedium in the first several interviews, I made it a point to specifically tell each participant about the technique at the outset of an interview, setting the proper expectations about the method. This helped alleviate some of the tension between me and the participants.
  • Sometimes participants couldn’t explain why an attribute was important, or what the consequence of an attribute was. This was especially true at the outset of each session when a participant was getting acclimated to the method. I found that it was best not to press participants on any one answer, but instead to keep track of questions they couldn’t answer and come back to those issues later in a session once they’d gotten the hang of the method.
  • If participants had trouble reflecting on abstract reasons or articulating higher-level values, I found it helpful to suggest that they think of reasons they wouldn’t do something or a value that wasn’t their own. It was often easier for them to think of the negative dimension of a particular attribute or consequence.
  • Often, I found that speaking of similar offerings in the abstract did not elicit sufficiently detailed responses from participants. As I’ve seen in other research methods, asking participants to relate a personal experience in a given context helped uncover consequences and values that were difficult for them to articulate otherwise.
  • Overall, conducting a formal laddering interview is difficult. While it is a good technique for broad explorations and avoids the bias of a predetermined script, keeping track of the various ladders or avenues to explore based on participant responses is challenging. Add to it the challenge of minimizing the participants’ tedium, and you have a lot to deal with.

Conclusion

“My hope is that using the essential concepts of the laddering technique will help me uncover people’s root consequences and values, providing insights that I can leverage in my design projects.”

Asking Why? during research interviews seems rather obvious and straightforward. I have always tried to make it a point to structure my research interview scripts to ask Why? when following up on questions I’ve asked participants. However, the Means End Chain theory and the laddering method provide a focus and a direction for the Why? questions. While the actual implementation of the laddering technique may be difficult and cumbersome, I found a general awareness of the goals for asking Why? to be helpful. My hope is that using the essential concepts of the laddering technique will help me uncover people’s root consequences and values, providing insights that I can leverage in my design projects.

8 Comments

I would like to endorse some of your conclusions in your “lessons learned” regarding laddering interviews. All of your comments are very much in line with my own personal experience, having done many laddering interviews—on a number of mostly consumer product-oriented projects—over the past several years. I think it is particularly worth emphasizing the notion of “explaining what you are doing.” The concept isn’t very complex, and people are generally quite a bit more open-minded about the higher-level questions when you explain what you are doing rather than trying to hide it. I have even prefaced a value-level probe with “…this is going to sound a bit goofy, but…” as part of explaining the high-level question.

Along those lines, I would strongly suggest the technique of also making it clear to people, as the questions move up the ladder, that “…now I am asking more about you…”—than about whatever the original thing was. A great value-level type of probe along those lines is “…what is it about you that makes … matter so much to you.”

Anyway, having personally spent a lot of time not only doing laddering studies, but also automating some of the interview process—to assist with the recordkeeping you speak of—I just wanted to commend you for your article and insights.

Hi Michael

Thanks for the informative and honest article.

I don’t think the participants’ frustration with the seemingly neverending ladder is unusual. A reference to the equivalent technique—aptly called “Chain of questions”—in Marketing Social Change, by Andreasen, [1] says “Ask until the respondent is ready to kill the interviewer!”

The laddering technique reminds me of the 5 whys for determining root cause [2], which apparently comes from Toyota/Six Sigma.

There is so much, like this, that user experience can draw on from other disciplines, and we need all contributions, like yours, that we can get!

All the best, Jessica

[1] On LibraryThing, see p. 117 of Marketing Social Change: Changing Behavior to Promote Health, Social Development, and the Environment. This idea may have originally come from Debus’s “Methodological Review: A Handbook for Excellence in Focus Group Research.”

[2] See, for example:

Thanks, Jessica.

I agree that it is helpful to look for inspiration from related industries that are doing research. My favorite article on laddering is based on a food-and-brand, consumer research perspective.

Thanks.

Mike

Mike

I agree that the article by Brian Wansink and Nina Chan is an interesting exposition on the laddering technique. But Table 4 contains a ghastly spelling error: “free reign” instead of “free rein”. It’s not an uncommon error, but can still cause the reader to question the intellectual capacity of the perpetrator.

Hello Michael,

Thanks for writing this very helpful article.

I am doing my research thesis now, and I plan to use this technique in my research.

I was just wondering about all these quotes and information that you used in the article. Do you maybe have the references of them?

Thanks again.

Chen

Thank you for this very insightful article. I’m about to engage in interviews utilizing this laddering method, and reading about your experience was useful in predicting things that may come up in my experience.

Thank you!

Hi,

I have read from other bloggers and authors that explaining too much about the interview, the product, or the methodology is not a very good idea because the interviewee could end up saying what he or she thinks you want or need to hear. But you mention that explaining about the whys and their consequences is a good idea.

Is there an in between? Do you agree with these other opinions? Why?

Really loved the article. I have a question on the level of laddering: How deep can I go with the whys. I might be asking a silly question, but when should I stop, or how would I know if I have gathered enough to find a pattern? Please advise.

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