The Ghost Hunter’s Guide to User Research

Practical Usability

Moving toward a more usable world

A column by Jim Ross
October 3, 2011

It was never my childhood dream to become a usability professional. In kindergarten, I didn’t observe the other kids playing with their toys and think of ways to improve them. I didn’t yearn to perform heuristic evaluations, usability tests, and contextual inquiries. Don Norman wasn’t my Mister Rogers and Jakob Nielsen wasn’t my Captain Kangaroo.

Instead, as a child I was fascinated by ghosts. I must have read every ghost book in the library at least twice. Not many kids knew what a parapsychologist was, yet to be one was my dream—to travel the world searching for evidence of ghosts.

Sadly, as most childhood dreams do, mine faded away as I grew up. Through a series of practical choices and career changes, I eventually became a UX design researcher. Don’t get me wrong. I love what I do, but there’s still a part of me that wonders, What if I had become a ghost hunter?

A few years ago, my ghost-hunting dream was rekindled when I discovered the SyFy Network series, Ghost Hunters. Perhaps it was just wishful thinking, but I began to recognize a lot of surprising parallels between researching users and researching ghosts. Okay, this may sound like a bit of a stretch, but bear with me, and I’ll explain the similarities between them and the lessons user researchers could learn from ghost hunters.

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Ghost Hunters

Ghost Hunters is a SyFy Network reality series that follows the supernatural investigations of The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS). The TAPS team, led by Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, investigates reports of paranormal activities at various locations around the country. Their everyman background—they’re Roto-Rooter plumbers by day—sense of humor, and skeptical, no-nonsense attitude set them apart from the psychics, mediums, New Age channelers, and the other kooks who typically associate themselves with overly sensationalized shows about the supernatural.

What Can We Learn from Ghost Hunters?

How could user research have anything in common with ghost hunting? Well to start with, in both professions, clients experience a problem and contact professionals who study the behavior of humans—living versus dead. These professionals investigate to determine what’s going on and how to solve a problem. They record evidence, present their findings to a client, and recommend solutions.

In examining these similarities, there are some things we could learn from ghost hunting. Let’s take a closer look at Ghost Hunters and lessons we can apply to user research.

Do Your Homework

The members of the TAPS team familiarize themselves with a location and their client before starting a project. A case manager gathers basic information from the client about the problems people have experienced and does some research into the location. For example, if a client reports the spirit of a child, the team researches the previous occupants of the house to determine whether there were any children who died at the location.

Likewise, it’s helpful to do some background research before starting a user research project. Before even meeting with a new client, you should become familiar with their business and the project you’ll be working on. Do additional research throughout the project as necessary, to learn more about the issues you find and familiarize yourself with the findings from similar research.

Do a Walkthrough to Understand the Problems

Before the TAPS team starts their investigation, the client walks them through the property, showing them where people have reported supernatural activity and describing what they’ve experienced. They also interview witnesses who have experienced the phenomenon. This gives them a sense of the reported problems and where to focus their investigation.

For user research, it’s important to first get an overview of the problem areas from your client. Have them walk you through a user interface, pointing out the problems they have experienced themselves or that others have reported. Interview other stakeholders in the company to get their perspective on the problems they’ve experienced, as well as problems other people have reported. Understanding your clients’ needs helps you to understand where to focus your research.

Focus on the Hot Spots

Based on what the TAPS team learns during a walkthrough, the team focuses their research on a location’s hot spots—that is, the areas where people have reported the most supernatural activity. Because they have only a short time to investigate—usually one night—and their recording devices can cover only a limited area, they focus on these hot spots.

In user research, we often face similar limitations in terms of time, budget, the number of participants, the length of each session, and the time we have to analyze the data. Since we can’t cover everything, we need to focus on the user experience hot spots, which we can identify from our background research and discussions with clients.

Be Creative in Dealing with Troublesome Entities

Both ghost hunters and user researchers occasionally experience people—

whether living or dead—who are reluctant to communicate. Granted, ghost hunters have a much more difficult task in communicating with the dead, but as researchers, we occasionally come across people among the living who seem to have as much trouble communicating as ghosts do. The TAPS team tries all kinds of creative techniques to get a ghost to communicate—whether by voice, knocks, moving an object, or lighting up a flashlight—or even by provoking anger in an entity through insults and mockery. If they continue to get no response, they move on to another location.

Obviously, when doing user research, we wouldn’t try out these same techniques on an uncommunicative, living participant, but it can be worthwhile to try some creative and unconventional approaches to open up a reluctant communicator. Of course, some people are just not that communicative, no matter what you do. In that case, it’s best to focus on their observable behavior and not waste more time trying to get them to talk with you.

Work in Small Teams

TAPS conducts their investigations with teams of two investigators. Two is the ideal number for travelling safely—or walking around old buildings in the dark—handling equipment, verifying experiences, taking notes, and having someone with whom they can discuss their findings. Teams larger than two tend to get in each other’s way.

Two is also the ideal size for teams conducting user research. Having someone to help out with the details of taking notes, logging events, handling equipment, and coordinating participants allows you to focus on observation and directing the discussion. And two minds are often better than one when it’s time to discuss and interpret the results. Including designers and other project team members in your research lets them experience it firsthand rather than having to wait to read about it secondhand in a report. There’s also safety in numbers when visiting an unfamiliar person in an unfamiliar location.

Similar to ghost hunting, teams of more than two people in user research tend to get in each other’s way. They don’t physically fit into the tight, real-world environments of field studies. And both the living and the dead may experience anxiety when too many observers are present.

Keep Your Composure

Ghost hunters do experience fear, but they must keep their composure in frightening situations. Running away in terror would result in a loss of credibility among their peers and clients.

Although user researchers rarely work in haunted houses, we do occasionally face frightening and stressful situations. Maintaining your composure when dealing with a scary client or experiencing a technical problem, difficult interview, or a big presentation is very important. From ghost hunters, we learn that it’s okay to be afraid, but there’s a big difference between dealing with the situation even though you’re afraid and running away in terror.

Keep Up with the Latest Advances in Your Field

Since it’s difficult to capture credible evidence of paranormal activity, ghost hunters constantly try out new technology and new techniques. The TAPS team frequently adds new ghost-detecting technology to their arsenal—for example, audio recorders, video cameras, infrared cameras, thermometers, EMF (electromagnetic field) meters, laser field generators, and K2 meters.

Although it’s much easier to observe the behavior of living human beings than dead ones, it’s important to keep up with the latest user experience research and techniques. Otherwise, you can get stuck in a rut, relying on the same limited range of techniques. Read books, articles, blogs, and Twitter; attend events and conferences; and talk with other UX professionals to keep your mind open to different ways of doing things. Try out new techniques and technologies to stay inspired.

Explain Your Terminology

On every Ghost Hunters episode, the TAPS team members provide explanations of their technology, techniques, and theories. Although this repetition gets tiresome for regular viewers, not everyone knows what an EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon) is or the difference between a residual haunting and an intelligent haunting.

Likewise, as user researchers, it’s easy for us to get caught up in our own terminology and jargon and forget, for example, that not everyone knows what contextual inquiry means. We shouldn’t assume that our audience understands our terminology and techniques. Even when we have previously explained terms, it’s helpful to repeat definitions for those who might not have heard or remembered them from our previous explanations.

Rely on the Evidence

If the TAPS team can’t back up their findings with evidence, they throw them out. Their skepticism makes them reluctant to report that a location is haunted without hard evidence. They always set out to disprove a haunting and find any reasonable non-supernatural explanations for phenomena they experience.

Similarly, as user researchers, we should require sufficient evidence before making conclusions from our research. Some clients want numbers—the number of participants who experienced a problem, task performance data, time on task, and participant ratings. For those who are more interested in qualitative findings, it’s still important to provide numbers, so they fully understand the strength of the findings.

Acknowledge Your Limitations

Since the TAPS team usually investigates over just a single night, they can’t always capture evidence of a haunting. Ghosts don’t perform on cue. Often the results are inconclusive, or they don’t find anything. That doesn’t necessarily mean the location isn’t haunted, so they leave any judgment open to future investigation.

In a typical user research study, you won’t discover all of the usability problems or user experience issues. Acknowledge the limitations of your research, and explain what you don’t know, as well as what you do. There’s nothing wrong with saying We don’t know or telling a team that further research is necessary. Leave the door open for future studies.

Reveal the Findings

Each Ghost Hunters episode ends with The Reveal, when the TAPS team presents their evidence to their client. They report their personal experiences, but back everything up with video and audio clips demonstrating their findings. Nothing is more convincing than allowing clients to see and hear the evidence themselves.

Similarly, it’s extremely effective to use video and audio clips when presenting user research findings. Clients may trust us and believe our findings, but nothing drives a point home more effectively than seeing a participant experiencing a problem or explaining a frustration in his or her own terms.

Help Your Client Deal with the Findings

The TAPS team tries to anticipate how their clients will react to their findings. When they don’t find any paranormal activity, some clients feel relieved, while others are disappointed. When the team does find paranormal activity, some clients are excited, while others are frightened and upset. In the latter case, the TAPS team reassures their clients and helps them understand how to deal with the situation. They remain on call to support their clients and, possibly, to return for future investigations.

Likewise, as user researchers, we should anticipate our clients’ reactions to our user research findings and offer help in dealing with the issues that we’ve found. In addition to providing your findings and recommendations, help your clients to understand how to implement a plan to address the issues. Clients may be overwhelmed by the number and magnitude of the problems they need to solve. Give them a sense of the severity of each problem and help them to prioritize which issues to tackle first. And leave open the option of your providing further help by doing more research or offering UX design services.


Perhaps linking user research and ghost hunting is a stretch, but making these types of comparisons is a good way of stepping back to take a look at what we do in a different light. Further interesting insights could emerge from exploring the similarities between user research and other professions. For me, it was fun to connect what I’ve learned through my personal interests to my profession. Though I never became a ghost hunter myself, it’s nice to know that there are some parallels between what I do now and my childhood dream. 

Principal UX Researcher at AnswerLab

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Jim RossJim has spent most of the 21st Century researching and designing intuitive and satisfying user experiences. As a UX consultant, he has worked on Web sites, mobile apps, intranets, Web applications, software, and business applications for financial, pharmaceutical, medical, entertainment, retail, technology, and government clients. He has a Masters of Science degree in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University.  Read More

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