Featured Blog

What Homeland can teach us about user research

In this blog post, I will ponder the similarities between conducting user research and being an intelligence officer on Homeland. There are many, I have found. (No spoilers, in case you’re wondering!)

When performing user research, my job is to collect information on how people use a product and then to sort out the truth by deciphering trends and eliminating outliers. So naturally, I relate to Carrie Mathison, Homeland’s weirdly intense intelligence officer who is obsessed with capturing terrorists and providing security for the United States. Like Carrie, I am obsessed with understanding how children use digital products, sometimes disclosing findings that are against popular theory. And if you think kid testing is any more predictable or calm than investigating a code red security threat, then please feel free to step in and take my place next time I am interviewing a five year old having an emotional breakdown in a double mirror research lab with designers, project managers and producers observing my discipline tactics while I attempt to continue the interview.

As a user researcher, living the double life as a wannabe-spy, I have compiled a classified list of lessons that Homeland can teach us about user research. Use this information wisely, for the purpose of good vs. evil, and at your own risk.

1) Document your evidence.

As an astute user researcher/CIA intelligence officer, you must vigilantly document your subjects. Though Carrie applies extreme measures to retrieve and analyze participant information (like installing cameras in bedrooms, ahem), such effort is not socially acceptable in user research. Instead, consider documenting your research in ways more easily accessible. While research labs are often equipped with professional user research software, such as Morae, recording interviews can be done with more easily accessible devices, such as an iPhone or Flip camera.

The goal of documenting interviews is not to show off fancy equipment, but rather to create a history that you and others can browse for information during the report writing, and perhaps, during product iterations or even future product development for new projects. Record everything in your research session that you can.

2) Build a rapport.

Carrie knows better than anyone that gaining the trust of her subject in crucial to withdrawing valuable information. Through risky and morally questionable tactics, Carrie tends to retrieve important data, that others cannot. She creates a trusting environment where her target in question feels comfortable confiding in her about personal matters. Though we all might not have access to a woody lake home to conduct user research, or the opportunity to play the role of good-cop, small attempts to make the participant feel comfortable go a long way. Whether a child or an adult, the participant often brings a natural tendency to want to please the researcher or withhold personal information. Children are especially susceptible to researcher bias, and therefore have a strong urge to answer or perform in a way that they believe is satisfactory to the grown-ups in the room. Staying far away from leading questions is imperative to uncovering accurate information.

A research lab, whether a designated research room or a classroom turned makeshift research space, is an unnatural environment. We do not usually have strangers looking over our shoulder while we use a new product, and inquiring about our thought process throughout. Whether interviewing an adult or child, I like to start every session the same way. After making casual and comfortable talk (e.g. finding out the child’s favorite thing to eat for breakfast), I always use the same line: “There are no wrong or right answers. I really just want to know what you think so we can make this better.” For children, this line always precedes my signature description that they, “one of the first kids in the whole world to play with this game!” Not only does it get children excited about participating because they feel special, but it makes them feel important and motivated to contribute.

3) Collaborate with your fellow agents.

Despite her inclination to solve everything on her own, Carrie is sometimes forced to acknowledge the necessary perspective of others. In a user experience study, there is often only one researcher assigned to the project. Working amongst project managers, producers, designers and engineers, a researcher, much like Carrie, can feel alone in the fight to discover the truth and work against others’ biases and politically charged desired outcomes.

However different in experience and roles, other members of the product development team should become your allies, and tools to access valuable perspectives. Communicating with research onlookers and investors during the study itself can not only broaden your own observations, but it can help you further understand their ultimate goals for the study, which is, afterall, the ultimate reason you are conducting research in the first place. Just as Carrie communicates with her fellow intelligent officers during investigations, talk to the onlookers between sessions whenever possible.

4) Use visuals to convey information. Carrie’s wall board, covered with miscellaneous information and organized according to timelines or categories is crucial in her own discovery process. And equally important, it is imperative to her ability to communicate this information with others. Recorded research sessions are not just important to offer information to be used for current or future discovery. Including videos in reports is an excellent way to communicate hard to understand issues, or to highlight challenges that you deem particularly important. Assemble your evidence in a clear, easy to understand, and descriptive way. Saying that children tend to be unintentionally active an incorrect hotspot is even more powerful when accompanied with video and a corresponding graph.

5) Information should be actionable. Presenting evaluated and deciphered data is helpful, but your research results should be accompanied by actionable outcomes. Carrie would not be so highly respected if her discoveries were just… discoveries. She is always thinking ahead, providing the suggested next move, and considering the work that such recommendations will take. Discovering and presenting the finding that children didn’t understand the game’s instructions is great, but not enough. You’re mission is on its way to completion when you have come up with a recommendation that considers the “why” and directs the team to a fix.

Do you want to be a secret agent, disguised as a user researcher? Tweet us your super spy research techniques @noCrusts

Read more:

Latest Jobs

Xbox Game Studios

Redmond, Washington
Technical Lighting Artist


Hamburg, Germany
Game Designer - Elvenar

Six Foot

Houston, TX
Six Foot Director, Player Relations

Hometopia Inc.

Lead Engineer
More Jobs   


Explore the
Subscribe to
Follow us

Game Developer Job Board

Game Developer Newsletter


Explore the

Game Developer Job Board

Browse open positions across the game industry or recruit new talent for your studio

Subscribe to

Game Developer Newsletter

Get daily Game Developer top stories every morning straight into your inbox

Follow us


Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more