An interesting take on the Hawthorne Effect

14 June, 2009 § Leave a comment

While I was taking my undergraduate courses at Michigan State for my Bachelor’s of Computer Science, I took a Human-Computer Interaction course taught by Dr. Eileen Kraemer, a visiting scholar from the University of Georgia. In the course, we talked about the Hawthorne Effect and how it can create unintended results during usability studies.

The Hawthorne Effect is based upon research findings that have shown that participants in a study behave differently than normal when they know that their progress is being monitored. Often this comes up in usability studies, as some of the participants results can be questioned to the fact that the user may not have done what they just did had a researcher not been standing next to them. This is one of the major flaws with formal usability research.

To solve this problem, some software will track data anonymously and report it back to the software company. This data can be referenced and presumed to be absent of the Hawthorne Effect since users can be assumed to using the software in their normal ways without feeling like they should perform actions in a different way than normal. Often this is found in prerelease alpha/beta software, but it is becoming more of the norm with final releases where the market of testers expands exponentially.

In the usability realm, the Hawthorne Effect is something that researchers would like to limit. Yet in the project management realm, the Hawthorne Effect is actually something that is strived for.

In Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, the authors make a compelling point to try for the Hawthorne Effect on their employees. They claim that changing environment variables in the workplace to provide a better working environment will indeed obtain more work performed by the employees. This change in workplace environment is due to the Hawthorne Effect, since employees will be generally open to the idea (as long as it is not drastic), and will increase their output. Yet this Hawthorne Effect will wear out with time, and so they propose changing up the environment often, and that with this chaos will bring a better return on investment.

I found this approach to the Hawthorne Effect very interesting, since it is a complete reversal of the approach that usability researchers have on the Hawthorne Effect. Instead of trying to minimize the Hawthorne Effect, these project managers are trying to harness it. The Hawthorne Effect was actually coined from some research at Hawthorne Works, a large factory complex outside of Chicago, which was based on changing lighting levels in the workplace and noticing differing levels of increased output.

I wonder why I had never looked at the Hawthorne Effect from this angle before?

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