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11 Apr

The “I know I'm being watched” Effect

Once upon a time in the 1920s, at a factory called Hawthorne Works in Illinois, some cheeky researchers decided to study the effect of lighting on worker productivity. It was a time of great innovation and scientific curiosity, so why not tinker with the environment and see if it could coax a few more widgets out of the workers? You know, for science.

So, the researchers hatched a plan:

Step 1: Increase the factory's lighting.
Step 2: Observe the workers.
Step 3: Write a paper about it and become academic superstars (or something like that).

What they found, however, was more perplexing than the latest Agatha Christie mystery. When they increased the lighting, worker productivity went up. “Aha! Brighter lights equal better results,” they proclaimed.

But then, the plot thickened: The workers' productivity seemed to improve when changes were made, and slumped when the study ended. They must have scratched their heads, wondering, what kind of sorcery they were witnessing.

The twist?

The workers knew they were being watched. And just like a peacock showing off its feathers to impress a mate, these workers preened and pranced (figuratively, of course), churning out widgets faster than a Model T assembly line.

Other studies consequently found that even some other changes such as maintaining clean workstations, clearing floors of obstacles, and even relocating workstations resulted in increased productivity for short periods.

The researchers had stumbled upon a new phenomenon: the Hawthorne Effect.

The core realization was that when people know they're being observed, they'll change their behavior to what they think presents them in a better light.

Now, let's say you're a startup founder, trying to make sense of your users' behavior. You're conducting user interviews, observing them like lab rats (but, you know, in a nice way). The problem is, those little lab rats know they're being watched, so they'll act differently. They'll give you misleading feedback because they don't want to seem foolish or uninformed.

It's like playing poker with people who always fold: you never know what's really going on.

To flesh it out, consider the user interview scenario:

  • You, the startup founder, invite users for interviews to evaluate your latest product.
  • Users, keenly aware they're being judged, give glowing feedback and praise your innovative features.
  • You, beaming with pride, launch your product, expecting a resounding success.
  • The market, unimpressed by your creation, shuns it. Your users, it turns out, lied to you.

What's the solution?

Anonymous feedback? Unannounced user tests? Experimental drugs to suppress the Hawthorne Effect? (I'm kidding, please don't do that.)

Based on personal experience, I do come bearing some unconventional (and borderline manipulative) tips to design a process that might just trick those wily users into revealing their true feelings.

The best way, by far, is to disguise your intentions: Make your user interviews feel more like casual conversations. Users might be less guarded if they don't realize they're in a high-stakes interview. Ask open-ended questions that prompt genuine discussion rather than leading them to specific answers.

Another way, although slightly cruder, is to embrace anonymity: Allow users to provide feedback without revealing their identity. Anonymity can embolden them to be more honest, as they won't fear judgment or reprisals. Online surveys, anonymous forums, or focus groups where participants don't know each other can help.

You can even ditch the formal interviews and opt for unobtrusive observation. Watch users interact with your product when they don't know they're being observed (with their consent, of course). This can provide more accurate insights into their behavior.

By cracking a few self-deprecating jokes, you can create an environment where they feel safe to share both positive and negative experiences. Make it clear that their input won't lead to personal consequences and that you're genuinely interested in their perspective.

But all of these tips still suffer from one giant problem.


As a startup founder conducting user interviews themselves, it might be hard for your users to be absolutely blunt and honest with you. You know, because they respect you too much to tell you in what ways they find your product shitty.

In the case of Stoa, we face a double whammy. Some users will convince themselves that the program is good and useful because they've paid ₹3 lakh for it and now don't want to feel bad about their investment. But it is precisely these users that we would stand to learn the most from. So, how do you get the real stuff out of people who naturally care about their self-image?

A good hack here would be to bring in a neutral third party who has no credentials or reputation that might make the interviewees feel self-conscious or put on a desirable front. Users might be more honest with someone who isn't directly involved in the startup. You can even consider hiring an external firm to conduct interviews. But I personally prefer asking an unbiased team member to take the lead. This can reduce the pressure on users to provide only positive feedback.

Another good hack is to ask about competitors: Inquire about users' experiences with similar products or services. This can help you gauge their preferences and pain points without directly asking about your own offering. Plus, it might make them feel more comfortable discussing the pros and cons of different options.

But, the Hawthorne Effect can also manifest in other areas of the startup. Like hiring practices.

Imagine this:

  • Your startup is on the hunt for the best talent, and you decide to conduct rigorous interviews.
  • Candidates, aware they're being scrutinized, put on their best performance, hiding flaws and weaknesses.
  • You hire the candidate who appeared perfect under the microscope, only to discover their true colors when the pressure is off and the Hawthorne Effect fades away.

Google once prided itself on its notoriously challenging interview process, featuring brain teasers and logic puzzles. However, they later discovered that these tests didn't correlate with job performance. So the company scrapped them, adopting more relevant and practical assessments.

The Hawthorne Effect might've made candidates appear clever during the interview, but it didn't guarantee long-term success.

Also consider the remote work revolution:

  • Your startup embraces remote work, but management worries about productivity.
  • To ease those fears, you implement monitoring software to track employees' every move.
  • Employees, knowing they're under surveillance, work just enough to appear productive, but creativity and innovation suffer, stifled by the pressure.

In each of these examples, the Hawthorne Effect creeps in, distorting behavior and muddling the truth.

The moral of the story

When people know they're being observed, they'll change their behavior — whether it's working harder, being more creative, or even just pretending to know the answers in a user interview. It's like putting on your best suit for a first date: you're trying to impress, even if you're secretly a slob who lives in sweatpants.

And so, the Hawthorne Effect entered the annals of social science history, a constant reminder that people are, well, people. And that you should never trust a well-lit factory to give you the whole truth.

Hence, startups should be cautious of its influence, finding ways to circumvent it and extract genuine insights from their users, employees, and candidates.

Because, after all, what's the point of studying people if you're not studying the real them?

Also read: On being a Customer Whisperer.

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