#11 things I learned about user research from watching MindHunter

Mindhunter is a Netflix show that revolves around FBI agents who interview imprisoned serial killers to understand how they think, with the hope of applying this knowledge to solve ongoing cases.

The protagonists' Agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench, along with psychologist Wendy Carr operate the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit within the Training Division at the FBI Academy in Quantico. The series is based on a non-fiction crime book written by John E. Douglas and inspired by events that happened in real-life.

While watching this series, all I could think about is how similar it was doing user research. Here are my key takeaways:

#1 The idea of doing user research can face some initial pushback. But you just need to find a champion to get started.

The show depicts the initial pushback criminal profilers received from people questioning the value of psychology to solving crimes.

They have to convince their superiors that empathizing with violent offenders and understanding their motives is a good idea. One that can lead to picking up on their patterns and predicting their next move before they claim another victim.

Their situation is in line with the many stories you’d hear about challenges in teams face the adoption of user research. Do we really need to talk to users about that? 😳

The show gives some great tips on how the value of user empathy can be communicated through the organization. What I learned from the progress of the FBI team:

(i) Find an early champion,

(ii) Start doing research,

(iii) Use the learnings from research to help others in the organization,

(iv) Prove its value by driving results,

(v) Unlock more organizational support.

#2 — Talking to users is the only way to understand them.

This is pretty much what Special Agent Bill Tench means in the above quote from the series.

Mindhunter showcases that in order to prevent serial killers to act, their team needs to understand precisely what the killers have in mind, what they feel like, what triggers them, and how one becomes a serial killer.

In the UX world, the same argument extends to understanding how uncovering users’ mental models can help in predicting how they will behave. The only way to do it is by talking to them.

It’s a pretty obvious, but easily missable insight!

#3 — You don’t have to agree with what they say, you just have to listen.

“Butchering people is hard work.” This is probably one of my favorite scenes from the series.

It showcases how the key skill in user interviews is to just shut up and listen, without any judgment or preconceived notions about their behavior to build a true understanding of their mental models.

As a founder, it is also probably one of the hardest to master — we just have an innate need to defend our ideas. Ugh!

Most of the meaningful insights in Mindhunter came during the times when the convict feels they are in control of the situation and are being given due respect. Intimidate them a little bit and they become condescending or outright violent.

Kind of like how it’s really easy to put off a user during an interview when you start talking about why a feature is going to be really useful for them. They don’t care about your opinions — they will just stop giving you honest feedback.

#4 — It’s okay to go off-script. You’ll be surprised by what you find out.

In one instance Joe (another agent) tries to, and fails at, following the script during one of the interviews. Wendy has to step in to save their conversation. Holden on the other hand, despite several warnings, seems to have a natural knack for knowing when to go off-script.

Here’s what makes him good — each time he catches the subject’s attention with a question, he digs deeper. The script doesn’t matter, he knows he’s on to something.

In real life as well, I’ve found that most of the interesting things I’ve learned from users come from questions not on the discussion guide. But it’s really hard to know which threads are worth pulling on, and which ones are irrelevant.

Mindhunter does a great job of showcasing how sometimes it’s important to go off-script to find meaningful insights. Is there really any other way to hunt the insights from the minds of psychopaths? 🙃

#5 — People are always willing to talk about their problems.

What’s curious is people like Charles Manson and Ed Kemper gave interviews in real life describing their thought processes and philosophies. These are people who did some incredibly f***ed up things.

And they were willing to share everything in great detail. Sure, they were given assurances that the details wouldn’t be used against them, but it’s still pretty surprising.

For me, it highlighted that people (users) are always willing to talk about their problems, and how they view the world.

The problem is:

  • we’re either too afraid to ask them what they really think, or
  • we’re not able to ask them the right questions, or
  • we don’t pay enough attention and truly listen to what they’re saying.

And this is what makes it difficult to understand them.

#6 — Some users are more willing to share than others.

Throughout the series, Ed Kemper is a convict Holden reaches out to multiple times. Almost, as if he were a consultant on the case, to seek his advice on active cases the team is working one. Ed Kemper is more willing to share his perspective, it makes him feel valued — and one of his insights “they always go back to the scene” leads to an actual arrest.

This goes on to show how it is possible to engage certain users as champions who would be willing to work closely with your team during user research if they identify with the problems you’re looking to solve.

The relationship between the FBI team and Kemper holds inspiration for some great participatory design sessions. 😄

#7 — Sometimes it just takes a little nudge to get users talking.

Throughout the series, every interview scene offers great examples of how to (and not to) conduct interviews.

Some examples include — sharing a personal story about homosexuality to connect with the participant, offering them a chocolate bar as an incentive so they open up to sharing freely, or showing appreciation for their skills murdering.

While severely dramatized. There are several key takeaways that we can apply to real-life user interviews, such as:

  • Make them comfortable
  • Build a rapport
  • Connect with them personally
  • As questions without judgment
  • Follow your instincts
  • Record everything

#8 — Insights come from patterns.

Across from Agent Ford is the Research Principal, Dr. Wendy Carr, a psychology professor becomes familiar with his team’s informal study of serial killers and comes on board to lead a formal research study on the topic.

She tells the team how formal qualitative research methods can help reveal patterns that can help predict people’s behaviors.

She highlights the similarities which lead her to believe that killers are similar to white-collar criminals (CEOs), as they’re also psychopaths. They just have a different set of interests. Now that’s an insight.

Dr. Wendy’s presence in the series serves to show how it’s really difficult to find patterns in the user’s behaviors without actively looking for them in a structured manner.

In other words, user research needs to be structured to be yield effective outcomes.

#9 — Sharing insights can help you predict what users will do next.

In one case the team discusses whether the killers believe they’re the victims because if they admitted they did it for pleasure, it would destroy them.

They hypothesize that the killers need to believe they have power over someone else, but their crimes necessitate eliminating the only witness, so they have to do it again and again. With this insight, they’re able to pursue another lead.

This showcases how sharing and discussing the learnings from research together can help:

  1. synthesize insights,
  2. develop a hypothesis about the user’s needs,
  3. as well as build alignment in the team what needs to be done next.

#10 — Accurately predicting how users will behave takes time.

Wendy asks the team what stood out in each interview, and if they had found anything in common with the others. Using flashcards she tries to form a taxonomy for their project, but she doesn’t know where to start. They discuss how each subject and the crime scenes differed — and work out that Kemper planned and Rissell was spontaneous.

They agree on the categories organized and disorganized. They move high intelligence under organized and low intelligence under disorganized. But she ends the scene saying “I’m trying to frame an overall taxonomy, except I don’t know where to start.”

This scene is particularly cathartic for anyone embarking on customer discovery. It’s really hard to make sense of findings from user interviews at the beginning of a new project.

But over time, by understanding how different killers behave and finding the similarities and the differences between them — the team is able to develop a model that the can share with the rest of the FBI to identify, predict and capture killers.

The takeaway — It takes time to understand a new segment of users, but once you get there, everyone starts taking you very seriously.

#11 — Talking to users helps capture them.

Eventually, the team is able to develop a model that explains the behavior of people who conduct unimaginable crimes. They use this understanding to set up a practice within the FBI that focuses on training law enforcement officials throughout the country on how they can more effectively capture serial killers.

Doing user research can help us capture more users, by better understanding their mentals model and being able to predict their behavior more accurately :)

If you haven’t already — I highly recommend watching Mindhunter. It captures the essence of understanding people very effectively and should be relatable for anyone working in this field.

What do you guys think?

To all the UX people who have watched the show —

Do you guys agree with my takeaways? Or am I just beginning to see user interviews in everything I’m doing nowadays?

Let me know!

About me — I’m Arnav, the co-founder at Epiphany. We’re working to make it easier for product teams to make sense of qualitative feedback & user research data, so they can find insights about customer needs and use them to prioritize ideas.

If you guys have a lot of interview transcripts, meeting notes, and user feedback but find it hard to keep track of your findings and insights from them — let us know by requesting access to our beta.

And if you found this article helpful — Subscribe to our blog for more on user research, user experience, design thinking, lean startup, dual-track agile, product management, and innovation.

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