When you plan a family holiday online do you do it on your own? What about looking for a place to have a birthday dinner or an entertainment package for your cable TV? Hopefully not. You’d probably call your partner or kids over to look at options with you on your tablet or laptop, right?

So why do UX researchers commonly test systems that handle these types of interactions in interview sessions, in focus groups with people who’ve never met each other, using surveys, or in one-on-one usability tests? These testing contexts are missing out on the bigger picture of how these decisions are made! Getting a fuller sense can provide us with critical insights that can differentiate a product and create a brilliant user experience.

Recently, a client approached us to help them figure out if their new digital entertainment concept for “family time” would appeal. There was limited budget and we didn’t have time to set up an ethnographic study that would allow us to head over to customers’ houses to see how things happen in real life.

Instead, to help our client stakeholders test features and concepts, we borrowed a method from sociology called dyad/triad research. This allowed us to see two or three people interacting within their family units or with their friends while they were watching television and using their mobile devices at our lab in Singapore.

What are Dyads and Triads?

In sociology, dyads and triads (small groups of two and three respectively) are the simplest human social groupings and are often used to predict behavior in wider society. You may have noticed that, in big groups, people automatically break themselves down into smaller groups where interaction is more manageable. Consider the example of a large group of friends having dinner at a restaurant. Initially, the entire group chats when they arrive and order food, but eventually, the group begins to break down into smaller sub-sets of two or three people chatting amongst themselves. These are called dyads and triads.

How to use the Dyad/Triad Methodology?

The dyad/triad research process goes deeper than mere discussion; it’s an exploration of decision-making between two or three individuals who are familiar with one another, including detailed observation of body language. Having complete strangers participate in the dyad/ triad research doesn’t offer effective insight.

The social connection shared between participants is key to getting the insights you're looking for

The social connection shared between participants is key to getting the insights you're looking for. For instance, to study the TV viewing experience, we invited three families, three groups of teenagers, and three groups of people below the age of 25. The idea was to recreate the natural scenario of a family enjoying an evening together, or friends catching up.

How did we find these folks? We used our database from the SG Research Network, bolstered by targetted Facebook ads. We worked at finding one eligible participant—like a parent—and then explored the possibility of having two other members of the same family over for the research. Conducting the research on the weekend also helped, especially since several members of a family were involved in one session. (It also didn’t hurt that we were offering decent compensation for each paricipating family member.)

Setting the Stage

If you are conducting this kind of study in a controlled environment, set up your lab with some context. It’s important to give people who are participating in the study some perspective on what they are about to discuss. For discussing the TV viewing experience, we set the lab up to look like a living room, complete with a couch, a television, a coffee table, and a table lamp!

Participants felt naturally at ease in this environment: one of the participants placed a cushion on her lap while her son sprawled out on the floor to play a game on his iPad.

Running the Study

Running a dyad/triad study can be fun and can also yield some rich qualitative data. If the participants have a strong connection, like the members of family or old friends, you can see various layers of relationship dynamics at play. Use a video camera to record the subtle way participants interact with each other. Some of the habitual behavior between families and among friends and siblings helped us garner key insights.

For example, one of the interviews involved a family of three (a mom and her two teenaged kids). It was easy to see spot the decision maker in this scenario! The mom tended to put words in her kids' mouths when responding to queries. It was interesting though, that she kept unconsciously looking to the kids when there were queries about mobile devices. Later when we made her aware of this behavior, she told us that she ‘“had no idea about technology and was looking to them for guidance!”

Here are a few pointers to a conducting a successful dyad/ triad session:

Introduce yourself and explain the purpose of the session: Putting participants at ease is key to gathering insights. If they are relaxed, they will behave more naturally and be more willing to open up to you. We asked the following questions to help break the ice:

  1. Can you describe a typical weekend spent with family/friends?
  2. Have you ever hosted house parties around a game/show? Can you describe how you planned these events?
  3. How do you manage your TV watching schedule at home, when there are different people with varying tastes?

Get their imaginations going: If you want to validate a concept, build a story around a scenario and see how they react to it? People love stories. A story is bound to be more effective than merely asking, “What do think about this concept?”

For instance, to elicit genuine reactions from the participants, a scenario was described around a get together at the participant’s home, where one of the guests finds the remote control and proceeds to flip through the channels inadvertently. Participants reacted to this instinctively, with one them nearly jumping out of his seat to protest!

Get them talking: In a dyad/triad scenario, there is a tendency for one person to lead the discussion, while the others listen quietly, just like they would at home. That’s ok, but make sure you hear from everyone.

  • Inform all the participants at the beginning of the session that you need to hear from each of them in turn. Be aware that teenagers can be guarded around their parents and unconsciously look to them for approval before they say something.
  • Following each query, observe how the participants interact. If one of them was more vocal, acknowledge the response and pointedly ask the quiet participant about his or her view. Commonly, parents look to teenagers to answer queries that they perceive difficult to understand, like those involving smart devices.
  • If the quiet participant answers monosyllabically, ask them to explain their responses with an example or a scenario. For instance, if a participant said they liked a feature in the product, the next question would be “Give me an example of how you would use this feature.”
  • Every family clearly stated that they would never disturb another member of the family while he or she was engaged with a show on television or on a smart device. They respected each other’s space. Follow this principle while conducting the session. Ask to hear from each participant. Also mention that it is ok to have differing opinions from spouses, partners, parents, or siblings.
  • Be aware that teenagers may not want to disclose some of their habits with their parents or with the facilitator.
  • Design your participant groups so that there are groups of just teenagers as well as families with teenagers. Young people often love to open up in the company of peers, especially when you ask them for their opinion. A dyad eye tracking study we conducted in Sydney with kids aged from 6-15 revealed that kids are genuinely interested in helping you making things better!


The dyad/triad methodology is an effective method of getting several diverse opinions in one go, without having to visit peoples’ homes. Furthermore, the subtle body language and the interaction between participants can yield some really cool qualitative insights that reach far beyond what you would get in a one-on-one situation. You can use this method when you want see how family/ friends interact with each other and make decisions about a product or service and when you want to explore different perspectives and reactions to a feature/characteristic in a family or social context. Happy Testing!


Image of sisters fighting over the remote control courtesy Shuttershock