Skip to content

Get Answers Beyond “It’s Fine”: Try ACV Laddering

Use the ACV laddering method to go beyond asking "why?" and better understand your participants' values and rationales.

Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Thumy Phan

Have you ever been in an interview where you’re moments from uncovering something crucial about the user's behavior or motivation...and this happens?

Researcher: "And what do you think about the experience on the app?"

Participant: "It's fine."

Researcher: "Fine?"

Participant: "Yup. Fine."

Researcher: "Anything else?" (begging and screaming inside)

Participant: "Not that I can think of."

You know the pain.

While it’s disappointing to walk away from an unsuccessful session, it’s important to remember that answering honestly and openly requires a lot of self-awareness. Many of us don't understand our deep-rooted motivations, and we don't feel particularly apt to share these with a total stranger.

Jump to...

When typical methods aren't enough

The above is the exact reason why we have widely known methods such as TEDW, or the "five why's" techniques.

The five why's technique reminds us to ask why five times to get to the core of why a participant is saying what they are saying.

These methods allow users to open up and elaborate on their answers by focusing on open-ended questions, memory recall, and stories. With these approaches, you can get rich qualitative data, including more profound insights into the participant's mind.

However, sometimes these methods aren't enough. Or, we have exhaustively asked why (more than five times) and been met with the same answer and a bit of frustration. Just because you open a conversation with TEDW questions doesn't guarantee you will get to the core of a participant's thought process or behavior.

So what is another technique you can use to get the most out of your (short) time with participants? Enter ACV laddering.

Back to top

Where did ACV laddering come from?

Laddering was first introduced in the 1960s via clinical psychologists. It was presented as a way to get through all of the noise to understand a person's actual values and belief system. It was popularized because it was a simple method of establishing a person's mental models and became a well-established tool in psychology.

This methodology is based on the means-end-chain theory. The means-end-chain theory assigns a hierarchy to how people think about purchasing (because everything comes back to money):

  1. People look at the characteristics of a product (shiny, red car)
  2. People determine the functional, social, and mental benefits for buying the product (I can get from point A to point B, I get a new car, the car is cool)
  3. People have unconscious thoughts about values that align with their reasoning for the purchase (A new car makes me feel cool, which makes me feel young, ultimately making me feel important and less insecure about my age, looks, etc.)

As much as we'd like to believe otherwise, we do make decisions based on emotional triggers. So while we can look at a product and think that we're buying it for a functional reason, our choices have deeper motives.

Because it can be challenging to get at people's underlying values and rationales, we need to bring in different techniques to help us, such as ACV laddering.

Back to top

What is ACV laddering?

Essentially, ACV laddering is a probing technique that helps a researcher reach a participant's core value through conversation. ACV laddering breaks down the means-end-chain theory into three categories:

  1. Attributes (A): The characteristics a person assigns to a product or a system
  2. Consequences (C): Each attribute has a consequence or gives the user a particular benefit and feeling associated with the product
  3. Core values (V): Each consequence is linked to a value or belief system of that person, which is the unconscious (and hard to measure) driver of their behaviors.

During the interview, a facilitator starts with a broad question and then uses subsequent questions to bring a participant up the ladder.

For example, you begin with the product's attributes, then bring the participant through the consequences (both functional and psychological), and then ladder up once more to the core value. As you ladder up, you get closer to motivations regarding the "self" rather than the "product."

A quick example to help illustrate this concept would be asking a participant why they use Apple instead of Windows.

We miss out on so much if we stop at the attribute or even the functional consequence. But it can be easy to stop at this point if we don't keep ACV laddering in mind.

However, when we know that there's a difference between functional and psychological consequences and even a step up to value, we can identify these steps in our research sessions. Then, it becomes easier to understand if we have stopped at a consequence or made it to a value with that knowledge.

Plus, if you think about it, knowing that someone needs to feel in control of their work is a lot more powerful for the team than "Apple is easier to use."

Back to top

How do I use ACV laddering?

ACV laddering is grounded in qualitative research. When using ACV laddering, 1x1 interviews are an excellent method to use as it gives you time with the participant to get into those consequences and core values. When it comes to this technique, I will typically speak to 15-20 participants for 60-90 minutes and then use survey-based methods to quantify the qualitative research.

It is best to use ACV laddering when trying to understand a decision-making process. It doesn't have to be a purchase necessarily, but a point when a person is choosing a product.

For example, ACV laddering will be helpful if your team is wondering:

  1. Why people choose a competitor over your product
  2. Why people are (or aren't) using your app/product
  3. How they can improve the product (beyond features)

If you find yourself in this situation and can recruit that number of participants, ACV laddering will be an excellent method to practice. Whenever I prepare for an ACV interview, I always write the different steps of the ladder on a piece of paper to remind myself:

  • Attributes
  • Functional consequence
  • Psychological consequence
  • Core value

Then, as always, I begin with a broad question and use either the five why's or TEDW technique to keep them going up the ladder.

For example, let's assume we work at a wine cooler company, and we're trying to understand why people choose our wine colors over other alcoholic drinks. We have recruited people who have purchased our product in the past.

- Q: Why do you purchase wine coolers instead of other options?

- A: They are less alcoholic than other options (attribute)

- Q: Interesting. Why do you like them because they are less alcoholic?

- A: I can't drink as many as other types of alcohol, which is important (functional consequence)

- Q: Why is that important to you?

- A: I don't get as drunk and tired (functional consequence)

- Q: And how does not getting as drunk and tired impact you?

- A: Well, I don't want to look like a drunk… I need to appear sophisticated (psychological consequence)

- Q: Sophisticated?

- A: It is important for me to get the respect of others, and it is hard to do that when you're drunk (core value)

Of course, not every conversation will lead to a core value this quickly, but this illustrates how you bring someone up the ladder. With ACV laddering in mind, it is easier to pick up on attributes and consequences to, ultimately, get to someone's core value behind their actions or thoughts.

Back to top

How do I share ACV laddering?

Once you've conducted your interviews and found patterns in attributes, consequences, and core values, there are two main ways to share.

First, you can put this information into a report, explaining the different levels and insights you found. Alternatively, you can create a Consumer Decision Map (CDM), which reveals the most common decision paths, or value chains, that explain consumer behavior.

Using the example above, a CDM would look like this:

When you use ACV laddering, you get very concrete insights that are much deeper than whether or not someone liked something or even a story they recall. This can impact the entire user experience, from how it is displayed, how the copy is written, how the product is sold, the micro-interactions within a product, the colors, and features that align with people's core values.

Although it does take quite a lot of practice, ACV laddering is a powerful technique and one worth exploring. If you have questions on ACV laddering or other methods, check out the People Nerds Slack community.

Interested in other articles like this?

  • The team at Dropbox conducted a longitudinal study with a mix of unmoderated and moderated methods to dig deeper into the usability challenges their customers were facing, address those issues, and identify where they could really impact their user's needs. See their approach and the results.
  • The restaurant industry is constantly changing and evolving, the team at Relish Works conducted 400 two-minute interviews to better understand the food service employee experience. See how this approach led to in-depth insights and the opportunity to cross-pollinate information across the organization.
  • The team at Salesforce Ignite surveyed 900 people to find the value proposition behind a new product. See how they were able to find key opportunities to delight their customers and have the data to back up their findings.

Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

Subscribe To People Nerds

A weekly roundup of interviews, pro tips and original research designed for people who are interested in people

The Latest