Working with Participants : 7 Tips to Review

Mikey Brogdon, Human Interfaces

When it comes to conducting user experience research, participants are everything. The goal of UX research is not only to be well-versed in qualitative and quantitative approaches, but more importantly, to understand the user. To truly get at that goal you must get real users to participate in research sessions where you can glean as much insight from them as possible. Achieving this requires preparation, empathy, and conscious effort. Here are seven tips to help you when working with participants.

1. They are the experts.

Years of education and preparation to conduct UX research does not make you the expert during UX research. The reason why participant research is done is to learn from them. We consider how they think and behave, how they interact with technology, and how things could improve from their perspective. Inside of the lab, the participant is the expert, and you are an interested observer and listener that extracts that expertise from them. If you enter a lab believing yourself to be the expert, you are limiting what you can gain from the study. If you approach a study with the idea that the participant is the expert, you will be able to gain valuable insights and understanding into whatever the subject may be. You will respect their opinions, be concerned with their actions and experiences, and be able to recognize the valuable insights they hold.

2. Learn their language.

The key aspect of participant-based research is understanding, and the core of understanding is communication. If you want to make the most of a study, you must prepare ahead of time and immerse yourself in the participant’s culture. As an example, fairly common study topics in the Austin area revolve around technology, and often IT professionals are the subject matter experts. Preparation for such technical studies includes familiarizing yourself with the technologies involved, especially the industry-specific words, acronyms, phrases, and ideas that go along with that technology. If I enter a study where the subject matter is server hardware, I need to know that individual pieces of a server are referred to as components, and I need to learn what many of those components are called and how they are used. I need to understand how servers are used in the workplace, the relationship between virtual machines and physical servers, and what terms like “enterprise” mean. I need to understand what the IT professional’s work day is like, how they use their time, and what sorts of things could frustrate them. All of these things will influence how I communicate with the participant during that study, and if I shirk my preparation, the communication will be weaker and any insights will be less insightful. Language is the core to communication, and communication is the key to understanding. If you want to understand your participants, you must learn to speak their language.

3. Pay close attention to the details.

If you want to truly understand what a participant is experiencing, you need to notice the little things. Maybe they say something particularly colorful, or maybe they fumble a bit when handling something, or maybe they just look at one spot frequently. These little nuances are telling! The colorful comment may include underlying frustration, the fumbling may mean something isn’t quite working, and the frequent glances may mean something is catching their eye. Being able to spot these nuances and ask careful questions to get the participant to elaborate is the key to understanding their perspective. Combined with an understanding of their language, noticing the details will open communication and lead to the best insights.

4. Ask lots of questions.

And by lots I mean LOTS. Ask follow-up questions to your primary lines of inquiry, and ask follow-up questions to the follow-up questions. When you notice something, ask them about it. If you notice a participant doing something out of the ordinary, point it out at an appropriate time and ask about why they believe they behave that way. Questions are your best tool in gleaning understanding. The more you ask, the more you will understand, especially if you have done your homework and know the best questions to ask.

5. It’s ok to smile, but be careful not to reinforce behaviors.

Impartiality is important in research, but that doesn’t mean you have to be stone-faced. In fact, relating to your participant is an important way of getting them to open up. Be careful about reinforcing any behavior, however. If you encourage a certain way of acting, you are biasing your own results. For example, if the participant makes light of some aspect of the study, don’t laugh along. Doing so would communicate to your participant that you agree with their making light of that aspect of the study, and encourage them to make light of the rest. This is not to say you should make the situation awkward, but be temperate and polite in your responses if you want to minimize the impact of behavioral reinforcement.

6. If you’re relaxed, they will have an easier time relaxing.

Being in a test environment can be stressful, especially if you feel like you’re the one being tested. A moderator that is relaxed contributes to a relaxed atmosphere that puts participants at ease. During the early phases of a study session, take time to relate to the participant and help them feel more comfortable in the study environment. Assure them that there is no pressure to perform a certain way and that there are no right or wrong answers, and if you see them becoming strained, do what you can to help them relax. A stressed participant will rarely give you the quality of data that a relaxed participant will give you, so go out of your way to ensure that your participant can be as stress-free as possible.

7. Be on the same page as those invested in the project.

While this idea is less directly connected to working with participants, it is still critical to doing participant research. One major concern that often arises with participant research is variability: two observers in a room with a participant will come away with varied notes and ideas. This would occur simply because they are different people with different experiences and each brings different biases into that room. Thus, it is very important to be on the same page as those who are invested in the research. Understanding where those stakeholders stand, what they want to glean from the research, and how they will be utilizing the results will help you tune your observations and produce actionable results. Bringing this understanding with you into the lab as you work with participants will also help you ask the right questions, communicate clearly, and notice the right details.

Working with participants can be unpredictable. Each participant brings their own set of challenges into the lab, but they bring a unique set of opportunities, too. Diligent preparation, striving to understand and earnestly communicate, and putting conscious effort into each session will help you make the most of your participant research.

Mikey Brogdon has an MS in Human Systems Engineering and a passion for writing. He enjoys studying how people interact with technology, especially if that technology is in an automobile. He currently works with an expert team of UX professionals at Human Interfaces, Inc. to develop custom research solutions for any UX challenge. If you need help from a full-service UX research consultancy for a study, recruitment, or facility rental, visit our website, send us an email, or connect with us through LinkedIn.