Breaking the ice: How to help quiet participants talk
Isn’t it frustrating when you can’t seem to get answers from a participant? Here are two points for your next UX research session.
You’ve spent the past week planning your research, scouring your prototype for all the possible actions your user might take. You’ve devised your observation points and are eager to ask your list of questions. The participant is finally sitting in front of you. You ask them to sign a non disclosure agreement. You’ve gone through all the necessary formalities.
At long last you ask your questions…
But what’s that you hear?
What can we do to help participants talk?
On my first week of conducting usability tests with invited participants, this was exactly what had happened to me. I could have sworn I had done everything by the book. I had set up all necessary tools, I had gone over the scenarios with my colleagues, I had been over the prototype a couple dozen times, and yet somehow my participant could not answer my questions.
Needless to say, I was bewildered. I would spend the following weeks figuring out what we as researchers can do to make the most out of our time with participants. For the experienced researcher, these points may already be second nature to them. But my hopes are that fellow aspiring UX researchers may find these tips particularly helpful.
Build rapport or get (close to) nothing at all.
When we think of rapport building, we think of the precursory small talk prior to the more important interview questions. To get through this in as little time as possible we memorize a cheat sheet list of questions that we sprint through before the interview begins. But that begs the question:
If the whole point of building rapport is so that our participants will be more inclined to answer our questions during the interview, then why do we hope to establish good rapport by going through a list of questions?
Building rapport is not just small talk in the hopes that the participant will be more open to your later questions. This participant has only just met you and is sitting across you: a total stranger. It’s going to take more than just half-hearted small talk for them to open up to you. A colleague once said to me:
Building rapport is a two way street; it’s not enough for you to know where they work, what they do and how the traffic was for them. The participant also needs to know who you are, what you do and perhaps how the traffic was for you.
It is because of this we shouldn’t treat rapport building as an interview. When building rapport it isn’t enough to merely drop acknowledgement tokens (mm hmm, uh huh, aah) in order to conserve our energy. Genuine reactions and follow up questions are necessary. Don’t just get to know your participants, let your participants get to know you. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to build an instant friendship, but at the very least your participants won’t see you as that much of a stranger and hopefully will be more inclined to answer your later questions.
Don’t let them know the correctness of their answers.
Speak at any event, or teach at any class, and ask a simple question. You’ll be astonished to find that even when sat among their peers in a crowd that far outnumbers you, rarely will anyone stand up and answer your question. Why? Often times it isn’t because they don’t know the answer, but because they’re afraid of getting it wrong.
Just like everyone else, our participants can also have a fear of failing our usability tests and incorrectly answering our probes. But how do our participants find out that they made a mistake? From us, the researchers of course.
As researchers it falls upon us not only to ask questions, but also to do everything we can to not influence our participants’ answers. When asking questions, we take extra care to not ask leading questions. But what is equally important is how we react to the answers given to us. Even when those answers make you feel like ripping out your hair.
If we manage to refrain from varying the tone of our voice and the expressions on our face in reaction to their answers, then participants will have no baseline of their success rate and in turn will not be pressured to recreate or avoid our reactions.
I understand how tempting it can be to let out a sigh of relief when a participant finally completes a task. But what this does is tell the participant that they’re doing something right and consequently pressures them to do the next right thing in pursuit of your positive reaction. Conversely by silently expressing our helpless frustration through a raise of an eyebrow we are telling them that they’re failing the usability test. This, if noticed might consequently demoralize them for the remainder of the session.
Maintaining a “poker face” is essential in achieving unbiased answers, but more importantly perhaps is that it’s paramount in receiving any answer at all. A participant who knows he/she answered the last question incorrectly is far less likely to be as confident in answering any later question than a participant who has no clue as to the correctness of their previous answers.
Our participants are people. Just like you and I, they need time to open up to strangers and they worry about making mistakes (especially when they know there’s an incentive waiting for them at the end of the session). Before going through your next session with a participant, take some time to have a proper chat with them. After you’ve established that you’re no longer a strangers, then go and ask your questions. But be sure to keep your poker face on.
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