The One Thing: A Quick Way to Build Rapport With Research Participants

Omid Farivar
Meta Research
Published in
6 min readMar 14, 2017


By Omid Farivar, UX Researcher, with contributions from Maryhope Rutherford, UX Researcher

The One Thing

Hi, I’m Omid. I’ve been at Facebook for 2½ years working as a (primarily qualitative-focused) User Experience Researcher. This is my second job in industry since graduating from the University of Michigan School of Information, and I’ve learned a lot by working with the talented and diverse crew we have here.

I’ve also picked up a few things on my own. This note captures One of those Things (see what I did there?).

Small talk, big impact

The ability to conduct a solid user interview should be a core part of every industry qualitative researcher’s skill set. But there’s a crucial step before the actual study begins: the time spent greeting your participant and making them feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with you. You want to be friendly, yet professional. Professional, yet friendly. It’s important to strike the right balance, as the quality of your data will depend on how much participants choose to share.

Most interviewers make at least some effort to put participants at ease with some informal preliminary chat. Without it, people just don’t open up as much. Unfortunately, because this stage feels so casual, it’s easy for us to treat it casually. I’ve learned that it’s actually a make-or-break moment — my only chance to establish the kind of rapport that brings out the best in participants.

How do I build that rapport? I use The One Thing™.

Enough with the clickbait. What is the One Thing?

It’s actually very simple. During the first five minutes or so of meeting with your participant, continuously ask yourself this question:

What One Thing do I have in common with this participant?

We all have standard intros we run through with participants, like “Do you have questions about the NDA you signed?” and “We’ll be recording this session for internal purposes only.” These are typically followed by icebreakers: “What do you do for a living?”; “What are your favorite kinds of videos to watch on Facebook?”; and “So who did you vote for?” (Just kidding — please don’t use this, ever.)

We should all know that during this introductory part of your moderator script, it’s key to establish some kind of rapport. But it’s not enough to hope that something emerges naturally. Instead, I use this time to zero in on the One Thing: What information can I latch onto that might quickly uncover some common ground?

A real example, with thought processes

  • Omid (O): “What are your favorite kinds of videos to watch on Facebook?

That’s a basic intro question you might expect from a researcher who works on videos at Facebook. (Hi.)

  • Fake Participant (FP): “I’m not sure … things my friends post … political news … viral funny videos … sports highlights?

Cool. FP gets the question and has a quick answer. But at this point, let’s try prodding just a bit to make them feel a bit more comfortable in the session.

  • O: “Oh, I’m into sports as well. What are some of your favorite teams?

I didn’t say what sports, but I’m showing interest in their habits and want to know more.

  • FP: “The Warriors, the Raiders, and lately, the Quakes!

At this point, you’re in One Thing territory. Do you like any of these teams as well? Boom. There’s your connection. Talk about that for 30 seconds. If not, you could poke a friendly jab (“What city do the Raiders play for now?”) and also build that connection.

  • O: “I grew up in SoCal so I’m a giant Lakers fan. I can’t believe the Dubs got Durant! Why couldn’t we get CP3?!

At this point, FP knows I’m into basketball. That’s our One Thing.

  • FP: “Maybe you guys can sign his twin brother.

We’ve laughed it up a bit and FP should be feeling much more comfortable than they were five minutes ago.

It’s important to remember that most participants have never participated in a design research session before. It’s on us to make them feel comfortable sharing what’s on their mind. This is where the One Thing shines. It helps reassure them that although we’re the expert conducting this session, we’re basically like them. We just happen to be doing work — which we need their help in completing.

So why just One Thing? The more common ground, the more comfort, right? I’ve found that identifying more than one connection tends to lead participants to feel too much like you’re their friend. Maybe they’ll go off on a tangent and you’ll have to bring them back. Or they might start talking a little too much about their lives rather than helping you with the task at hand.

It’s not always easy

Naturally, not every participant will be as receptive and talkative as our “FP” above. How should your strategy change when you’re having trouble making a connection?

My go-to strategy when participants seem reticent or nervous is to just let them talk about Facebook for a little bit. Usually, I’ve found that people have strong opinions about the product. (Is it the same with your company’s product(s)?) But even when they don’t, letting them share their experience tends to provide more chances to establish rapport.

For example, I was recently having trouble getting a participant to express any opinion about our various Videos products. So I asked about their experience going “Live” on Facebook for the first time. After they finished talking about their experience, I responded with “Oh jeez, I remember my first Live broadcast as well!” (in which I accidentally interviewed two people who’d been hanging out near me, wondering what was going on). This helped lighten the mood, opening the door to a more candid conversation.

A simple strategy with deep roots

The One Thing is a moderating strategy that I’ve developed just through personal experience and repetition. But it turns out to be backed by some substantial research. Big shoutout to Facebook Research colleague Maryhope Rutherford, who helped with this secondary research and even shared some of her unpublished work with me.

Back in 1988, a really important theory rose up in psychology that became known as the “intimacy process model.” This blog post explains the model in simple terms:

“…sharing and revealing of information should be a two way road. Both persons need to disclose something about themselves during conversations that take place in the course of the relationship. Lack of disclosure [of] personal information is usually perceived as lack of interest.”

Another important element that may be at play here is the concept of “self-affirmation.” In a nutshell, when we give people a chance to assert their self-worth, we reduce their defensiveness and make them more likely to accept threatening information. While we are (hopefully) never presenting threatening information in the lab, we are asking for a lot: to reflect on your past and share the details, to provide true and critical feedback for a prototype, and in many ways, to be vulnerable.

The One Thing may work in part by giving people a chance to demonstrate their expertise on something familiar — themselves — before we ask them a bunch of questions about something unfamiliar, in an environment that might be threatening. (The difficulty of being critical of Facebook at Facebook is a bias we must tackle as UX Researchers).

What it’s all for

Our mission at Facebook is to make the world more open and connected. As part of that mission, we UX Researchers serve as the voice of the people in our community so that our product teams can better understand and meet their needs. By deepening my engagement with participants, the One Thing strategy helps me make sure their voices come through loud and clear. In turn, I get to share more as well, and not appear like a robot that just extracts insights and moves on to the next participant on my schedule.

Try it out for a study or two — just find that One Thing — and let me know how it went. If you want to follow up, you can connect with me @

P.S. This trick is rumored to work at parties, too. Not that I would know.

Omid Farivar, UX Researcher at Facebook