4 things you can do to win the heart of your user researcher

So you were sent this post, which hopefully means you’re going to be joining some user research sessions soon! How exciting! Either that, or you just love your user researcher and are eager make their lives a little easier. My goal with this post is to encourage all digital product people to gain direct access to their users, and demystify some of what goes into conducting a user research session for those that might not have experience conducting them.

Why this is important: In horse race betting, tips would circulate on which horse is in the best form. The best and most trusted tips would come from those who are in the inner circle — the jockeys, trainers, etc. — i.e., those that have had direct contact with the horse. Hence the idiom “From the horses mouth,” which we know means “reliable information from the highest authority.” For those of you who make products, you know that we bet on ideas. Talking to directly to users is one way we can gain confidence for which ideas will or will not win.

I’m a big believer that user research is for everyone, and all roles benefit from getting product feedback straight from the horse’s mouth. A true team-wide effort. That said, there is a right way and a wrong way to do user research. If your team’s designated researcher is protective of letting just anyone join the sessions, just know they might have their reasons — such as overwhelming the participant with a 5 on 1 interrogation situation. But they should always want other perspectives on what’s happening in the room. Try to get a one way live share going to another room so you can listen remotely if that’s the case.

If you ask to join a session, or are requested to, here’s a few tips to make sure everyone gets the most out of that session.

Theres a lot out there on this topic, but most of it is written for the researcher. More often than not, observers are designers, product managers, and stakeholders.

1. Take good notes.

Are you an observer or a note taker? In the room, or out of the room? Not everyone needs to be a note taker — just one person. In fact, it will work better if only one person takes notes. (Think about 10 cursors on one google doc all firing away at the same time… nope. Or worse, 10 different documents with more or less the same thing and having to merge them into one. Double nope.) Your job as the note taker is just that — take notes. If your job is to be an observer, just listen and jot things down that stand out.

Why: omg, it saves so much time. Transcribing from a recording is tedious. Ask any researcher — it’s the worst part of the job. Plus we have to sit and listen to our own voices later, which also sucks.

How to do it: Ask the moderator how they want it done. Hopefully, they have some kind of expectation for you, like where to to take notes, or in what format; do they want it chronological or topical, etc. If not, it’s best to try to get everything down as close to verbatim as possible and from the perspective of the participant (for easy quote-pulling later), and with as little personal bias as possible. I find it’s way easier to do this chronological, instead of jumping around the page. Try to get the questions down too — sometimes the context of what was asked is just as important as the response.

The reason why we take notes on the sessions is to analyze the patterns later, therefore you shouldn’t assume you know what the patterns are in the session. If you’re making decisions about what is and is not important, you might miss jotting something down that ended up being the key to something you weren’t necessarily thinking about.

I’ve heard (and experienced myself) a hundred times from startup founders, designers, and user researchers who said 20 sessions in they suddenly had a new question or noticed a new pattern, and had to go back through every session to see if it came up elsewhere. If your notes are incomplete, the outcomes are very costly: you can either listen back to every single one, do more interviews to prove the hypothesis, or abandon the search.

2. Let the moderator moderate.

Sitting in on a session doesn’t mean you get to interject whenever you want. This can throw the participant off, or even make them feel interrogated.

How to do it: If you’re in the room and visible to the participant, it’s best to politely introduce yourself, and tell them you’re just there to take notes so they don’t feel like they have to give their attention to more than one person. For interjections, it’s best to wait until the moderator asks you if you have any other questions to add. (Note, If you’re the researcher here, it is best practice to ask your note taker in the room if they have any questions to add, and you’ll likely benefit from doing so. See number 3).

3. Request follow-up questions (discreetly)

Not out loud, obviously because of reason number 2, but if you have a way of asking the moderator discreetly, do it!

Here’s why: Moderating isn’t easy. You’re battling your biases and combating the normal rules of conversation that are otherwise second nature; you’re carefully trying to make sure all the questions that need to get asked are asked in the allotted time; you’re actively trying to signal that you’re listening (which, spoiler alert, means you do have to actively listen); you’re queueing up the next question in your head; and all the while you’re processing and realizing patterns from past sessions. Anyone who’s had experience running user interviews will tell you it’s exhausting. We hit the moderation mode button, and go. Sometimes we miss things! Sometimes we don’t ask that one follow-up we should have, and don’t realize it until we listen to the recording later. Nothing sucks harder than a missed opportunity to uncover the thing that cracks the case wide open, and the moderator will likely appreciate the efforts.

Me after moderating a research session

How to do it: I’ve found it’s really helpful to have a chat window open, and receive questions there. A simple “Ask why they said x” is great. Or if the session is remote, signal non-verbally with a shruggy shoulder and mouth the word ‘WHY?’ to prompt the follow-up question. Make sure the moderator is comfortable with this first, but they’ll likely appreciate it. Also, don’t maniacally pound rapid-fire questions in all caps at the moderator mid session, which I actually had a former co-worker do. It’s incredibly distracting.

4. Be a good collaborator

If you’re joining a session, listen! Multi-tasking and cherry picking the conversation for information that stands out to you will only confirm your own biases, and skew the results. Stick around for the debrief, and share what you heard, and tell the team what your highlights were. Hearing from all perspectives is super valuable for mitigating any one person’s bias and improving the quality of the research. Lastly, spend 3 minutes to tidy up your notes, and share them with the team. Taking the extra couple minutes to clean it up, and making sure to tie up every sentence so that expresses a complete thought goes a long way toward drawing out those insights.

Team work makes the dream work.

I realize this was written to observers and note takers, but all this advice goes to researchers too. It’s important to keep the door to this research open and accessible, so extend the invite. Safeguarding your insider tips doesn’t do anyone any favors, and you’d be surprised by who actually does want to join. In the end, giving your teammates access to hear it for themselves is only going to improve their trust in the ‘insider tips’ you bring back from users.

As the user research moderator, it’s your job to level set on what’s expected from observers in this process. Too many times I’ve forgotten to do that, or just assumed people would ‘follow the rules’ listed above and then had to double back to re-set expectations. It makes research slower and harder, but we all know the first step to recovery is admitting it was all your fault. Kidding, but not really…I’m guilty of it all the time.

To the researchers out there, feel free to send this out to your observers and note takers before your session to get all that level-setting out of the way early.

Am I missing anything? What have your research collaborators done that have helped you?

Header photo by Noah Silliman