Protecting Yourself During User Research

Last week I ran a user research session that went sour and felt unsafe.
I almost never recruit from Craigslist and now I remember why.

The Craigslist Creeper

My team and I sat by the elevator doors waiting for our participant sourced from Craigslist to show up. Let’s call him James. When James finally arrived we moved to a conference room to begin the session. Also in the room was my research wingman, a male developer on the project. He was taking notes. The rest of our team was in another room watching the session via Google Hangout.

James and I chatted for awhile about what he uses his three different cellphones for. One a free “Obama phone” the other he shares with his girlfriend and the third an Android. It didn’t really add up. We moved on. I showed him photos our team is considering using for an iPhone welcome screen. I laid out flashcards with different emotional words printed on them. I asked him to pickup the cards that described how he felt about the photos.

Out of nowhere, Craigslist James told my wingman I was sexy. I froze. Did he really just say that outloud? James nearly apologized by saying “I shouldn’t talk about you like, you’re not in the room.” I collected myself and reminded him I was in the room. He shouldn’t be talking about me like that at all. We continued the session with my Spidey Sense on alert. Looking back we should have ended the session right then.

James got weird said the photos reminded him of suicide, murder, rape, gloomy, death, etc. He also kept talking about being sleepy and I eventually figured out he was probably also high. James then locked eyes with my chest and low-hanging jewelry and said he liked my necklace. He didn’t stop staring at my breasts. It shouldn’t matter for the story, but they were fully covered. By then, everyone in the viewing room racing to figure out how to end the session.

At that point a teammate from the observer room texted us to with a fake story about a fake meeting. Time for James to go home. While walking James out of the office he insisted several times I should call him if I needed anything at all. He didn’t even understand what he did was inappropriate. No thank you.

How I Felt

James never touched or attacked me. But the longer he was in the room the more unsafe and at risk I felt. When I reread these accounts, it doesn’t sound as horrifying as it felt in the moment. After James left, I questioned what I was wearing, felt like it was my fault, felt embarrassed, and thought I did something to provoke him. I’ve worked on enough women’s and sexual violence campaigns to know it was James, not me, who crossed the line.

I used to hangout late in the nightlife scene. I learned how to stay cool and protect myself at underground parties. So, in that moment I felt I had the skills to handle James’ strange behavior. But, my composure actually made it hard for my wingman in the room to know I felt uncomfortable. I was so shocked by the experience because it happened in my office, in a place where my guard is down. So, I asked my managers and team how to prevent this from happening again.

Protecting Yourself

There are several things you can do to take care of your personal safety.


Do everything in your power to recruit users from known networks. Public links always come with risk but having even remote connections to participants is huge.

When I use Facebook or LinkedIn, I often search my networks by filtering keywords by posts, people, or location. On LinkedIn I search for companies or types of jobs, then look for a 1st, 2nd or even sometimes third connection. I ask my friends and colleagues in other communities to do the same, so the participants and insights are diverse. Yes, it’s a lot of work but you’ll get better insights than random people off the street and also protect yourself and your team.

Google Ventures has a great post on finding participants and writing screener surveys. In their screener examples you’ll see they ask several open-ended question. If a respondent leaves the fields blank or writes one or two words, don’t schedule an interview. Find ways to make them talk to you before inviting them into the office.


If you must recruit from the public, take precaution and stay on guard.

Before inviting randos into the office, schedule a short phone call with them beforehand. This helps you find anything out of the ordinary. Do not call from or share your personal phone number. Get a Google Voice or Twilio account and share number that routes to your office’s front desk.

If for some reason you cannot get on the phone, have several email exchanges with your participant. Ask them open ended questions that require written coherent sentences. Short phone call or sensible email replies can be enough to filter off some of the crazies.

Running a Session

You might do all these things and someone shady still might come through your doors.

Always, I mean, always, run the session with another person in the room. I’ve been calling this person the Wingman. Even if you work on a 5 person team of people who are over worked and double booked, do not get in a room by yourself with an unknown stranger. Invite a friend over, bring in someone from another team. Figure it out. Don’t go at it alone.

Ending a Session

You can end the session any time. The moment you feel unsafe, uncomfortable, at risk, or you’re not learning what you need, call it quits. Ideally, having several teammates observing the session from another room who can help gauge if the session should end. You can also setup a codeword with your wingman to signal when a session is unsafe or a dud.

When it comes to payment, use your best judgement. If withholding compensation will agitate the participant, pay them and protect yourself.

Here are a few ways to do it:

  1. Take a break. Use this time to confer with your colleague and tell the participant your team needs to take the research in a different direction. If you don’t feel safe going back in the room, have your colleague or someone else see the participant out of the office.
  2. Recall that you have a meeting. Come up with an excuse. It doesn’t matter. End the session and see the participant out of the office.
  3. End the session immediately. You don’t need to explain yourself if you need to end the session. Ignore your script and tell your participant that’s the end of your questions. See them out of the office.


If for some reason something unsafe happens in your research, end the session and talk to someone you trust immediately. Don’t put yourself at risk for the sake of research. Listen to your instincts and use your head. Stay safe out there.