When a user session gets weird
How to get helpful information (at least a little) if things fall apart.
I was recently observing a ux-er conduct a series of research sessions, each of which was a mix of an exploratory interview and a contextual walkthrough. This was his first time conducting a user session professionally and, though he was a bit nervous,things seemed to be going along rather well in practice and his first session. But, just a few minutes into the second session, things started falling apart, rapidly.
This happens, and it’s ok.But how do you still get the most out of a session?
As soon as you realize that the user isn’t responding to the particular method you’re using, stop using that method…immediately. The point of the session is to get any useful information about the topic. If what you’re doing isn’t getting that information, stop so that you can try something that will work.
2. Make sure you’re not the problem.
In my experience, whenever a user gets angry or quiet or unresponsive, it can often be my fault. I may be sitting defensively or being quiet or even have a harsh tone to my voice. It’s incredibly important for the user to feel at ease — and that attitude starts with the session moderator. So take a gigantic mental breath and readjust.
3. Change the focus.
Sometimes people just don’t respond well to a particular method. So switch gears and try a different way of asking the questions. For example, I was once moderating a session where the user was having trouble finding the words she wanted to use. She was visibly frustrated and kept calling herself “stupid” and “dumb”.
To switch gears, I pulled out some paper and started drawing the things she was talking about. Since I don’t draw well, I made jokes about my stick figures, moving the focus away from her perceived faults. I asked her to help, and, as she was an illustrator, she had no problem finishing the scene I was drawing. When she was done, she was much more at ease and able to articulate herself better.
4. Don’t be afraid to end the session
About 7 minutes into an exploratory interview with a teacher, it became apparent that the person I was talking to was not actually a teacher. I’m not sure how he got through our recruiter, but he wasn’t able to talk about his teaching methods, coworkers, or even his school.
Since this person was not in our audience, I didn’t believe that he would give the targeted information we needed. So I politely said that we made a mistake in recruiting and that we were looking for a different type of teacher. I thanked him for his time and gave him the incentive. The big lesson here for me was not to waste my own time going through the motions. Now, if I don’t believe the session would give any useful information, I end it early.
Lots of things can go wrong in user sessions, but as long as you stay active and alert of the situation, you have a better chance of gathering information that will be helpful.