Balance in UX Research

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As researchers, we spend a lot of our time getting to know how people think and act in order to figure out how to build better experiences for them. Our work is heavily reliant on the information participants give us, directly or indirectly. However, without any prior knowledge of UX Research, this can be an unusual experience for the participant. There are many fantastic techniques we researchers are taught to ensure that we ask good questions, but how can we ensure that the participant is comfortable enough to give us good answers in return?

As a rookie researcher/co-op, I was curious about and interested in this topic and wanted to get insight into the various approaches to interviewing. To do this, I interviewed several members of our research team who have years of experience in usability testing, contextual inquiry and interviewing. I also talked with our HR lead, who has interviewed hundreds of people (including me!). These discussions were incredibly insightful and spoke to the perfect balance a researcher has to achieve with participants in order to be effective.

I began to see the participant as:

  • our friend, but also our colleague
  • our child, but also our expert
  • the same as us, but also not us

Let me explain all of that.

Our Friend and Colleague

In order to be effective researchers, we must find a way to build rapport and trust with our participants while still remaining professional and objective. First, we need to present ourselves as friends—real people they can talk to who are nonjudgmental and completely interested in what they have to say. We do this by beginning with a fast and easy topic of conversation, such as the weather or their commute. This will help us to be more receptive to our participants’ needs by seeing how shy or talkative they are, and adjusting our communication style to suit those needs.

In addition to seeing participants as our friends, we must consider them our colleagues. It’s great practice to establish some kind of interpersonal connection with interviewees; however, it is still a professional relationship and boundaries are necessary. We also have time constraints, and revealing too much of ourselves could affect what a participant does or tells us. For this reason, in the beginning and throughout an interview it’s important that we remain neutral and respect participants’ opinions. We can’t let personal biases about what we are testing affect the outcomes of our research (this obviously means no “leading questions” as well).

Our Child and Expert

One of the most reassuring things we can do for our participants is to make them feel safe by treating them like our “child.” We do this is by giving them an opportunity to ask all of their questions, and then answering them. We let them know that they can choose to skip a question if it makes them feel uncomfortable—or end the session entirely. We also try to make the environment comfortable by giving the participant enough physical space.

Another way we help interviewees feel less vulnerable is by reassuring them of their opinions or actions without hindering the authenticity of those opinions or actions. For example, when a participant is hesitant to give a negative critique, we might say, “I completely understand” or “That makes sense.” Another way we treat the participant like our own child is by letting them run free … with supervision. We let them speak their mind and try to follow their train-of-thought, which sometimes doesn’t go in the exact order we planned. We’re flexible with our interview protocol, while careful that the participant doesn’t derail our agenda completely and that we still touch on each planned topic.

In addition to being our child, the participant is the expert and we are the apprentice. Even if we’re already educated on the topic being discussed, it’s important that we come to understand it from the interviewee’s perspective. Knowing what you’re talking about is a great feeling, so when a participant feels like an expert, he or she is more likely to be open and thorough on the topic. We help a participant feel like an expert by saying, “Hey, I know nothing about this and so I’m going to ask a lot of questions. If I get annoying, let me know.” We then build up from simple to complex questions.

Us and Not Us

Finally, and I think most importantly, the participant is human—similar to us in many ways, and different from us in many ways. It’s important to be aware of the different personalities that we interview and how our own personalities affect our perceptions and actions. If someone comes across as a difficult interviewee, the researcher might have the urge to rush through the protocol to get it done as soon as possible. But instead of doing that, we would want to explore the reasoning behind that interviewee’s difficulty and figure out how it could relate to our study.

A critical trait in researchers is empathy. We should be aware of how we would feel if we were put into certain situation, and be aware that the participant could feel completely different. A good exercise in building empathy as a researcher is to try being a participant—whether that’s in an interview, usability test, or contextual inquiry. Take note of your environment to figure out what makes you feel comfortable and what doesn’t. Observe your interviewer and their body language to see what techniques pull the best information out of you in the least threatening way.

UX research is user-centered and dependent upon the information users give us. However, receiving honest and complete feedback from users involves more than just asking for it. We need to use techniques that will make participants feel comfortable and safe in providing their responses.


Photo by Michael McAghon

The author

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Ashley Bernard