How to Handle Participant Discomfort in UX Research: Best Practices and Lessons Learnt

2023-08-25T19:35:47+05:30By |UX Research|

In this article, I’m going to share some tips on how to handle a common situation that you may encounter as a moderator of user research sessions: when the participant looks or sounds uncomfortable and/or nervous.

As a moderator, you want the participant to feel at ease and confident while sharing their feedback and experience with the product or service that you’re evaluating. However, sometimes the participant may show signs of discomfort or anxiety, such as fidgeting, sweating, stuttering, avoiding eye contact, or giving short or vague answers. This can affect the quality and validity of your data, as well as the participant’s satisfaction and trust in your organisation.

So, what can you do to help the participant relax and open up? Here are some suggestions based on my own practice as a UX researcher in a global UX research agency and the book The Moderator’s Survival Guide by Donna Tedesco and Fiona Tranquada (2014).

Why is it important?

Handling situations where the participant looks or sounds uncomfortable or nervous is important for several reasons:

  • It can improve the quality and validity of your data. By helping the participant relax and open up, you can elicit more accurate, reliable, and useful feedback that reflects their true experience and opinions.
  • It can improve the participant’s satisfaction and trust. By making the participant feel comfortable and respected, you can enhance their enjoyment and engagement in the session and their loyalty and advocacy for your organisation.
  • It can improve your reputation and credibility. By showing your professionalism and empathy as a moderator, you can demonstrate your expertise as a UX researcher and your commitment and care for your users.

What to do

  • Before the session starts, make sure you explain the purpose and goals of the study, what the participant can expect, how long it will take, how they will be compensated, and how their data will be used and protected. This will help set clear expectations and reassure the participant that they are in a safe and professional environment.
  • During the session, use a friendly and conversational tone of voice, smile, and maintain eye contact (if appropriate). This will help establish rapport and trust with the participant and show that you are genuinely interested in their feedback.
  • Give positive reinforcement and encouragement throughout the session. For example, you can say things like “You’re doing great”, “That’s very helpful”, or “Thank you for sharing that”. This will help boost the participant’s confidence and motivation and make them feel valued and appreciated.
  • If the participant seems stuck or confused by a task or question, offer some guidance or clarification without leading or biasing them. For example, you can say things like “What are you trying to do here?”, “Can you tell me more about that?”, or “Is there another way you would approach this?”. This will help the participant overcome any difficulties and express their thoughts more clearly.
  • If the participant seems distracted or bored by a task or question, try to re-engage them by asking them to think aloud, probing for more details, or introducing some variety or challenge. For example, you can say things like “What are you thinking right now?”, “Why did you choose that option?”, or “How would you compare this with another product?”. This will help the participant stay focused and interested and provide more rich and meaningful feedback.

What to say

Here are some examples of what you can say to the participant at different stages of the session to help them feel comfortable and relaxed:

  • At the beginning: “Welcome to our user research session. My name is [name] and I’m a UX researcher at [organisation]. Today we’re going to ask you to use [product] and share your thoughts and opinions about it. There are no right or wrong answers, we just want to learn from your experience. This session will take about [time] and you will receive [compensation] as a thank you for your participation. We’re also recording this session for analysis purposes only. Your data will be kept confidential and anonymous. Do you have any questions before we start?”
  • During the session: “You’re doing great. Thank you for sharing that. That’s very helpful. What are you trying to do here? Can you tell me more about that? Is there another way you would approach this? What are you thinking right now? Why did you choose that option? How would you compare this with another product?”
  • At the end: “That’s all we have for today. Thank you so much for your time and feedback. You’ve been very helpful. Is there anything else you would like to add or ask before we finish? We really appreciate your participation in our study. We hope you enjoyed it as much as we did. Have a great day.”

What not to do or say

Here are some examples of what you should avoid doing or saying to the participant during the session:

  • Don’t interrupt or rush the participant when they are speaking or performing a task. This can make them feel pressured or annoyed and affect their performance and feedback.
  • Don’t judge or criticise the participant’s actions or opinions. This can make them feel defensive or insecure and affect their honesty and openness.
  • Don’t give too much information or feedback that could influence the participant’s behaviour or expectations. This can make them feel biased or guided and affect their naturalness and spontaneity.
  • Don’t ignore or dismiss the participant’s emotions or concerns. This can make them feel unimportant or misunderstood and affect their trust and satisfaction.
  • Don’t use technical jargon or complex language that could confuse or intimidate the participant. This can make them feel lost or inadequate and affect their comprehension and communication.

How to avoid

Here are some tips on how to prevent or minimise the chances of the participant feeling uncomfortable or nervous during the session:

  • Recruit participants who match your target audience and criteria. This will help ensure that they are relevant and interested in the product or service that you’re evaluating and that they have the necessary skills and experience to use it.
  • Test your product, prototype, equipment, and setup before the session. This will help ensure that everything works smoothly and reliably and that there are no technical glitches or errors that could frustrate or confuse the participant.
  • Prepare a clear and concise study plan that covers the objectives, tasks, questions, and scenarios that you want to cover during the session. This will help ensure that you have a structured and consistent approach and that you don’t miss or forget anything important.
  • Practice your moderating skills and techniques with colleagues or friends before the session. This will help you improve your confidence and competence as a moderator and help you anticipate and handle any potential situations that may arise.

I hope these tips will help you handle participant discomfort during research sessions. Thank you for reading and happy moderating!

About the Author:

Atul holds a masters degree in Design & Research from National Institute of Fashion Technology. He comes from a diverse background of Design and Engineering with experience of working in startups as well as large organisations such as Samsung Electronics, IndiaMart & HCL. Today, Atul works closely with clients helping them create user-centric products and services. He is actively involved in research, storytelling, brainstorming and sketching.