Be a Participant Yourself
There’s no better way to gain empathy for what participants go through during user research than to experience being a participant yourself. Volunteer for focus groups, usability testing, online studies, and any other research activities for which you can qualify. Of course, our profession often disqualifies us from being real study participants, so participating in a pilot test—or dress rehearsal for a research session—is a great way to help out our fellow researchers and get beneficial experience as a participant ourselves. You’ll be surprised at the insights you’ll get from being on the other side of the research table. Apply the lessons you learn to your studies.
Recruit Real People
Recruit representative participants from existing sources of actual users rather than professional research participants from recruiting company databases. Either recruit customers or employees from existing lists or recruit customers from your Web site, stores, or other organizations.
Don’t Recruit for Entertainment
Recruit participants who are representative of actual users, not just those who will impress observers by speaking in perfect sound bites. In his article, “User Testing Is Not Entertainment,”  Jakob Nielsen makes a good point about how screening for participant eloquence can eliminate quiet, introverted people who might be representative of a significant part of your user base. Including some of each type of participant gives you a more representative group and still provides enough interesting video clips.
Minimize the Formality
Establish an informal rapport with each participant at the beginning of a session before launching into the details of the study. When you do describe the study, continue in an informal tone rather shifting abruptly to legalese.
What you wear sets the tone for the degree of formality for a research session and how participants perceive you. Dress appropriately according to the type of participant and the situation. Most often, it’s best to dress slightly more formally than participants. However, if you dress much more formally than participants, it sets a more serious tone, and they may feel self-conscious and uncomfortable. If you dress much more casually than participants, they may not take you as seriously and may feel uncomfortable.
Set the Right Expectations
The way you set participants’ expectations at the beginning of a session affects everything that comes afterward.
Explain Why You’re Doing the Research
Participants don’t naturally understand the purpose of our research. Make it clear that your philosophical allegiances lie on the side of supporting and empowering users of technology. It’s important to let participants know you aren’t testing or evaluating their performance. Especially in work situations, research can arouse suspicion that you’re observing employees for nefarious purposes on behalf of management.
Acknowledge the Unnaturalness
Openly acknowledge to your participants that certain aspects of your study might seem unnatural or awkward. For example, “Okay, yes as you can imagine, there are people behind that mirror. But they’re normal people like you and me.” Doing this shows you empathize with their potential discomfort. Humor and informality are great ways of defusing uncomfortable situations.
Use a Plain Language Consent Form
Consent forms should be brief, easy to read, and written in plain language, with a friendly, informal tone. Focus on the rights of the participant, not on their signing away their rights, and don’t let your legal department turn a consent form into a legal document.
Include a brief description of who you are, what your company does, and an introduction to your study. This minimizes the need for an explanatory introduction at the beginning of each session. You might summarize this information again in person, but you’ll have less to say if you’ve already introduced your study in the consent form.
Explain How You’ll Use What You Learn
Clearly explain how you’ll use the information you obtain from each participant, whether you’ll report their comments anonymously, and who will see the study results. Be especially careful to protect participants from peers or supervisors who are either observing the research or will read the results. This becomes especially important when your participants are employees, and co-workers will view the research results. You should take care to protect your participants from retaliation or any other negative consequences of their comments.
Be Clear About What Will Happen to Recordings
Explain that recordings are for note-taking purposes and only people working on the project will see them. It’s best to explain this both in the consent form and in your initial introduction to participants.
Make It Clear You Want Honest Feedback
Because some people are uncomfortable providing negative feedback, it’s important to reassure participants that you’re looking for their honest opinions—both positive and negative. If you are not the designer or your company did not design what you are evaluating, emphasize that fact, so participants know they can speak freely without offending you. If you are the designer, don’t emphasize that fact. Either way, make it clear that you are planning to make changes to the design, and the purpose of the research is to learn what changes to make.
Use Think Aloud When Appropriate
Although observing a participant thinking aloud while performing tasks doesn’t reflect natural behavior, it’s a great way of understanding what the participant is doing and thinking. While this does affect the way people perform tasks, in many cases, the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. If you aren’t recording time on task, completion rates, eyetracking data, or other metrics, having participants think aloud is an excellent way of gathering qualitative information.
Don’t Use Think Aloud When It is Important to Observe Natural Behavior
When it’s more important to observe realistic task performance and gather metrics such as time on task, error rates, and completion rates or record eyetracking data, don’t use the think-aloud method. Instead, let participants complete tasks on their own, without interruption. You can ask follow up questions afterward or use a retrospective think-aloud approach by having participants talk about what they were doing after completing a task.
Stop Bothering Participants When They Can’t Think Aloud
One of the most important things you’ll learn from being a participant yourself is how difficult it can be to perform a task, think aloud, and answer questions all at once. When a task is cognitively difficult, bothering a participant with questions or requests to think aloud becomes extremely distracting and annoying. Allow a participant to concentrate on the task, then follow up with questions once things get easier.
Stop Bothering Those Who Can’t Easily Think Aloud
It’s also important to recognize when you have a participant who is not very good at thinking aloud or who is naturally quiet. When participants think aloud, the quantity and quality of their remarks don’t have to be the same. Recognize the silent types and let them be silent if that’s their preference. With these people, focus instead on their behavior and use follow-up questions to gain insights.