Their rebranding effort has brought up quite a few memories for me, because I’ve seen the pain on the faces of designers and engineers when users eviscerate the products they’ve spent months or years developing. I also know convincing stakeholders they need to rethink a product can be a painful and costly endeavor. However, one of my most salient memories involves interacting with research participants who already had their minds made up about the quality of a product before they ever laid eyes on it. People’s preconceived notions can be another elephant in the room—a barrier to achieving accurate and actionable feedback on a concept or design.
The Angry Elephant
A short time ago, my business partner, Bryan McClain, and I were giving a talk about communication and research at an ecommerce company, and someone asked a very interesting question: What was our most difficult interaction with a research participant? The question instantly brought to mind this memory: Some time ago, we were asked to conduct a focus-group session with a specialized group of participants. In this particular case, the focus-group participants had previously tested builds of the product, and their feedback had been overwhelmingly negative. Our client, to their credit, had already decided to redesign the product from the ground up and realized they needed direction. The company had chosen to bring in a fresh research team, so they hired our company to engage users, find out exactly what was wrong with the current design, and provide guidance on how they could redesign the product.
I’ll never forget the experience of walking into the room where the focus group was to take place to greet this group of participants and being met with glares bordering on open hostility. We explained that we were performing research the company intended to use to improve the design of the product, but that wasn’t anything they hadn’t heard before, and they were understandably skeptical. Our initial attempts to extract meaningful information fell flat as the participants just spat out short comments, then quickly clammed up. It was obvious we would have to win them over and show them we were on their side. Vague phrases such as we recognize that there are problems with the design were not enough to assuage their doubts. To show these participants we were truly ready to make serious changes, we had to do what Domino’s has done in their recent advertisements: be brutally honest about the failings of the existing design. So, after going through an extemporaneous list of the product’s design shortcomings, we were finally able to show the participants that we understood their pain, cared about their feedback, and were ready to make changes.
This kind of experience interacting with user research participants emphasizes two essential parts of successfully communicating with participants: establishing objectivity and building alliances.
When engaging with user research participants, it’s essential that you put some distance between yourself and the product concept or design. If you have any biases or a personal connection with the product design, participants may feel uncomfortable giving you negative feedback, because they unconsciously sense your disappointment. For this reason, we commonly advise that designers not lead user research for products they’ve designed. If a dedicated user researcher is not an option, we typically advise companies to have a different designer do the user research—one who has no personal attachment to the project. When we are interacting with participants, very early on in our conversations with them, we make a point of letting them know that we did not design the product, so anything they might say will not hurt our feelings. This gives participants the freedom to offer negative feedback without the social stigma of being mean or hurtful.
When taking on the role of user researcher—whether you are actually a user researcher or usability professional or are a designer, engineer, product manager, or in an another profession—it is important to take to heart that, for that period of time, you are on the side of the users. A user researcher is a user advocate. It is his or her job to prioritize the needs of users, even if it creates additional difficulties for the product team. In doing this, a researcher builds alliances with participants, so participants feel that the researcher—and thus, the company—values their feedback and will use it to influence the design of the product. While establishing objectivity can help participants feel free to speak openly, building alliances can really motivate them to participate actively in a user research session. It’s another strategy you can use to maximize the amount of actionable user feedback you’ll get from a research session.