A Plethora of Participant Personalities

January 9, 2012

When you first entered the field of usability, did you know that you would also have to play the role of a psychologist or psychotherapist—not to mention a juggler, asking questions, taking notes, observing, worrying about technology snafus, and making necessary adjustments throughout a usability testing session, all at the same time? I didn’t. Though, for me, it was a welcome surprise—in most instances.

When your role requires you to deliver valuable and actionable information to a client, the pressure is on—especially when a client is observing your usability testing sessions. You have to know how to react, on the fly, to any situation that might come up—all while making the client think everything is going just exactly as you’d planned. It’s not okay to tell your client that “this participant didn’t help me at all because he just vented the whole time” or “this participant was just really quiet, so she didn’t really offer anything.” There may be lots of possible excuses, but none of them apply when your client is paying you good money for answers that could direct or redirect their business or design strategy. The three most important letters on the client’s mind are ROI (Return on Investment).

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Usability professionals face a unique challenge: They have a very limited amount of time in which to understand each participant’s personality—what they know and don’t know, what they’re comfortable with, and what their limitations are—and to extract as much information from all of the participants as possible, despite their limitations and quirks.

So, how do you handle different types of personalities during usability testing? There is no surefire method, and there are always anomalies, but I have a bag of tools in my back pocket that assist me in getting the most from each person. When I feel things are getting a little off track, I ask myself what kind of person I’m dealing with. Identifying a type helps me choose the right approach quickly and systematically. Here are a few common types of participants you might encounter.

The Venter

This person is probably not particularly friendly when you first greet him. That’s fine, not everyone is feeling chipper all the time. However, a few minutes into the test session, you realize that this person is apparently using your session as a forum for venting—perhaps about politics related to what you are testing or complaints about the client’s company. Perhaps he doesn’t usually have someone he can vent to, or maybe he’ll take any possible opportunity to let his water boil over.

With this type of participant, I focus on reining in his digressions. Of course, you don’t want to be rude and cut a person off every few seconds; let him rant for a bit, then refocus his attention on the test session and the tasks you need him to attempt. Here are some good segues that you can interject between the participant’s rants and your task prompts:

  • “Thank you for sharing that information. Now, I’d like to focus your attention on….”
  • “That’s very interesting. The next thing I’d like to discuss with you is….”

Keep a watchful eye on the clock to make sure that you’ll have time to get through everything you need to cover during the session. With experience, it’ll become easier and easier to deal with this type of participant and know the appropriate time to interrupt him, so you can achieve what you were hired to do. Even if this participant is a complete downer, know that you can get some great quotes to share with your client.

Your New Best Friend—Kind Of

From the instant you meet this person, you can tell that she is going to tell you way more than you ever wanted to know. You’ll barely have told her your name before she starts telling you about her neighbor’s dog. During the session, she has a tendency to digress, sharing unrelated stories about friends or family members. You’ll have your hands full, so you must prepare yourself mentally before you even set foot into the usability lab. First step: take a deep breath and smile.

In many ways, dealing with this type of participant is similar to handling the venter. However, the major difference between this participant and the venter is that this person tends to be an optimist, and she probably has good stage presence. This person likely has a lot of useful feedback to offer, but, again, the key here is making sure that you keep the participant on track. You’ll probably have trouble getting a word in, but you must find a good place to cut off the participant—for example, when she completes a thought, pauses, or even just finishes a sentence—take hold of your usability testing authority, and tactfully interject. (You’ll impress your client when you do this.) This participant is probably a charmer and maybe a jokester, so to lighten the atmosphere for yourself and your client, feel free to crack a joke—of course, while maintaining your professional aplomb. But most important, be sure to focus not only on what the participant is saying and showing you, but also on the time.

The Blank Slate

For one reason or another, this person seems utterly unfamiliar with technology. Maybe he left the workforce before computer use became prevalent, or perhaps his lifestyle is deliberately non-technical. You’ll quickly realize that this person is likely to encounter more technical issues than just those that are part of using the Web site, application, or other product that you’re testing. He may not know how to use a mouse wheel to scroll, might press Backspace and delete an entire sentence when only the first word in the sentence was misspelled, or his typing speed may be slow. On the inside, your head might be ready to explode, and smoke might be coming out of your ears, but on the outside, you must epitomize the 3 C’s: calm, cool, and collected.

If you’re testing a product that requires a certain level of technological prowess, you probably tried to screen out folks who aren’t too technically savvy. A screener that attempts to weed out those whose technical skills are below par should ask about the

  • number of years that someone has been using a computer and the Internet without assistance
  • average number of hours per week that a person currently uses the computer and Internet without assistance
  • variety of activities a person does while using the computer and the Internet

Your level of tolerance for a given participant’s technical abilities—or lack thereof—depends on the particular study that you’re conducting. But generally, if a person has been using a computer and the Internet for fewer than two years or uses it for two or fewer hours per week, you should exclude him or her from participating. Also, folks who have experience performing a wide variety of activities on the computer are more likely to be technically savvy than those who don’t.

Unfortunately, some less tech-savvy folks might slip through the cracks for various reasons. In some situations, you intentionally might not screen for this. Either way, you might have to deal with this type of participant—one that is probably the most frustrating to deal with. You want to help this person every step of the way, but you must resist the urge so you can maintain the integrity of your usability data. However, at certain points during a session, you’ll be forced to make judgment calls regarding when it’s appropriate to step in and offer a bit of assistance.

For example, if a participant can’t figure out how to navigate to information that is on another tab in the same browser window, eating up a good portion of the session time, let him struggle for a bit, take note of it, then intervene, so you don’t lose your entire session watching him struggle with this single task. With practice, you’ll be able to gauge when it’s appropriate to step in.

With this type of participant, you’ll also need to keep your eye on the clock to make sure you’re accomplishing everything that’s necessary during a test session. If a participant is struggling to the extent that it’s compromising your data, consider ending the session prematurely and using a backup participant instead.

The Easygoing, Tech-Savvy Person Who Is a Perfect Student

If you get your ideal participant, you must have had some good karma coming your way. You thank your lucky stars and think, “Score, score, score!” This person smiles at you warmly and gives you a nice handshake when you meet her. She probably uses a computer regularly for both work and personal activities. She might even consider herself to be a technophile. Maybe she’s been a trailblazer at her office or belongs to a generation of people born with a mouse in their hand. This type of participant is easy to get along with, gives you all of the information that you need without your having to do much talking, provides little or no extraneous information, and is the easiest to deal with. She’ll have a very good grasp of the hardware and software she’s using during the test.

With this type of participant, you’ll have to glance at the clock every so often, just to make sure time isn’t escaping from you. But there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to stay on track, get this participant to complete all of the tasks that you’ve planned, and ask all of your questions within the allotted time, without any struggle. Make sure that you take advantage of your session with this participant by getting as many insights as possible from her. You’ll have plenty of time to do this, and she’ll care enough to be willing to share her insights with you. However, you should note that this type of participant is most likely not a representative user, but more of a welcome anomaly.

The Easygoing, Tech-Savvy Person Who Is Too Cool for School

Although this person also connects with the Information Age and is good with computers, he might not be terribly friendly when you first meet him. He’s not mean or bitter—just too cool for school. He just wants to get in, do his work, and get out. He’ll give you the information you need and absolutely no extraneous information. Getting enough information from him might be the problem—it might feel a little like pulling teeth. He’s probably there solely to earn some extra cash—or maybe to play hooky from work.

After the perfect student, this participant is the second easiest to deal with. But, he’s not necessarily the best type of participant. Although, this person is computer savvy and, therefore, able to complete tasks quickly, his insights are likely to be shallow. So, you may find yourself needing to use various probing techniques—including rephrasing the same question in different ways or constantly asking him to explain why he did something or how something made him feel—to get the answers that you need from him. Don’t feel guilty if you’re asking a lot of questions; that’s what this person is getting paid for! You’ll have to worry the most about getting enough information from this type of participant—and the least about watching the clock.


Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list of every type of participant who might walk through the doors of your usability testing lab, and each participant won’t be a cookie-cutter version of each of these types of participants. Rather, this is a sampling of some of the common personalities you might have to interact with during your usability studies. You should be ready to respond to each of them on the fly.

I challenge you to have a bit of fun and come up with your own list of usability participant personas, including the pros and the challenges of working with each type of participant and how you would recommend interacting with each type.

Of course, with all you’ll learn about engaging with different types of people, if you ever get sick of being a usability professional, you can be confident that you’re well equipped to begin a career as a shrink. 

Research Principal at LiquidHub

Glenside, Pennsylvania, USA

Adina KleinOver several years working in the field of user experience, Adina has worked on a variety of projects, involving the design and redesign of dashboards, complete business systems, Web sites, intranets, and business processes. Her clients have included Mercer, Sun Life Financial, Ford Direct, Radian Guaranty, the City of Philadelphia, Astra Zeneca, Michael C. Fina, American Express, and Wolters Kluwer. Adina holds a Bachelor of Science and Arts in chemistry and architecture and a Master of Product Development, both from Carnegie Mellon University.  Read More

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