Winning Over Wary Participants

Practical Usability

Moving toward a more usable world

A column by Jim Ross
March 9, 2015

As UX professionals, we represent users. We’re on their side and strive to improve their interactions with technology. This is a noble cause, so we’re justified in feeling like we’re the good guys—and often, people do see us that way. They understand the benefits that we provide in making technology easier for them to use. For example, people who are using very cumbersome applications at work may see us as saviors who will deliver them from the drudgery of using terrible systems.

But what happens when your user research participants don’t exactly see it that way? What if they’re distrustful of your motives and suspect your true goals? In such situations, how can you reassure them and win them over?

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Why Would Anyone Distrust Us?

We’re the good guys. So it’s hard to see why anyone would distrust us. Distrust and suspicion are most likely to occur when participants

  • haven’t had complete freedom in deciding whether to participate
  • feel that they are being evaluated
  • don’t perceive a benefit from the research and instead feel that it’s not in their interest and a company might use it against them

These three conditions typically occur when you’re conducting research with employees on behalf of their employer. Although a company may present employee participation in the research as voluntary, some employees may feel that they cannot refuse.

When your research clearly focuses on understanding how people use a particular piece of technology, most participants can easily see that you are trying to find and eliminate problems. They can see how your research benefits them, and they’re often happy to help. But when you conduct more exploratory research to observe and understand overall work processes and culture, employees can become suspicious.

When your research does not focus on a particular application or product, participants may feel that you’re actually evaluating their abilities and performance. In a work situation, this can raise their fears that your true motives are to find productivity improvements, evaluate whose positions are essential, and determine which positions could be eliminated. The movie Office Space epitomized this situation perfectly with the characters the two Bob’s—workplace consultants who interviewed nervous employees, asking the question, “What exactly do you do here?”

Of course, we don’t want to eliminate anyone’s position, but sometimes our work to improve technology is so successful that it does change work processes, which can then require fewer employees. So perhaps those employees’ wariness and suspicion is understandable.

How to Put Distrustful Participants at Ease

Distrustful employees usually have no other choice but to work with you. Most will be civil to you, but they’re likely to be guarded in what they say, and they won’t go out of their way to cooperate with you beyond the minimum that’s expected of them. So it’s important to set these people at ease about the purpose of your research efforts and to build a comfortable rapport with them. The following tips can help you to do that.

Don’t Force People to Participate

When you recruit participants from the general public, they volunteer to participate. When participants are employees, although their employers very rarely force them to participate in studies, they do expect them to participate, so they have little real choice of refusing. People who feel coerced don’t make good research participants. So ensure that your client emphasizes that participation is truly voluntary. Ask for volunteers from a large pool of participants, and provide people a graceful way to bow out—for example, you might say, “I can understand if you’re too busy.” People are naturally more comfortable stating their excuse for not participating than simply saying that they don’t want to participate.

Get Introduced

Ask someone who is known to and trusted by participants to introduce you and describe the purpose of your research. Write an introductory email message that this person can personalize and send to potential participants. This should explain who you are, the purpose of your research, and what approach you will be taking.

Address Participants’ Potential Suspicions

In the introductory email, emphasize the purpose of your research and what will result from it. Explain that your goal is to understand their needs and get their feedback, so you can make improvements to the application or work process that you’re studying. If you think people will have suspicions or be fearful, you may need to address the elephant in the room. Tell them that the research you’re doing will not lead to reorganizations or layoffs—if that’s true. If you’re focusing on designing or improving a particular application or product, explain why it’s important to understand the people who use it, as well as their overall work process, so you can design the application to fit their needs.

Send Your Own Introduction

Next, send your own email message introducing yourself to the participants. This message is a personal touch that makes you seem more human rather than your being a faceless consultant who will be studying them. In a personal, informal tone, explain why you’re doing the research, what you’ll be doing during their session, what you’ll ask the participants to do, and what will result from the study.

Emphasize Your Study’s Confidentiality

When your participants are employees and your client is their employer, it’s very important to maintain confidentiality. Reassure the participants that the information they provide will remain anonymous and confidential—if that’s true. Report aggregated findings for the entire group of participants, without identifying specific people who said particular things. If you record the sessions, tell participants that only the research team will see or hear the recording—no one else.

Be especially careful when only one or two participants come from a particular department or job role. In such cases, even if you keep their identities confidential, it can still be easy for others to identify them.

Reassure Participants Again in Person

When you meet with the participants, reassure them again about your intentions, the purpose of your research, and what will result from it. Emphasize again that you’re not there to evaluate them; you’re there to listen to them and get their point of view about what needs improvement. Although you’ve already stated that in your email message, they may not have read it or might not remember it. Repeating this again in person makes it more believable and personal.

Be Informal

Dress and act informally. Find out what the participants typically wear to work and dress similarly. Dressing either too formally or too informally would only draw attention to the fact that you don’t fit in. Strive to assume a humble, casual demeanor. You want to appear like a friendly co-worker, not someone who’s their superior. Make some friendly, informal small talk before launching into your research.

Emphasize That You’re on Their Side

Tell participants that your personal and professional credo is that it’s your responsibility to represent the user. Clarify that you’re not there to evaluate people or the work they are doing. You’re there to help improve the tools that they use or the work process that they have to follow. Instead of simply talking to a few people in management, as may have been done in past research efforts, the reason you’re doing research with actual employees is to understand their problems and the situations they face and get their input.

Let Participants Vent

Sometimes, when you arrive to do contextual research, participants might pull out a prepared list of complaints and improvement requests. While those are great to hear, you want to quickly refocus them on what you’re there for: to observe their typical tasks. Nevertheless, when you’re visiting distrustful employees, let them vent their complaints. This helps them to feel that you hear them; plus, it positions you as someone who can help to solve their problems. Once they’ve finished venting, you can steer them back to demonstrating their tasks.

Accept That You Can’t Win Everyone Over

Despite your best efforts to win their trust, some participants will still remain suspicious. Just accept that and try to glean whatever information you can get from them. Even though this might not result in an ideal session, you can usually get at least some useful information from them.

A Noble Calling

Once you explain what you’ll do and why you’re doing it, most participants will realize that you’re on their side. User experience really is a noble calling. Your goal is to make people’s lives easier by improving the tools and technology that they use in accomplishing their tasks. If you live by that professional credo, most people will realize that you’re there to help them. 

Principal UX Researcher at AnswerLab

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Jim RossJim has spent most of the 21st Century researching and designing intuitive and satisfying user experiences. As a UX consultant, he has worked on Web sites, mobile apps, intranets, Web applications, software, and business applications for financial, pharmaceutical, medical, entertainment, retail, technology, and government clients. He has a Masters of Science degree in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University.  Read More

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