A good user researcher is able to connect with participants, establish rapport and gain trust, and make people comfortable sharing their candid feedback and deeper needs. An effective user researcher must skillfully guide conversations with participants—allowing them to flow organically, while probing more deeply on interesting comments—and always remain mindful of leaving enough time to cover every strategically important topic. Sounds simple, right?
It is important to keep user-research sessions natural and conversational, making participants feel at ease. Ideally, they’ll enjoy themselves and maybe even forget they’re talking to a complete stranger about their inner thoughts and feelings.
Mike Welsh, the Chief Creative Officer at Mobiquity, argues that using a research script puts up a barrier between you and participants. Ditching the script lets you avoid sessions that feel more like interrogations than casual conversations.
You want participants to forget you’re a user researcher who is interviewing them, so establish yourself as a peer. Only then will participants feel more comfortable and begin to open up and share their genuine thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Ideally, memorize your key questions and research goals—or you can prepare a quick-reference sheet covering them—then go just with the flow of the conversation. You’ll end up having a much more insightful discussion, and you won’t miss subtle, nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and body language while your head is down because you’re reading your script or taking notes.
Do Your Homework
Before your research sessions begin, prepare thoroughly. Understand your research goals and know what types of information you need to collect. Sessions can easily get sidetracked, so you should begin with a clear idea of the topics you need to cover.
First, create a full research script so you’ll know what questions you want to ask and how you want to ask them. Next, consolidate this script down to a list of high-level topics and questions that you want to be sure to cover. Then, when talking with participants, refer to your high-level, quick-reference sheet instead of using your full script as a crutch. Concentrating on key themes reduces your cognitive load and lets you focus on the conversation itself instead of worrying about how to interject your next question. Over time, you’ll learn how best to let participants guide the conversation, while skillfully connecting ideas within the conversation so you can cover all of the desired topics naturally.
Go with the Flow
Learn how to go with the flow of the conversation rather than constantly trying to control it by directing it exactly where you want it to go. Your participants are the experts. You’re doing research to learn from them, so follow their lead. Make a research session a conversation, not a questionnaire or an interrogation. To gather genuine feedback, you and your participants need to be peers. You’re not an examiner, but a peer asking them for their opinions and the reasoning behind them.
Always pause before moving on to the next topic to make sure participants have completed their thoughts. Make the transitions between topics of conversation as natural as possible. As you’re discussing one topic, take note if participants mention other topics you want to cover during the session. Later on, you can use your notes to provide opportunities to transition to other topics. For example, “Earlier, you mentioned X. Can you tell me more about that?”
Focus on the Conversation, Not on Taking Notes
If your head is down and you’re furiously scribbling notes during interviews, you may unwittingly put up a barrier between you and research participants. You’ll miss subtle, nonverbal cues that might be very important. Facial expressions, posture changes, and body language offer a wealth of information about your participants’ internal state and candid reactions. It’s important to look your participants in the eye and engage them in a free-form conversation. You don’t want self-conscious participants who feel like they’re the subject of examination.
Ask permission to record the sessions. This will allow you to be more fully present in the conversations. Hopefully, other members of your product team will be listening in, and they can help you by taking notes. However, it may still be helpful to jot down some key ideas and note reference points in the recordings so you can later easily listen to the relevant parts of the recordings, enabling a more thorough and fluid analysis.
Involve and Lean on Your Team
To focus fully on participants and have genuine conversations, you’ll need help taking notes. Invite and encourage product owners, designers, and developers to listen in on your research sessions and collaboratively capture notes. Consider using a real-time, collaborative note-taking platform such as Mural or RealtimeBoard to increase stakeholder engagement and productivity. These tools let team members review, engage with, and expand upon others’ ideas during a research session rather than having everyone work individually to take complete sets of duplicative, static notes. Thus, some collaborative thinking and analysis can occur during the research sessions.
It also can be helpful to debrief right after each session while everyone is together and everything is still fresh in their mind. Taking 15–30 minutes to summarize the key themes, takeaways, and surprises from each session will help you consolidate your collective thoughts. Plus, these notes will help jog your memory during later analysis.
It can be intimidating to begin a research session without a full list of prepared questions. But meeting this challenge will help you to become a better researcher. Instead of relying on your script as a crutch, rushing to fill silences, and moving swiftly onto the next topic, go with the flow of each conversation. Focus on what participants are saying and think about how best to ask probing questions regarding their responses instead of nervously checking to see how many more questions you still need to cover. Savor the silences and give your participants time to think. Make sure they have completely finished one line of thought before asking them to elaborate on tangential topics they mentioned earlier.
Play around with various levels of preparation. Try things out and see what works best for you. When you conduct research, give yourself permission to get lost in each conversation instead of remaining an outside observer. You’ll be surprised by what you can discover.
Meghan is starting the UX Research team at Factual, a startup focusing on location data. She’s establishing research standards and processes, benchmarking current products, and leading research efforts across all products. Previously, she was a UX Researcher at ADP, where she conducted a wide range of exploratory, concept-testing, and usability research across products and platforms. She was involved in ADP’s Come See for Yourself contextual-inquiry program, whose goal is to educate colleagues on the value of UX research and get them out into the field to talk to real users.