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Fears About User Research

Practical Usability

Moving toward a more usable world

A column by Jim Ross
October 7, 2019

As Halloween approaches, I thought it would be fun to write about a scary subject: user research! User researchers can sometimes be a fearful, neurotic bunch, and user research can be a scary business for newcomers and even those with years of experience.

Perhaps some might find user research scary because it has often been misunderstood, devalued, and viewed with skepticism. User researchers have struggled to prove our value and to prevent user research from being the first thing cut from projects to save time and money. We always feel that we must work hard to prove our worth and overcome these doubts.

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Although many user researchers are introverts, we must be able to work well with clients, interact with many different types of research participants, and convince UX designers and developers of the validity of our findings and recommendations. User research is a highly visible position. How many other professionals must work in front of an audience that is observing their every move? Plus, each project ends with a presentation to a large audience of clients and project-team members.

In this column, I’ll delve into the scariest aspects of user research and provide some advice to calm your fears.

What If I Fail?

Uh, oh! You’ve just started a new project and are sure this is the one you won’t be able to handle. You’ve never done a project like this before. The project’s success is crucial for your company. The clients are very important, so you must get this one right and impress them. You must do an excellent job. In fact, this is the project you’ve always worried about—the one that could expose your lack of knowledge and talent. To this point in your career, you’ve been lucky. Your projects haven’t been that difficult, so you’ve managed to get by. Not this time. Your career is on the line. How can you handle this one?

How to Overcome This Fear

Do these feelings sound familiar? Maybe your feelings aren’t always this extreme, but many UX researchers and designers suffer from impostor syndrome to some degree—irrational feelings that they’re a fraud and have had a successful career to this point only because they’ve had good luck and easy projects. You might feel that, eventually, everyone is going to find out about you.

Even with years of experience, I still feel this way occasionally. The key to calming your fears is to remember that you’ve felt this way before, on projects that turned out to be completely successful. Recalling your past successes can help you realize that irrational fears are trying to take hold again.

The good thing about fear is that it motivates you to be extra vigilant and careful as you work. Use your fear when preparing for your research and plan for every eventuality. During research sessions, fear can motivate you to be more observant and thorough. In analysis and reporting, fear can motivate you to do your best work. So keep things in perspective, think about your past successes, and leverage your fear to your advantage.

Can I Learn Something New?

Perhaps you’ve just joined a different company, you’re working in a new industry, you’re working with the latest technology, you’re using a new method you’ve never used before, or some combination of all of these. Perhaps everything is new to you. How are you going to get up to speed in time to conduct your research?

How to Overcome This Fear

You’re especially likely to fear failure when a project involves something completely new. Instead, view new work experiences as an opportunity. You have the chance to learn something new and gain unique experience.

In user research, you’re not supposed to be an expert. You learn about the subject matter from clients and research participants. Your clients and their stakeholders are the experts in their business domain, and the participants are the experts in what users need. You don’t want the participants to assume that you’re an expert. Approaching user research sessions as a novice encourages participants to explain and demonstrate their tasks at a basic, understandable level. So embrace new experiences as an opportunity to learn about new things.

What If We Recruit Really Bad Participants?

What if you recruit participants who aren’t representative of the users? What if some really bad participants slip through the screening? What if some professional research participants, who are just in it for the money, lie to get past the screener? What if you get some untalkative or uncooperative participants?

How to Overcome This Fear

Nothing can ruin research more than bad participants, so these are rational fears. Use that fear to ensure you recruit the best participants. Work with your client and project-team members to clearly identify the users’ characteristics and behaviors. Then create a robust screener that will eliminate those who don’t fit the user profile. Screen out people who participate in too many research studies. Ensure that the recruiter asks open-ended questions to determine how expressive and talkative participants are. Despite your best efforts, some bad participants will occasionally sneak through. To make up for such occasional problems, recruit some alternate participants. For more detailed advice on recruiting, see my column, “Recruiting Better User Research Participants.”

What If the Research Plan Won’t Work?

You might fear that the research you’ve planned won’t work, and you won’t get the findings you need. Perhaps the tasks won’t work, your questions might turn out to be irrelevant, you don’t have enough questions, or you have too many questions, so you won’t be able to elicit the right information from participants.

How to Overcome This Fear

You’ve probably experienced some of these doubts before, but they’ve almost never actually come true. Use this fear to motivate yourself to spend more time planning your research, the tasks you’ll observe, and the questions you’ll ask. Run your moderator guide by another researcher for feedback. Have your client review it and get their approval. Run a pilot test with a mock participant to see how well the tasks and questions work, then revise your guide as necessary.

When you’re conducting less structured methods of research such as interviews, contextual inquiries, or ethnography, user research rarely goes exactly as planned. Often you’ll find that some questions or tasks you’ve planned to observe are completely irrelevant for certain participants. For example, you might have planned to observe participants doing X, but you find that they spend all day doing Y and Z. That’s okay. Be flexible enough to adapt your research sessions to the reality of each participant.

What If There’s Not Enough Time to Get Through Everything?

Everyone wants to include everything in the research sessions, so there are way too many tasks and questions. What if you run out of time, so you can’t get through all the topics? What if, as a consequence, you can’t meet all of your research objectives?

How to Overcome This Fear

Trying to pack too much into user-research sessions is a common problem. To prevent this, consider the research objectives your client or project team has defined. Ask them to prioritize the information they want to learn from the research. Focus on the most important elements and ensure that you address them first in your moderator guide. Leave lower-priority tasks and questions for the end of a session. You can skip those if you’re short on time. Run a pilot test to determine how long it takes to get through a session, then remove tasks or questions as necessary.

What If Something Goes Wrong?

There are so many things to keep track of during user-research sessions. What if something goes wrong? What if the prototype doesn’t work? What if a session doesn’t get recorded? What if the eyetracker doesn’t work? What if participants can’t connect to the remote-meeting software or can’t share their screens?

How to Overcome This Fear

These are legitimate fears. Technology problems do occur from time to time. Use your fear constructively. Be extra cautious and make sure everything is set up and working correctly. Run through the prototype several times, using your moderator guide, to ensure everything is working. Fix the prototype or guide as necessary. Do a pilot test to make sure everything works properly. Ensure that you have backup plans and technology, and know who to contact for technical support. For remote research, ask participants to test their ability to access and use the remote-meeting software ahead of time. Get ready for the first research session early, and run through everything to make sure the software is working correctly. Recruit alternate participants who can fill in if technical problems ruin a session.

What If We Don’t Discover Anything Important?

What if you’re in the middle of a user-research study, and all of the information you’ve gathered so far seems like a big jumble of meaningless data? Will you be able to come up with useful findings? Is this research really going to answer your research objectives? What if you’re just hearing a bunch of anecdotes that don’t form any important patterns? What if you don’t find anything new or interesting?

How to Overcome This Fear

When you’re in the middle of a study, it’s not uncommon to become so focused on the details that it’s hard for you to see the overall patterns. But that is okay. While you’re conducting research, you should focus on the little things—observing and listening carefully to each participant, during each session. Keep your mind focused at the micro level. Wait for the analysis phase to zoom out to the macro level. Then you can examine the overall patterns.

It is extremely rare—if it ever happens at all—for research studies to fail to reveal any useful information. Not all user-research findings need to be earth-shattering, amazing, completely new revelations that no one has ever considered before. That’s not the purpose of user research. Much of what you learn from research might seem mundane—just validating what everyone has already assumed—but these are completely legitimate findings. Throughout your research, just keep your research objectives in mind to ensure that you’re gathering information that can answer your questions.

How Am I Going to Analyze All This Data?

You’ve emerged from your research sessions with a mountain of notes and recordings, and your mind is full of a jumbled mess of recollections. You always seem to have much less time for analysis and reporting than you need. How are you ever going to analyze the data and create a report in time?

How to Overcome This Fear

It can be scary and intimidating to have a lot of data to analyze, with little time to do it. But analysis can also be the most fun part of research. This is when you begin to see patterns and weave together the most interesting insights. Use your enthusiasm for the subject matter to push through your initial intimidation by the scope of your task.

Be realistic and scale your effort to the amount of time you have available. If you don’t have much time for analysis and reporting, approach this task at a higher level. Don’t spend as much time digging into the details of the data. Don’t feel the need to analyze every detail and provide every finding. Remember that you’ve been in this situation in the past, and you’ve been able to complete your analysis and provide insightful deliverables. You’ll be able to do that again in this situation.

How Can I Present All of This?

At the end of each project, you must present your findings to the clients and the project team. What if you get stage fright? What if you make a mistake? What if they ask a question that you can’t answer?

How to Overcome This Fear

Public speaking is a very common fear, but presenting findings is a major part of being a user researcher. Early on in your career, presenting might be intimidating—especially when you’re presenting to important, high-level clients. Fortunately, over time, this fear subsides as you become used to presenting and it seems more routine.

Use your fear to inspire you to prepare thoroughly. Adequate preparation makes you feel more confident and your presentation will feel more natural. So run through your presentation at least a few times before the meeting. The goal isn’t to memorize the information, it’s to familiarize yourself with the material so you can talk about it naturally. The feeling that you’ve discovered some really interesting information and useful revelations can help you convey your excitement as you present your findings to others.

As you get more experience in presenting, it becomes much easier. You gain more confidence in your abilities. When you see that your audience is interested in and appreciative of your findings, you’ll begin to relax and enjoy giving presentations.

Fear Is Okay

Fear and anxiety are natural. Don’t be paralyzed by your fears. Use your fear to advantage. It will make you a better user researcher. Let your fear motivate you to be prepared, ensuring you’re thorough and take everything into account. A little fear can motivate you to make to-do lists, check and double-check everything, run through your moderator guide, do pilot tests, observe and listen carefully, use your time for analysis wisely, and run through your presentation in advance.

As the wise Tom Petty once said in his song Crawling Back to You, “Most things I worry about, never happen anyway.” As you gain more experience and realize that most of the things you’ve feared have never actually happened, you’ll have more confidence in your ability to avoid problems or solve them on the spot. Although your fear lessens, it never completely goes away. But that’s probably a good thing. 

Senior 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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