Retaining Your Sanity as a User Researcher

Practical Usability

Moving toward a more usable world

A column by Jim Ross
March 23, 2020

How many times have your clients or coworkers said to you, “That was great. You’re so patient! I could never do that,” after observing your user-research sessions?

User researchers do need to have a lot of patience. We sit through multiple sessions, asking the participants the same questions, observing them going through the same tasks, and hearing them say the same things over and over and over again. We do all this while observing, listening to, and understanding participants, determining whether and when to ask questions, assessing how the sessions are going, keeping track of time, managing questions from observers, and taking notes. And that’s if everything is going perfectly well!

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When things doesn’t go well, we need to manage participants who talk too much, talk too little, ramble off topic, don’t follow directions, or won’t cooperate. Regardless of what is happening, we must always be friendly, maintain a neutral demeanor, and encourage participants to think aloud. Although we have observed the same tasks, asked the same questions, and heard similar answers across many sessions, we must be fresh at the beginning of each session and listen and observe participants carefully.

Although user research can be tedious at times, it’s the amazing moments that get us through our occasional research doldrums—moments when we see patterns form, insights reveal themselves, and we begin to gain a deeper understanding. No matter how much we love conducting user research, all researchers occasionally suffer from research fatigue. In this column, I’ll provide some tips on how to keep your sanity and remain fresh as a user researcher.

Don’t Schedule More Participants Than You Need

User-research fatigue is especially likely to set in when you’ve experienced too much repetition. You’ll begin to see and hear the same things from each participant. The danger is that you might become tired, jaded, or bored. If you begin to think you’ve heard it all before, that’s when you’re liable to miss things.

This is likely to occur if you’ve scheduled too many participants for a research study. If you find that you keep observing and hearing the same things without hearing anything new, and you’ve seen enough participants to be confident in your findings, perhaps you’ve already answered your research questions. If this happens before you’ve seen all of the participants you’ve scheduled, review your findings and consider whether there are some other tasks or questions you could pose to the remaining participants. Perhaps there are insights that you could dig into further. That would be a better use of the remaining participants’ time, and it would help you maintain your interest.

Don’t Schedule Too Many Sessions Per Day

User research is very mentally taxing. As a day of research progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain your energy and focus. So avoid scheduling too many research sessions per day. For sixty-minute sessions, six participants should be the absolute maximum per day. Decrease the number of sessions per day as the session times get longer. For example, conduct four ninety-minute sessions or three two-hour sessions per day.

Take Breaks Between Sessions

Make sure you schedule enough time for breaks between sessions. Be sure these are real breaks, during which you can get away from the sessions and the observers to rest your mind, use the restroom, and eat or drink something. Some teams like to do debriefs with the researcher between sessions. That’s fine, but be sure that the debrief doesn’t take up the entire break. You still need time to get away from the research altogether to give your mind a break. Also, make sure that you take longer breaks for meals.

Get Away from the Research at Intervals

If you’re conducting multiple days of sessions, get away from the research at the end of each day. Don’t do any more work on your research, and try not to think about it. Especially when you don’t have much time for analysis, it’s tempting to begin typing up your notes, do some analysis, or make adjustments to your moderator guide. Instead, take a break. Do whatever is necessary to get your mind off the research and allow it to rest. See a movie, watch TV, read a book, or do anything that lets you relax and take your mind off the research until the next day’s sessions.

Break Up Large-Scale Research

For larger research projects, with many days of sessions, don’t schedule sessions every day. Instead, add a day when you’re not doing research between every two or three days of sessions. Not only do those days let you take a break from your user research, they’ll also let you review your findings, assess what you’ve learned so far, and make adjustments to the moderator guide. This provides a change of pace and lets you rest, but also gives you a chance to reassess your research. Perhaps you’ve already learned enough about certain topics. If so, you can add more tasks or questions to learn about new topics or dig further into interesting findings. Even though doing this adds days to a study, these days can give you a head start on your analysis, saving you time later in the process.

If You Don’t Have Enough Time, Adjust Your Effort

Other than moderating the research sessions themselves, the most difficult part of being a user researcher is a lack of time for analysis and reporting. User research typically produces a huge amount of data, which takes a lot of time to get through. But it seems that there’s never enough time for analysis or reporting on your findings. This can lead to long days and nights trying to meet your deliverable deadlines.

To prevent your having to rush through analysis and reporting, at the beginning of a project, make sure that the time a project team allocates for analysis and reporting is realistic. If there isn’t enough time—and you can’t the get the team to add more time—adjust your level of effort accordingly. It’s better to adjust your level of analysis and the scope of your report to fit the timeframe rather than exhausting yourself by trying to do extensive analysis and detailed reporting in too small an amount of time.

If you find that you’re continually working on projects with unrealistic deadlines, and you’re unable to adjust your level of effort, consider looking for another job. But a lack of time for analysis and reporting is a common problem among all user researchers. Although we all must sometimes work long hours, that shouldn’t be the norm.

Ensure Your Job Provides Enough Variety

Make sure you’re in a job that provides you with the amount of variety you need. Some researchers enjoy working with the same product team over the long term, so they can gain an in-depth understanding of the product and its users. Others need more variety.

I’ve always worked in UX consulting because I like the variety of working for different clients, on different types of projects, on different platforms, and with different types of participants. Every project is unique, with something new and different to learn and unique research and design problems to solve. If you’re someone who craves that kind of diversity in your work, but your job that doesn’t provide enough variety, you’ll be more susceptible to user-research fatigue. You might want to look for a new position at a UX consultancy or agency or take on freelance or contracting positions.

Continue to Learn

It’s easy to fall into a rut when you’re frequently conducting the same kind of research, using the same methods and techniques on every project. Everything can begin to seem routine.

A great way of breaking out of such a rut is by continuously learning about your field. No matter how much experience you have, there are inevitably new techniques, methods, technologies, and perspectives that you can learn. Read UX Web sites, magazines, and books. Listen to UX podcasts, watch videos, and attend Webinars. Attend local UX events, meetups, and conferences. The great thing about attending UX events and conferences is learning about how other UX professionals do things. I always leave such events feeling refreshed and invigorated, eager to try out the new techniques and practices I’ve learned.

However, don’t limit yourself to learning just about UX research. It’s always helpful and interesting to keep up with the latest in UX design, psychology, accessibility, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, conversational design, and technology in general.

Indulge Your Outside Interests

Although it’s great to keep up with what’s going on in the field of User Experience, at some point you’ll need to get away from everything to do with work. Develop and indulge in hobbies and outside interests, whatever they may be. For instance, when I first started in this field, I read a lot of UX design and research books in my spare time. Now, I have a hard time doing that. I really enjoy my work, but when I’m away from work, I need to do something completely different. So, a few years ago, I got interested in reading books about American history. Somehow I got on this kick of reading all the presidential biographies in order. While that might not sound like your thing, find your own interests and use them to forget about user research for a while.

Remember, You’re Making the World a Better Place

When you’re feeling a little harried and burnt out after a long day of user research sessions, it’s helpful to remember that you’re making the world a better place. You’re helping to make the world easier, more useful, and more satisfying for people. Even if you’re working on a project that doesn’t seem particularly significant—for example, an enterprise time-tracking application—you’re giving a voice to a group of long-neglected users and improving their lives in some small way. In this way, user research really

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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