Finding the perfect participant is not always an easy task. The perfect participant should represent your user base perfectly, meeting all your specifics. They should also be able to express themselves clearly and in an understandable way–being talkative but not too talkative, staying on topic and critical and unafraid to state their opinions while being unbiased. They should also be able to follow your directions and in the best case be helpful and cooperative.
In short, perfect participants are the people you include in your highlight video and quote in your report. Since it’s unrealistic to expect to find participants who meet all of the above requirements you should always prioritize trying to find participants that match your target group as closely as possible. Most of the other issues can be dealt with during the test. But what can you do to improve the situation when you get the feeling that either your participant or the testing situation are less than ideal?
Dealing with difficult situationsThe first thing to consider when encountering a participant you perceive as being difficult is whether the problem is actually the participant or the situation. Consider the fact that people are not generally trying to sabotage you, your research, or your test. Most of the time the problem is the testing situation in general not your participant.
Ask yourself the following questions: are participants anxious because of the testing situation/the setup? if so, why? Are observers or the recording system intrusive? Is the tested software hard to use and makes them feel stupid? Do participants understand the task? Did you simply recruit poorly or is the problem something else entirely?
Most of these problems can be remedied by recruiting properly using the right kind of screeners. Avoid vague or ambiguous screener questions and try to exclude people who have taken part in usability tests within the past six months. Another important thing to keep in mind are the test’s instructions.
Always thank you testers (ideally before they start the test and upon completing it) irrespective of whether they receive an incentive or not. Explain what will be happening during the test. Tell them what they’ll be testing, to give honest feedback and that they don’t need to be afraid they’ll break anything. Also tell your users that they’ll need to think aloud and explain to them how thinking aloud works. Try to make them feel at home and reassure them that you’re interested in their honest opinion and ideas on how to improve your product.
Dealing with difficult participantsFortunately encountering participants that are truly difficult is not very common. But what to do if you run into someone that just won’t provide helpful feedback for whatever reason? The following tactics can help you deal with certain types of difficult participants. That way you can still gather useful data and make to most of your research time:
Participants who feel uncomfortable giving their opinion: to improve your product you need the unfiltered, honest opinion of your participants. For most people this can be uncomfortable–especially if they think their opinion will be perceived as negative and is directed towards unfamiliar people and their work. Tell participants you’re interested in their honest opinion and that they’ll help you come up with new ideas for your product. Hopefully they’ll associate their opinion with being helpful not judgmental.
Untalkative participants: sometimes participants simply talk to little. They forget to think aloud, don’t report what they’re doing and why and don’t explain their task solving strategy. Try giving your participants clear thinking aloud instructions, give them examples on how to think aloud and maybe even have them practice thinking aloud. If they still don’t talk enough prompt them to keep talking or try asking open ended questions and follow-up questions “You said… what did you mean by that?” If they can’t seem to get the hang of thinking aloud let them focus on the task and ask why they behaved the way they did at specific times during the interaction. If they really are extremely quiet try to focus on their behaviour to gather data.
Participants that talk to much: some participants just talk to much. They ramble on and and on, go off topic and waste precious testing time that could be spent on different tasks. One way to deal with this is to just let them talk and accept that you may need to skip the last task(s) if necessary. You could also try to remind them of the remaining time and number of remaining tasks. But always make sure you don’t offend them or make them feel bad.
Anxious participants: some people are very nervous, constantly need reassurance they aren’t doing anything wrong and are extremely cautious and careful with the prototype. Try to make them feel as comfortable as possible. Do some smalltalk before you begin with the test and start with an easy introductory task to help them get accommodated to the situation. Offer to turn the recording equipment off and take notes instead. If you get the feeling that a certain task is especially problematic skip it and move on.
Overly polite participants: some participants don’t want to criticize ‘your design’. If you get the feeling they’re trying to be polite and not hurt your feelings as a designer, remind them of the purpose of the test. Emphasize that you’re only running the test and didn’t develop the product (even if that’s not completely true) and that they can’t hurt your feelings. Tell them you’re aware that the tested product needs to be improved and their honest opinion will help you with that. If you believe your participant has no definitive opinion or just doesn’t care that much try asking follow-up and open-ended questions. You can also try to recruit people who are likely to have an opinion or specifically press your participants for issues.
Participants who blame themselves for the problems they encounter: some people try very hard to not ‘make mistakes’ during the test. When they encounter an issue, they look for the problem in themselves and apologize for doing something wrong. Tell them that the sole purpose of the test is to find design problems. Make sure they understand that any problem they run into is based on a design mistake and not their fault and that technology should always be designed around the needs of the people who use it.
Participants who should never have been recruited: sometimes you end up with participants that don’t meet your specifics even though you used a screener. They lie about their computer skills, the devices they own and use, or other preconditions for taking part in the test. Usually this happens when participants want to take part in your test to get the incentive. If this happens to you try to still gather usable data from them. Maybe they can help you understand users you didn’t consider before. If this is impossible you can’t do anything except sending them home and reworking your screener questions to avoid this problem in the future.
Miscellaneous problems: some participants arrive late or don’t show up at all, some are disinterested and not really engaging with the test. Some prefer the ‘old version’ of your product out of principle and aren’t interested in helping you change it. Luckily this doesn’t happen very often as there is really not much you can do about them.
If you want to share your experiences with participants or thoughts on the topic feel free to leave a comment or hit us up on twitter @usertimesHQ.