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The Temperament of User Research Participants

January 30, 2019

Match user research activities to the temperament of your subjects, and be aware of how their temperament compares with your own.


I was planning a user research event with a teammate. We knew the participants would outnumber us 2:1, and what they would be talking about was quite deep and nuanced, in a domain we weren't very familiar with. Video or audio recording were not allowed, and so we decided to create a worksheet to be able to capture each participant's viewpoints, rather than rely on our manual, note-capturing abilities alone.

Our goal with the worksheet was to find out where where the participant felt his or her situation fell along the two extremes of various dimensions and to tell us why.

Two different approaches

We were working on the worksheet on a desktop computer, with my teammate editing the document. I was hovering over my teammate's shoulder and could sense her annoyance with me as I did that. I wanted to jump in and make a change.

My teammate felt strongly that each of our questions should condense down to a single page. She reasoned that, this allowed the participant to see all dimensions at-a-glance, so that we could ask participants to rank them, and we'd find out the most important ones.

I, on the other hand, thought we should give the participants a lot more space to expound. I agreed on the value on being able to compare dimensions, but suggested that, if we wanted them to compare, we could span multiple pages, print them single-sided, and spread on the table. I also reasoned that the more space we provide, the more it would encourage the them to fill that space with information, like applying the concept of affordances to worksheet design.

She disagreed with the amount of space I wanted, thinking that the participants would not write anything in there. She said she was willing to bet money the space would be left mostly blank by participants.

My intuition was based on a previous conversation with participants, during which we had discussed the same dimensions, only without a worksheet. I also had previous success using a worksheet with the same group of participants. And so, I held my ground. She was willing to go with my approach, recognizing I had more time with them.

When the approach fits

During the actual research session, it did turn out that the participants made great use of the space and provided delightful details. Many divided the space in halves, explaining the situations each extreme was applicable. One even drew a pie chart to show the probability of being in one extreme or the other. Others wrote multiple lines of context and information.

And so in this instance, I was right! I know my introverts, the deep thinkers, the reflective types!

But to be fair about the situation, I also reflected on times where I had been dead wrong…

When the approach doesn't fit

Indeed, in another user research effort with a completely different set of participants just two weeks prior, I had spent quite some time putting together a packet for everyone, in which I gave them a lot of space to expound on their thoughts. I didn't have enough time to print out the packets while still at the office, and so, the night before the event, I overspent $75 on printing at some Fedex Office after my plane landed. I just had to be as prepared as possible and have those printouts with me. (My anti-recommendation: Don't ever go to Fedex Office for any serious printing needs.)

In the end, less than half of the participants wrote in the packet, and the rest of them left the packet completely blank. Even those that wrote in the packet only did so a small amount. In fact, participants were uneasy going into it already. As I took out the stapled packets and started to hand them out, one of them even said it felt too much like a test.

I realized, that with this participant group, I did not naturally think like them, and even remember feeling intimidated in their presence. I felt like they and I probably would not have hung out with each other in high school. They seemed to be the tougher guys, the social guys, the sporty guys, the cool guys.

Fit the activity to the participant

Some participant are prone to discuss openly and readily, while others do very well thinking to themselves and writing. Some welcome a worksheet, while others become intimidated and turned off. And so it's important to know the temperament of your participants to create the user research activities that have the best fit.

In coming up with the best-fit activity, one way is to involve the input of multiple teammates. I particularly appreciate my teammate, not just for putting up with me, but because she and I will often see things very differently. We bring two different approaches to user research and design to the table, and check each others’ biases.

As the adage goes, "you are not your users". But, it can be helpful to know the important ways in which you and your participants are alike. It's also important to know the ways in which your own temperament varies from those with whom you are interacting, so that your research activities can be catered to their style.


I'll be working on a comments section, but for now, you can tweet me @JayLiu50 or email me at jay@designbyjayliu.com.

Written by Jay Liu, interaction designer.
https://designbyjayliu.com