As UX researchers it is our job to understand, not users, but the people we build for. The characters who walk through our door can differ, from charming to downright rude. But the feelings, the love, the obsession, we have with participants is one hard to explain. One, which in the moment of research, never weakens.
Recently I read Doorbells, Danger and Dead Batteries by Steve Portigal, a book showcasing war stories about conducting research. The anecdotes also offers a glimpse into what it means to work with people.
“Do you remember that time you fell madly in love with somebody? Or when your child was born? The other became the object of unlimited interest and fascination.” - Antonella Pavese, from Doorbells, Danger and Dead Batteries
When we are in love, we can’t know enough about the other person. We want to be aware of their every hour of the day, explore their desires and absorb their essence.
“In that moment you are more interested in them than yourself.” - Antonella Pavese
There is an adoration and love between us, as researchers and participants. When next to someone completely different, you have a time limit, to get to know as much as possible.
Great research and great UX comes from empathy. During moderation, as researchers you have to become this positive neutral being. Soaking up the every word that someone shares with you. Every noise which passes their lips, indicating their true mood. All the while between probing the why, how, what, where and when. In this moment, you are nothing, but curious.
The connection you make in the room with a participant is not one I see shared with observers of the same sessions. It’s a hard thing to describe and share with someone who wasn’t in the room. It seems easy for observers to make jokes when participants have been mis-recruited.
Obsession-like feelings come with their own dangers. It’s hard to build a rapport with someone quickly; more so in unnatural situations like labs. It’s even harder to build the deeper connection UX-ers need to fight on behalf of those subjected to clients’ torturous designs.
I remember recently, a participant needed specific information about a car boot, because they had dogs. Move forward to different research, I noticed another participant covered in dog hair.
This was it. As a fellow dog person, here is my shot at not only rapport, but connecting.
But what was a 2 second question, expecting a “Yes, I have a dog” answer, turned into 2 painful minutes of the participant pulling out their phone. Followed by the slowest scrolling through all their photos, to find their dog. In a 1 hour session, 2 minutes feels like eternity.
With different participants, come different personality types. One of the hardest personality types I’ve come across, is someone with the utmost energy. It is so hard not to reflect that. They’re looking at the website, finding something that they would usually do or buy. Then they get really into the task.
“Oh raggity-poo I can’t have that cardigan!” - Participant quote
A researcher’s actions must be poised. They must be positive in that there is no wrong answer. But not be positive enough to confirm that what someone is saying or doing is in any way a right answer. So when you’re faced with so much energy, it’s natural to reflect their mannerisms. Yet, when you reflect high energy, sometimes neutrality and pauses go out the window. They’re excited to share their story, and you’re excited to ask. Yet the moment they finally find time to breathe, you’re onto your next question.
I have a vivid memory of being on a train to Manchester. We pulled up to Salford Central and stopped, with no sign of completing the journey. A guy screamed down the carriage, as his sister had collapsed. A whole train, packed on a Saturday with people and not one of us could help. Not one of us probably knew what to do, even if we wanted to help. This moment of feeling so useless, never left the back of mind. That person could have been one of my users.
Working with people will never be dull, and there will be moments where things will not be plain sailing. As someone who invites participants into research, I feel I should be able to take care of them. They are my people. Not just, checking wires aren’t tripping hazards, or clients use off-set white and black to reduce headaches. But that I can provide basic care when it matters most.
So I am proud to say, that as of 18th Jan 2017, I achieved my first qualification in First Aid. I have never felt so empowered and I can’t recommend it enough.
There are times, especially in London where people are aggressive and rude. Days where you just can’t talk to anyone. But every person is fighting their own war, and we’re here to help combat the online battles people face every day. UX is not easy, but it’s not the techniques or the budget that are the biggest challenge. It’s the ambiguity and complexity of working with people.
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