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By Patricia Anderson, MSE

Imagine a participant comes into your study room. She is not sure what to expect during her session; she’s not really sure what she’s supposed to do. Maybe she’s nervous, maybe she’s bored, maybe she’s got 10,000 things to do today and has a lot on her mind. Maybe she felt things did not go so well in the session, and after many questions from the Moderator about how she interacted with the device she is starting to feel a little “tested” or judged.

Each participant that comes into our studies is a representative user, and therefore arguably has a unique set of skills, knowledge, and expectations that can result in valuable learnings about the product we are testing. So when a shy teenager or a defensive healthcare professional or just your everyday busy person comes into the study room, how do we get them to talk to us? How do we convince someone to give us their honest feedback and discuss their experience with the product?

This can be one of the more challenging aspects of moderating. We bring people into our study, we ask them to use a thing they’ve never seen before, maybe a fairly complicated thing, and then we spend a substantial amount of time interviewing them about all the unintended ways they used the thing. And then we work our hardest to make sure they leave the room with a smile (because we are real people with feelings, not research-robots!).

Every moderator has their own tricks and methods, but here are some of my tips to get participants to talk.

How to get participants to talk to you:

1. Stop talking

One of the best ways to get someone to talk to you is to quiet down yourself. This works for many reasons. For one, most people don’t like silence, especially when they are one-on-one with a stranger. It’s awkward. Oftentimes if you reel in the chattiness yourself, the participant will jump in to fill the silence.

Perhaps the a fundamental reason this method works is that when the Moderator is talking too much, they may inadvertently voice ideas, assumptions, and extrapolations that are not really accurate, rather than letting the participant explain their perspective. Sometimes if I want to rephrase something a participant has told me to make sure I understood their comment, I will start by saying “don’t let me put words on your mouth,” or “please correct me if I say something you didn’t mean.”

2. Be the student

No matter what the participant did in the study room, the purpose of the study is to learn why they interacted with the product the way they did. The only person who knows those answers is the participant – so let them teach you! From the participant’s perspective, it can be a great feeling to teach someone and feel like you are helping that person; often participants are receptive to questions if they are framed them as opportunities for the participants to help improve the product or to teach the Moderator about how they understand the product .

3. Ask them to speak for their friends/coworkers

At Core, some of our participants come into our studies to use a thing that is very similar to products they use on a daily basis in their professional life – only to discover they have been doing something wrong all along. This can feel threatening and can easily lead to the participant becoming defensive. Feeling “threatened” and “defensive” is not conducive to having a fruitful conversation about the user interface.

One way around this is to ask them to speak from the perspective of someone else, perhaps a friend, family member, or coworker. This de-personalizes the conversation and allows you to talk about potential use events without making the participant feel like they did something wrong.

4. Promote them to head engineer

The participants that come into usability studies representative users, and are generally not design experts or medical device engineers. They typically do not have knowledge of manufacturing constraints, regulatory rules, or funding limitations that are essential parts of product development. Nevertheless, participants have a unique user-centric perspective on the product that is often absent outside of the field of human factors. I have found that people typically love to give their feedback, and if I can convince them that I am genuinely interested in their ideas and opinions I can almost see their mood brighten and they start opening up and talking a lot more.

Another reason to ask for participant’s opinions on a product’s design is to learn how they are understanding the product and to uncover any misinterpretations they may have experienced. Put simply: asking someone how a product could be changed or improved is another way of understanding the root cause of difficulties or misunderstandings they had about the product.

5. Smile

Last but absolutely not least – who wants to talk to someone who seems angry, mean, or disinterested? Smile! Even if it is the last participant of a very long day I try to give them my best, warm smile. You do not need to put on false pretenses of being the participant’s “friend” or foster idle small talk, but you do need to make the participant feel comfortable and feel like they are interacting with a real, empathetic human being who wants to listen to them. I call it the 3 P’s (that I made up just now): be pleasant, be present, and be polite.