Building rapport

Building rapport

Building rapport in user testing

Fowlam’s CRO Michael Brown gives some simple tips for getting high-quality feedback from design research participants.

It doesn’t take years of experience to realise that social skills are an important part of carrying out research with users.  For users to give honest, insightful responses they need to feel relaxed and comfortable, free to speak their mind. Therefore, it’s essential for the researcher to build rapport – a sense of ease and friendliness that encourages a user to engage fully, rather than just simply answering questions. This sense of rapport is, if anything, more important when working remotely with users, as a lack of physical cues and turn taking complicated by latency and poor audio can make communication harder.

Over the years I’ve found that a few very simple things can help users to open up and share their honest opinions and experiences:

Be positive

A common mistake inexperienced researchers often make is to challenge users when they point out something that they don’t like or have had a negative experience with, which can make participants feel like they aren’t being listened to, or worse, that they’re being criticised. This is often a problem when a designer is testing their own design – no one enjoys people finding fault with their work. That isn’t to say you should  just smile and nod along to whatever the participant says – just make sure that you acknowledge their experience as valid and if you challenge their views (which can be useful sometimes) do so by encouraging them to build on their ideas rather than just tearing them down. For example, if you’re testing something that users have generally responded well to, and a user says ‘I don’t think that feature is very useful,’, it would be easy to respond defensively and imply that they are wrong. A more positive way to engage with their comment would be to dig a little deeper- ‘ok, why don’t you find it useful, is it something that you never have the need to do, or is this feature difficult to interact with?’  Not only have you avoided potentially embarrassing your participant, you’ve also provided them with a way to expand on their comment and provide more insight into their thinking.

Conspire with participants

Anyone with a background in psychology will tell you about the differences between in-group and out-group behaviour.  To put it simply, people will be more open and honest with you if they feel like you are on their side. Getting participants to see you as ‘one of them’ is a complex skill that improves with experience, but there are sometimes obvious opportunities to get participants to accept you and open up.  Perhaps the easiest to use are shared interests and shared dislikes, which could be anything as general as an interest in a sport to very context specific issues such as war stories about some outdated legacy system that you’ve both experienced. Obviously you shouldn’t fill your research sessions with discussion of what was on the telly last night, but a few minutes sharing interests at the start of a session can completely transform the amount of valuable feedback you will get.

Don’t take it too seriously (unless it is)

Yes running design research is your job and the result you get should be feeding into important business decisions, but that doesn’t mean you should run research sessions in a drab and overly controlled manner. Don’t forget most people haven’t been part of this sort of experience before and could be nervous about what exactly is going to happen. They may also be giving up their valuable time to participate in your research – the experience should be as positive for them as possible. Making (appropriate) jokes and giving participants (a little) leeway to drift off topic can go a long way to relax them and make the situation an enjoyable experience. This point comes with the important caveat that you must be able to read the situation accurately –  if you are dealing with sensitive topics, or if your participant is particularly nervous or has any social difficulties, it is better to err on the side of caution and avoid jokes unless you know they will be well received – the last thing you want is your participants thinking you are making fun of them or that you aren’t taking them seriously.

These are my top three tips for improving rapport when user testing. What would you add to the list?


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