User research looks easy

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17 January 2019
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User research looks easy

When I started as a UX researcher at The User Story, the research part of it was the least of my worries. Throughout my degree and masters in psychology, I had conducted countless studies, both qualitative and quantitative. I was used to gathering scientific data so doing research that I’d been told just has to ‘be good enough’ should be easy right?

I was so wrong

After my first few months, I ran a few sessions of internal testing for one of our clients. I was feeling pretty confident, it was a relaxed environment, I watched Tom (The User Story’s founder) conduct the first few tests and there was some comfort in having someone with so much experience sat next to me. If it all went wrong, I thought Tom would step in and save me.

When it was finally my turn the nerves crept in, but it wasn’t too bad. I started the test and it was all going well, but the participant just would not stop talking about the same thing. Over and over again. We ask people to think out loud, but this was excessive. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get him to move on.

There I was, stuck in this circular dialogue with a participant, not knowing what to do. I kept going, thinking it was going terribly and hoping Tom wouldn’t lose faith in me. I finally got through the test but I was a bit shaken. I got some good information but I knew it could have gone better.

After some feedback from Tom, I was ready to take on the next test.

I should have abandoned ship

I went through the usual introductions, explained what we were doing etc. Full of hope, I started the test. The participant started to make her way through the task but she did so in complete silence. I asked a few questions about what she was doing in an attempt to get her talking. Still silence. I tried again. She returned a death stare. It was like she was looking through me rather than at me. I wanted to shrink inside myself. At that moment nothing would have made me happier than to have the ground swallow me whole.

For 20 minutes I sat there, totally terrified. It felt like the test would never end but I was so relieved when it was over.

I can’t do this job if it is always like this.

Tom explained that the participants I had that day were some of the most difficult you can have as a researcher. I had actually done really well, sometimes tests just go that way. It should have been comforting but it wasn’t. I was nearly in tears and just had to get out of the room. Having nothing else to compare my session with, I assumed I had done terribly.

It looked so easy

My experience of usability testing was nothing like what I had seen. Everyone I had watched do it made it look so easy. They were so calm, they asked great questions and got valuable information. All I thought about for the next few weeks was ‘How the hell are they doing it?’

If you’ve never conducted a usability session before it poses some unique challenges. You need to make someone feel comfortable, ask them questions, observe their behaviour, pick up on subtle cues, make notes and ask more questions. I felt like I was walking a tightrope while spinning plates and reciting Shakespeare. Nightmare.

Being a good researcher is hard

You need great interpersonal skills, be able to think on your feet, be able to focus on and process a lot of information really quickly. It was incredibly difficult (at least for me) to learn to manage building rapport with participants, giving the test instructions, listen to what they were saying and watching what they were doing, all the while trying to formulate open questions to gather the best insights possible.

Added to this, usually, there is a room of people observing the session you are doing. Not only are you in front of a stranger who is your priority, but you know that there is a team of other people listening to everything you’re saying. In my head they were all judging me, picking up on every mistake.

In reality, apart from my own team, no one else knew when I made a mistake. The reason a client is asking us to conduct testing for them is that they don’t know how to do it.

Overcoming the fear

When I realised that I felt a little better. Tom insisted I get straight back on the horse, and he was right. After two months of hiding away from usability sessions, we had another test and after a phase of terror, apprehension, and so many pep talks I lost count, I was back in a test session.

As it turns out it wasn’t that bad. I had a lovely participant who was happy and relaxed, which made me happier and more relaxed. The test went pretty smoothly. It wasn’t the greatest session that has ever been run, I was still learning. But it restored my confidence in my career choice and in my ability to do this job, and to do it well.

I’ve now been a UX researcher for over a year and I’ve done a bunch of other test sessions and I have not had any session as awful as my first ones. If anything, having that experience made me better. Now, if I have a more difficult participant, they’re still not as hard to manage as the first sessions I did and I’m now better at managing those situations when they do arise.

It gets better

Never ever assume that research is easy, and if you get the chance to observe a good UX researcher at work then cherish it. Appreciate how much they are juggling in their heads to run those sessions, the effort that goes into organising the test, finding the participants and translating that into something tangible for stakeholders to use. On top of all of that, sometimes they’re running 8–9 sessions a day. It is exhausting.

By no means am I an expert, but I’m far better than the teary-eyed mess I was a year ago. As they say, practice makes perfect, so just keep at it, it really does get better.

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If you want to reduce development costs, build a new digital product, or just improve the experience for both your customers and your bottom line, we should talk.

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