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9 Challenging Participant Types (and How to Reset with Them)

When a 1-1 session isn't going as planned, how can you get the participant back on track? This article has you covered.

Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Allison Corr

While I shy away from calling anyone a "bad" participant, I do know that as user researchers, we can come up against some pretty tricky and interesting participant personalities. Unfortunately, some of these personalities can make for unfruitful conversations.

Working with various participant types is part of a researcher's job. As we go through these experiences, we better handle each unique situation and are more adept at staying open-minded in facing adversity. This skill is one you can only learn by encountering these scenarios.

When we only have time and budget to talk to a smaller number of users, we want the conversations to be as rich and productive as possible. Although we can sometimes become accustomed to playing the role of a psychologist, babysitter, flight attendant, and juggler, there is no reason we can't try to turn these situations around.

I learned these skills the hard way and had no clue different personality types could come through in research interviews. I thought it was a straightforward conversation. But I was wrong.

My firsthand experiences

The first time I encountered a tricky situation was when I was still learning the skills of generative research. I was already nervous signing in to the call. We got a few minutes in, with me explaining how the call would work and doing a quick introduction on who I was. I then moved on to the warm-up, where I asked the participant how they were.

They burst into tears. Luckily we were on a video call, because my jaw dropped to my keyboard. They explained that their partner had just broken up with them, and their cat had recently passed away. I felt horrible. I had no idea what to do. My colleagues who were observing in the same room as me looked at me wide-eyed. After about five minutes of trying to calm the participant, we rescheduled the interview to a better time.

I know people have bad days, but my subsequent encounter wasn't quite as easy. This participant signed on after recently encountering a ticket mix-up in our system. We sent over a confirmation email but didn't correctly confirm the train ticket on our backend. So, the ticket wasn't valid. The participant was angry, rightfully so. But instead of working through the issue, they yelled for about fifteen minutes straight before I decided to end the interview early.

Those are the main encounters that stick out for me, but there are so many in between. After conducting hundreds (if not over one thousand) interviews, I have compiled a few common participant personalities and how to handle them if you find yourself in a challenging situation.

9 personalities (and how to work with them)

Many participant personalities are floating around, but the list below encompasses common ones my colleagues and I have seen. These particular personalities have stood out most to my students and me.

If you identify one of these participants, I recommend taking a deep breath. Remember, not everyone understands the point of a research session or what user researchers do. Sometimes, participants get on calls with us and already have an agenda or feel uncomfortable answering questions.

Additionally, before I knew better, I didn't do an introduction or warm-up before I dove into a session. Using this approach is crucial in giving the participant an understanding of what you want to cover in the session and also getting them to feel more comfortable.

But what if you do an introduction and warm-up, and it still doesn't work? How can we mitigate these situations so we still end up with a helpful session? Let’s take a look at the types of personalities you may encounter, and along with some tips I've gathered (and tested) throughout the years.

1. The Venter

This person agreed to the research session not to help, but to complain about something specific that went wrong with your product (or multiple occasions, this has happened). They don't want to work through the issue, but want to tell you everything wrong. The Venter can escalate to yelling if they get frustrated enough.

✔ Tips to deal

We don't want to interrupt The Venter because that generally doesn't help the situation, so we have to find ways around this. So instead, try to divert the conversation by saying, "I understand what you are saying, and I want to get back to that later on, but I would like to focus on…." Another option is going on the journey with The Venter and letting them vent. However, if they start yelling or being rude, feel free to end the session early.

2. The Blank Stare

You receive a confused or blank look whenever you ask a question. This participant speaks very little and doesn't seem like they want to talk to you. They might also have trouble with technology and feel too embarrassed to share their issues.

Tips to deal

It can get frustrating when participants are unsure how to use technology, or don't seem to engage with you. Continue asking probing questions (the TEDW method helps in this situation) that encourage them to open up and get the conversation started. Another thing you can do is remind them that there is no wrong answer!

3. The Distracted

Any distractions available will take the attention away from this interview. For example, this participant might type or text during the interview. You can see their eyes moving across their screen or watch them reading something that just popped into their inbox.

Tips to deal

Ensure there are as few distractions in the room as possible, such as cell phones, computers, and even clocks. Additionally, try to make the environment as quiet as possible, with few people walking by the room. If you are holding a remote session, you can ask the participant to silence all notifications in advance for the session. If the person continues to be distracted, you can request to reschedule for a better time.

4. The Unopinionated

No researcher likes to hear the words, "It's fine" or "It's pretty good." When you dig, you hit a cement wall. This participant has nothing to say about your product—good or bad—and isn't particularly involved with the interview.

Tips to deal

Make sure you ask open-ended questions (TEDW again!) as often as possible, as it makes it more difficult for participants to answer with lackluster statements. And, if they do, dig. For example, if something is "Fine" or "Okay," ask them why. Ask what they mean, or how they would define "Okay" or "Fine." I will also ask, "How would you describe this to someone who has never seen it?"

5. The Perfectionist

This is one of the most challenging participants for a usability test since they want to ensure they are doing everything perfectly. As a result, they often feel as though they are completing a test or under scrutiny. They will usually ask you more questions than you ask them.

Tips to deal

Whenever a participant asks me a question, such as a perfectionist asking, "Is that right?" I turn the question back to them, "What do you think?" Stress that there are no right or wrong answers in these situations, and you are just interested in their honest opinions.

6. The Solutionist

They could have built a better app and will tell you how. They are all about coming up with solutions for you rather than sharing their needs, goals, or pain points with the existing product or idea.

Tips to deal

It’s easy to focus on solutions when you have a tech-forward and solutionist participant, especially one who wants to tell you how to do things better. However, always remember to focus on the problem. Yes, they may want all of the solutions they recommend, but why those solutions? What problem are they trying to solve, or what goal are they trying to achieve?

7. The Best Friend

Because of social desirability bias, some participants may try to befriend you or make sure everything they say is kind or flattering—almost the opposite of The Venter. As a result, they will sometimes not give honest feedback.

Tips to deal

Stress how vital honest feedback is with The Best Friend. When faced with social desirability bias, it can be difficult for people to give critical feedback. So always encourage this type of information. To help, I mention no one in the room designed what they are providing feedback on and that there will be no hurt feelings.

8. The Self-Blamer

They will blame themselves for the problems they encounter instead of the system and may get easily frustrated. For example, they might talk about how they could improve with technology instead of telling you their concerns about the product.

Tips to deal

Remind this participant there are no right or wrong answers and that usability tests are, in fact, not tests. During usability testing, I will refer to tasks as activities, as this takes the pressure off. Additionally, I will reassure a flustered participant that other participants had similar problems, so they may feel more at ease when encountering problems.

9. The Rambler

The Rambler will often go off-topic and speak about irrelevant information, making the sessions unproductive. It can be challenging to get and keep The Rambler on topic.

Tips to deal

It’s exciting to find a person who wants to share a lot, but often, ramblers can be off-topic, leading to unproductive conversations. Similar to The Venter, it’s essential to always steer the conversation back to the relevant topic by using segues such as, "That’s interesting, and I want to circle back, but in the interest of time, let’s focus on…." Do this repeatedly to get as many valuable insights as possible.

Wrapping up

As a note: I don't think there are "bad" participants — there are some who are less ideal for specific projects, but none are downright awful. Instead, they serve as great learning experiences on how to improve our perspectives and practice.

Next time you encounter an unexpected challenge in your interviewing process, hopefully some of these tips will help you learn to manage the situation to conduct even better research in the future.

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Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

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