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Work More Effectively with These 9 “Difficult Participant” Personality Types

Even if you've done everything right in recruiting, you might still end up with a participant you find difficult to work with. These tactics should enable you to keep things running smoother.

Words by Nikki Anderson, Visuals by Allison Corr

So you did the work of trying to recruit the right participants, and you wrote a screener survey that would please the strictest recruiter.

But, some participants slipped through the cracks.

As user researchers, we can come up against some pretty tricky and interesting participant personalities. These personalities can make for really unfruitful conversations. 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.

Working with a variety of participant types is part of a researcher's job. As we go through these experiences, we get better at handling each unique situation and are more adept at staying open-minded in the face of adversity. Being open-minded to anyone sitting in front of you is a skill you can only learn by encountering these scenarios.

The big 9 difficult participant personalities

Here’s a list of the 9 most common personality types I’ve seen from difficult participants.

(If I had the design skills, I would love to make them into personas, but, alas, I am merely a researcher.)

  1. Vicious Venter. This person agreed to the research session, not to help, but to make sure you know he/she hates your product, and all the ways your product has messed up his/her life.
  2. The Blank Stare. Every time you ask a question, you receive a confused look. This participant speaks very little and is, seemingly, unsure about how to use technology.
  3. Distractions Everywhere. Bing, bong, boop. Any disturbance available will take attention away from the interview.
  4. No Opinions. No researcher likes to hear the words, "it's fine" or "it's pretty good." When you dig, you hit a concrete wall. It is almost as if there are no emotions present.
  5. The Perfectionist. One of the most challenging participants for a usability test since they want to make sure they are doing everything correctly. They will often ask you more questions than you ask them.
  6. The Tech-Savvy Solutionist. They could have built a better app, and they will tell you how.
  7. Your New BFF. Because of social desirability bias, some participants may try to befriend you or make sure everything they say is flattering—almost the opposite of the vicious venter.
  8. The Self-Blamer. They will blame themselves for the problems they encounter, instead of the system, and may get easily frustrated.
  9. The Rambler. Will often go off-topic and speak about irrelevant information, making the sessions unproductive.

Check yourself first

Yes, we have seen these personalities come up, but what can we do in these scenarios?

First off, take a deep breath. Usually, when you have a problematic participant, it could be your fault.

For instance, you didn't take the time to make the participant comfortable, or they feel like you aren't listening. It is essential to go through a checklist to ensure you did everything on your side to properly set the stage for the interview:

  • The setting in which you conduct research sessions should be relevant to the research project
    • An office space, a co-working space, or someone’s home (for an observational study) are all appropriate
  • Cater the environment to the session:
    • Make sure the room is quiet and sectioned away from the others
    • Consider the layout and ensure you can sit next to the participant
    • Remove any distractions, such as phones, computers, and clocks
    • Offer any beverages and the bathroom before the session begins
  • Evaluate yourself
    • Imitate your participant’s clothing as much as you can (more causal tends to be better)
    • Ensure you are not wearing anything that could upset a participant (religion, politics, etc.)
    • Assure you are paying full attention to the participant for the entire session

How to overcome difficult personalities

  1. Vicious Venter. We don't want to interrupt the venter, because that generally doesn't help the situation, so we have to find ways around this. I 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 this…" Another option is going on the journey with the venter and using quotes for insight.
  2. The Blank Stare. It can get frustrating when participants are very unsure about how to use technology, but try your best to resist the urge to help the participant immediately. Let him/her struggle through the process for a little, take note of it, and then intervene, so you don't spend the entire session watching the participant on one task.
  3. Distractions Everywhere. Ensure there are as few distractions in the room as possible, such as cell phones, computers, even clocks. Additionally, try to make the environment as quiet as possible, with few people walking by the room. I often ask the participant to turn their phone on silent and place it away for the entire session.
  4. No Opinions. Make sure you ask open-ended questions as often as possible, as it makes it more difficult for participants to answer with lackluster statements. And, if they do, dig. If something is "fine" or "okay," ask them why. Ask, what is "okay" or "fine" about it or what do they mean when they say "fine?" I will also ask, "how would you describe this to someone who has never seen it?"
  5. The Perfectionist. Whenever a participant asks me a question, such as a perfectionist asking, "Is that right?" I turn the question right 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 Tech-Savvy Solutionist. It is easy to focus on solutions when you have a tech-forward participant, especially one who wants to tell you how to do things better. Always remember to focus on the problem. Yes, they may want all of these features, but why, what problem are they trying to solve or goal they are trying to achieve.
  7. Your New BFF. Stress how vital honest feedback is. When faced with social desirability bias, it can be difficult for people to give critical feedback. 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. 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 (which I tend not to do as this can introduce bias), so they may feel more at ease when encountering obstacles.
  9. The Rambler. It is exciting to find a person who wants to share a lot, but, frequently, ramblers can be off-topic, which can lead to very unproductive conversations. Similar to the venter, it is essential to steer the conversation back to the relevant topic, by using segues such as, "that is interesting, and I want to circle back, but for the interest of time, could we focus on…" And just doing this over and over again to try and get as many useful insights as possible.

Best practices for difficult participants

Two things to keep in mind to when it comes to handling difficult participants:

  1. Recruiting. Think about your recruiting strategy. If you find you are getting participants that aren't the best fit, take a look at how you are screening participants. Are you sure you are asking for the right criteria?
  2. Seize the moment. Even if you do everything right during your recruiting, some less than ideal participants can still slip through the cracks. In addition to the above techniques, it is essential to use these situations to your advantage. Even though it may not be the best interview you have ever conducted, you can still get something out of it. Don't just give up; use it as an experience to learn!

I don't think there are "bad" participants — there are some that are suboptimal for specific projects, but none of them are downright awful. They serve as great learning experiences on how to improve our perspectives and practice.

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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