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Personas research

Five Research Personas to Watch Out For

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The User Research Persona Watch List

Portraits of the 5 personas

In most circumstances, research participants are pleasant, helpful, and easy to work with. However, there are a few types that can make moderating a session really challenging and put you at risk of not getting the best insights. We only have a short time to gain feedback and insights from participants and certain personas can derail your research study. Based on over 20 years of experience conducting user research, I’ve pulled together a composite of participant characteristics that I’ve encountered into five personas to watch out for and how to effectively work with them.

The Mute

Not all participants find it natural or easy to think aloud while they are completing a task. Some participants are nervous, or are naturally shy and aren’t completely comfortable talking to you.

Encountering The Mute

The participant hasn’t said much throughout the session despite the moderator’s emphasis at the beginning of the session to think aloud. After completing a task during the usability test the moderator asks, “So, what was that experience like for you?” and the participant replies, “It was fine.” The moderator attempts to rephrase their question while striving to keep a neutral tone, “Was there anything that you would change or want to work differently to make it easier?”. The participant replies, “No, not really.”

Managing The Mute

  • Put them at ease. If they appear nervous or quiet, you may need to spend a bit more time making the person feel comfortable talking with you at the beginning of the session.
  • Don’t be afraid to frequently encourage them to think aloud. It might seem like nagging, but these participants need to be prompted to provide ongoing feedback. Explain to the participant why having them think aloud helps you.
  • Be specific and direct. These participants may not be comfortable answering open-ended questions and may need a more specific prompt. That being said, stay away from questions that could easily be answered by just a yes or no response.

The Talker

Some people just like to talk. They talk a lot without really saying anything meaningful. Maybe they don’t have the opportunity to speak with people very often and they seize on the opportunity to chat with you. Perhaps they are just nervous and the way they compensate is to verbalize everything appearing in their mind.

Encountering The Talker

During a user interview, the moderator asks, “Tell me a little bit about your experience using the heart rate app on your Apple Watch.” The participant replies, “I love my Apple Watch! My daughter gave it to me as a 70th birthday present. We had the party at this really fun place right on the water. I really didn’t think I wanted yet another gadget, but after I tried it I really liked it! I’m still trying to figure it out though and I’m sure you younger people are using it 24/7 for all sorts of things. I have to say that the battery life isn’t that good and I frequently forget to charge the thing. Overall, as I said, I’m really happy with it, but it is much more expensive than I would have paid for a watch. I typically look for used gadgets on eBay and I know that you can now get an Apple Watch 3 for so much less than going to a store like Best Buy. Sorry, did that answer your question?”.

Assessing the situation, the moderator grows concerned that they might run out of time without getting the specific information they need from this participant without seeming rude. The moderator replies by saying, “I really appreciate hearing your experience with your Apple Watch. Could you tell me about your experience with the heart rate app?”. The participant smiles and says, “You know, I think that’s the real reason my daughter gave me this watch. I have high blood pressure and I think this thing is supposed to be her way to keep track of me. I don’t know, what do you think?”.

Tackling The Talker

  • Set proper expectations. Participants can’t read your mind and don’t know what you hope to learn from them. Provide clear goals at the beginning of the session and stress that you really need their help to focus on understanding specific aspects of their experience.
  • Don’t be afraid to cut them off. There will likely not be an obvious break for you to interject your next question or change the topic of conversation. It might seem rude, but these participants need you to tell them to stop talking.
  • Be specific and direct. Once you’ve regained control of the conversation, you should steer clear of broad, open-ended questions that could derail your session with this type of participant.

The Naysayer

The Naysayer tends to be less common because participants usually try to be on their best behavior in a research session and will often censor their most negative thoughts. However, encountering this persona in your session can spell disaster if you don’t know how to manage the situation.

Encountering The Naysayer

“I hate this!”, she exclaims loudly. The participant has just completed five tasks using the website with what appeared to be no points of confusion or obvious issues. The moderator says, “Tell me more about why you are feeling this way.” The participant sighs and says, “This is so typical of an airline. They want to force you to solve all of your problems using their website. I’ve had to wait on hold for almost an hour just to speak with one of their customer service people.”

The moderator attempts to calm the participant down and help them to focus on feedback related to her experience using the website. “That really does sound like a bad experience. I’m sure we’ve all been there at some time or another,” says the moderator. “Now, could you tell me about your experience using their website today?” The participant responds with, “I know, right! Last month my flight on this airline was canceled and they ended up losing my luggage!”

Nullifying The Naysayer

  • Don’t feed into their negativity by agreeing with them. It might be tempting to empathize with this individual’s experiences and acknowledge their opinions. This person is usually seeking validation and encouragement to use your limited time as a venting session.
  • Be specific and direct. Once you’ve regained control of the conversation, you should remind the participant that they were selected to provide feedback on this product (e.g. website, app, etc.) and that you need their help to understand specific aspects of their current experience.
  • Offer an olive branch. Let the participant know that once the session is over that you would be happy to pass on any additional feedback that they might have about their previous experiences with this company or product.

The Aspiring Designer

Many people have a creative side to them, but this persona takes this to an extreme and looks for any opportunity to provide their personal opinions on a design. This participant doesn’t have any formal training or experience in design and believes that they were brought in to help the actual designers figure out what they need to do.

Encountering The Designer

“I really don’t think that the color blue works here. Honestly, this shade of blue clashes with the other blues that you are using further down the page. It kind of looks like a blueberry threw up all over this thing,” said the participant as they gesture towards the navigation bar. The moderator is trying to obtain feedback from the participant regarding the labeling and categorization of the site’s primary navigation. “That’s really helpful feedback thanks! Can you also tell me your thoughts about using the site’s navigation to find what you were looking for?” asks the moderator. “Ok no problem, but first you should know that I have a lot of experience doing web design. My softball team asked me to create a site for our weekly games and I recently redesigned my kid’s soccer league site using Squarespace.”

Dealing with The Designer

  • Don’t encourage them. This person is often looking for validation and encouragement to provide even more feedback on the design’s aesthetics and express their personal opinions on “good design” practices. Try not to acknowledge or provide positive reinforcement if they continue to provide any design tips.
  • Be specific and direct. Once you’ve regained control of the conversation, you should clarify what specific aspects you need feedback on and exactly what you are seeking to learn from them.
  • Probe deeper to understand the root cause. If the participant says that they like or dislike something, try to ask clarifying questions that help you to understand why they felt that way. For example, have them explain anything that was not clear, could have been easier to accomplish, took them longer than expected, etc.

Mr./Ms. Positive

This persona can take on many forms, but it is most commonly associated with participants that refuse to provide any negative feedback or identity any areas where they were frustrated or confused by their experience. Out of all of the Watch List personas, this is the type to be most mindful of because they can provide false positive sentiments and misleading information.

The last 15 minutes haven’t gone well for the participant. After failing to complete the first few tasks of the usability test and spending over five minutes attempting the last one, the moderator asks, “so, how’s it going so far?” and the participant replies, “it’s going well. I really like this app a lot!” The moderator attempts to rephrase their question while striving to keep a neutral tone, “was there anything that you would change or want to work differently to make it easier?”. The participant replies, “definitely not. I mean, I’m not the most tech-savvy person, but I’m sure anyone could use this app easily. I would rate it at least a 9 or a 10 [out of 10].”

Making Peace with The Positivist

  • Don’t be afraid to call them out. If the participant’s feedback does not align with what you have observed of their experiences make sure to address this with them. In this situation, it is ok to gently point out to them that they said it was extremely easy to perform a task when they were not successful in completing it.
  • Be specific and direct. Remind the participant that you really need their help to understand ways to improve this product’s experience. Give them specific examples of the type of feedback that would be most helpful to you.
  • Change their perspective. If they continue to claim that the experience is flawless, and if they make excuses for not being able to effectively use the product, ask them to provide feedback from someone else’s perspective. For example, ask them to think about the experience a colleague might have who is much less knowledgeable about how this product works.

Become a Better Moderator by Roleplaying

A common theme to working with all of these challenging personas is being direct and specific. This is easier said than done when dealing with these personalities. Learning to be an effective user research facilitator takes experience, and the best way to start is to roleplay. Find a friend or colleague that can take on any one of these personas to give you an opportunity to try out these strategies and develop your own approach to moderating these types of sessions. It might be painful, but you should record these practice sessions to watch later on. By reviewing these sessions you may pick up on your verbal or nonverbal cues that are influencing your interactions with a participant.