Fuzzy Math Guide to User Research: Difficult Participants and How to Handle Them

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Fuzzy Math Guide to User Research is a series covering the ins and outs of user research, including our philosophy and top tips. View all posts in the Fuzzy Math Guide to User Research

“How do you feel about this particular process?”
“It’s good.”

You fly through all of your questions in the first 10 minutes, and are stuck there for the next 20 trying to pull any bit of helpful information out of this user like you’re pulling teeth.

Let’s face it, not every participant is going to be the perfect interviewee. You’re dealing with humans here, after all. You’ll have those who can’t stay on topic and those… well… like the one above.

Part 2 of our user interview series tackles tough participants and how to get the most out of your user research.


There are a couple of reasons why participants might be quiet during a user research session. The obvious one is that this is just their personality. If that’s the case, the best you can do is to over-prepare. Have more questions than you think you need going in. But also have enough participants that it’s okay if some people just aren’t that talkative.

Part 1: Designers as Researchers

Sometimes your participants are just nervous. They might not understand why you’re talking to them, or think that you’re judging how they do their work. In that case, it can help to be super transparent about what you’re doing. Bring in other participants’ experiences. Talk about things you’ve already heard.

In our experience “we’re not trying to get you in trouble” can also go a long way.

When dealing with non-talkers, pull any thread you can to try to tease out more information. Asking a lot of follow-up questions, including examples and hypotheticals, can turn a high-level, open-ended question into something more tangible, and help your participants start to open up.


Then you have those users that go off on a tangent that has nothing to do with what insights you’re hoping to gather. How do you keep a session like that on track?

Often the over-sharers feel truly passionate (which can be a good or bad thing) about their experience with your client or product. Give them a minute or two to get what they want to say off their chest, and you can bring them back on track. Take quick notes of things you want to follow up on, so you don’t lose those thoughts in the shuffle.  Though it’s not ideal, sometimes you have to interrupt—you have a fixed amount of time after all.

Stay encouraging. “That’s really helpful” and “thank you” go a long way in building a trusting relationship with your participant — even if that relationship only lasts for half an hour.

But at the end of the day, you’ve over-prepared, and you have plenty of other participants from which to gather your insights.


What challenges have you overcome when dealing with tough user research participants? We’d love to hear your story! Tweet us @fuzzymath, or find us on Medium to connect

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