The last time a friend told you a story, you probably were able to relate to their experience and feelings. Maybe that’s how you two became friends in the first place -- because you got each other. Understanding and relating your emotions to others is called empathy, and it’s an essential part of any relationship.
Empathy is also an essential part of the product research process. It may sound touchy-feely but it’s absolutely crucial for gathering candid user feedback. The key to getting users to open up during your research is to make users as comfortable as possible. And that requires empathy.
But how? In our interviews, I am constantly trying to empathize and relate during our research conversations. Since I run all of our calls over the phone and am not physically in the room with users, it’s even harder to make our testers comfortable enough so that they’ll share candid thoughts with a room full of strangers they can’t even see. Using the following techniques has led to more comfortable conversations and more valuable information for my team about their designs.
1. Make time for introductions.
Because users can be nervous during a research call, be sure to spend some time at the beginning of the session introducing yourself and asking them about themselves. Break the ice by asking a few simple questions about where they’re from and the company they work for. If you do this sincerely, it demonstrates that you care about what they do and want to understand more about their world. It also gives you more context about what their job entails and how and why they might be using your product. As each person joins the call, I’ll ask how their day is going so far, or chat about the weather, and then introduce the team that’s in the room with me and loosely explain the agenda for the call. I always finish the intro by asking if they have any questions before we start to make sure we're both on the same page.
2. Just chat.
Frame the research you’re doing as just two people having a conversation. I even go as far as to say, "This is just a conversation. There aren't any right or wrong answers, and you can't do anything wrong." You’d be surprised how much people need to hear this -- I’ve often used this phrasing to put people at ease and it’s not uncommon for them to say, “Oh, okay. Whew!” out loud. Make it clear that you’re on the same team. And remind them of this as much as you need to throughout the call -- especially when you’re sensing they’re becoming uncomfortable or hesitant.
3. Speak their language.
Use the customer's jargon and terminology, not your own. If you have an internal name for a feature and your customer makes up their own name or pronunciation for it, use that. Don’t make them feel stupid for calling a "landing page" a "squeeze page" even if that’s not what you’d call it in a million years. You’re in their world now. They must call it that for a reason. Learn from it.
4. Think like an account manager.
Sometimes a customer will become angry with you for something your company did -- something that has nothing to do with you or your research. This might be completely irrelevant to the conversation at hand, but it’s not something you can ignore. Reassure them that you’re listening and apologize for the negative experience. Let them know that you hear their feedback and that you’ll make sure it gets to the appropriate person, fast. Then turn the attention back to your task at hand. Write down the feedback and after the call follow up with them to let them know you appreciated their candor and that their feedback has been heard by an appropriate team member. Copy the person you’ll be referring their feedback to on this email, if appropriate. Whatever you do, follow up and follow through.
5. Be constantly reassuring.
Sometimes users aren’t sure if they’re even being helpful. Be extravagant in reassuring them that their feedback has been incredibly valuable and that you can’t do your work without their help. I like to say something like, "Thanks so much for your help on this. Sometimes we get too close to what we're working on and we need outside eyes like yours to take a look. You're actually the first person outside of our company to see this, so this has been incredibly helpful and has given us a lot to think about." Once I tell people that they’re one of the first to see a design, they’re generally very excited to have had an insider's view of what we're working on.
6. Ask neutral questions.
As you’re running the call, try your hardest to ask questions that don't indicate that there might be correct answer. For instance, you might look at a page on the website and ask, “Why did we make this page?” That kind of question could make a user feel as if they’re being tested, which isn’t what you’re after. Try something more neutral, like “If you had to describe this page’s purpose to a colleague, how would you describe it?” That gets them thinking about it in the context of how and why they would have ended up at this page, not making them guess as to why you built it. It’ll also give you insight into how they speak about your company to their colleagues and what that page's purpose might be from their point of view.
7. Don't answer questions.
Inevitably users are going to ask you questions about why something is designed the way it is during the session. Instead of answering them and starting down that path, try saying something like “That’s a really good question and one I was actually wondering myself. What do you think?” I use this to reiterate the fact that I’m here to learn from them and that I don’t have any of the answers. It puts the onus back on them to tell you what they were thinking as to why you built something and will give you another bullet point of data about your design.
Just be you
As you can see, each of these techniques focuses on removing the pressure from the customer to perform correctly and frames your chat as what it is -- a conversation between two people. Empathize and talk to users as you would talk to a close friend and you will start to collect better data about your designs.
What other methods do you use to put users at ease during usability testing?