Meet the Respondents: Understanding User Personalities (Part 1)

April 12th, 2011
Published on
April 12th, 2011

UX researchers are exposed to a broad cross-section of people and personalities, especially when it comes to conducting user tests. Frequently, the people we encounter are willing, helpful participants to the research process — but what happens when respondents aren’t so willing or helpful? Although it’s far from ideal, it’s inevitable: some research participants are difficult to work with.

In this series — covering the absolute basics of user personality types — we’ll begin by introducing some of the more problematic personalities. In part two, we’ll look at a number of strategies to help turn the tables in our favor.

That sounds familiar

Over the last dozen-or-so years, I’ve had occasion to conduct somewhere north of 1,000 test sessions. And while every test session is unique — just like the people that comprise them — there are number of similarities, especially when it comes to personality traits. Recognizing and understanding the personality characteristics of a respondent makes it possible for us to adjust an interview before the first task is assigned. In so doing, we’ll get the most out of each interview, avoiding pitfalls that might otherwise cause us to lose invaluable feedback.

“So, Mike, what personality types do we need to address,” you ask. Good question. The following list contains the most common personality types I’ve found during my professional experience. Keep in mind that although these traits don’t necessary define a person — everyone is unique — they do have a substantial impact on a respondent’s ability to participate in our user research.

Personality types

“The Shy One”. Some people are just naturally shy, and some are intimidated by the user testing/interview process. Shy personalities tend to be soft spoken, and have a tendency to withdraw into their shell once a test session is underway. One hallmark of The Shy One is a tendency to answer open-ended questions with very brief answers. For example, you might ask, “What are your first impressions upon seeing this screen?”, and The Shy One might answer “It’s ok.” Shyness and discomfort with the testing process are often also expressed via body language. I once conducted a user testing session with a woman who sat down clutching her purse to her body and never released her grip on it. Clearly, she was not comfortable.

“The Rambler”. This personality is the opposite of The Shy One. A Rambler is someone who, when asked a simple question, gives a lengthy answer – sometimes addressing the question, sometimes not. The Rambler tends to tell stories rather than giving opinions or answering questions. Interestingly, some ramblers are aware they ramble, and some catch themselves. Others display seemingly endless energy to continue telling stories that are only barely related to the question posed. You’ll know you have a Rambler when half your session has elapsed, and you know the respondents’ family tree inside and out but haven’t yet gotten through your first task.

“The Off-piste”. Some respondents tend to either forget or ignore instructions, and go off on their own when interacting with an application or website. These respondents pose a real challenge to effective note taking and data consistency because they do things like click “submit” buttons prematurely, or explore areas that are of interest to them but not related to the task at hand. This isn’t necessarily bad — if you’ve structured your test session to give respondents the freedom to explore, for example — however, focusing an Off-piste respondent on specific tasks or screens can be a real problem.

“The Angry Guy/Gal”. Some people are just naturally more assertive or confrontational. And like it or not, some people arrive to an interview session with an axe to grind about a particular company or product. You’ll know you’re sitting across from an Angry Guy/Gal when they avoid focusing on the task at hand and instead treat the interview as their soap box, voicing unrelated complaints or insisting on telling stories about previous customer service problems.

“The Space Cadet”. Let’s face it: some folks are a little… well, out there. Space Cadets are the respondents who rarely finish a complete thought or sentence. Instead, they morph from one statement to another, or trail off into mumbling before completing their point. Think “absent-minded professor”. Space Cadets often think for a long time before responding to a question or offering an opinion. When they do make a complete statement, Space Cadets often prove themselves to be intelligent people. But they’re frustratingly inarticulate. So the challenge becomes encouraging them to complete a thought or statement without influencing the content.

“The Yes-man/Yes-woman”. This is the respondent who expresses a positive opinion about everything they see or do – even if they have obvious difficulty with it. A Yes-man or woman offers little or no critical feedback, rates nearly everything as “excellent”, and either ignores product shortcomings or blames him/herself for them. These are frustrating respondents; they’ll often encounter significant problems but can’t or won’t express a critical statement or opinion.

It’s worth mentioning that nearly every respondent has the capacity to become a “Yes man/Yes woman” if they become fatigued with the interview process. If you notice a respondent morphing into this personality type towards the end of a session, it’s a sign that they’re anxious to wrap things up.

Framing the solution

Looking back over this list, it’s easy to see how these personalities can impede user interviews. But although the above list is indicative, it’s certainly not exhaustive. What are some personality types that you’ve come across that aren’t listed here?

Now that we’ve collectively addressed the problem, the next step is for us to determine how to solve it. In part two of this series, I’ll introduce some ways to handle individual personalities to help you get the most out of them.