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Meet the Respondents: Understanding User Personalities (Part 2)


In part one of this series, we examined some of the more problematic personality traits user researchers are likely to encounter in their work. Now that we’ve seen how individual personalities can put a damper on your day; let’s explore some ways to overcome the problems inherent to each.

The Shy One

Most shy respondents benefit from an extra dose (or three) of encouragement. This is especially important early in a session/interview, since the first few minutes sets the stage for the duration of the interview. As part of the orientation process, be sure to point out that every respondent’s viewpoint is different and valuable, and that it’s not your aim to test their skills or knowledge; rather, you will work with them to find ways to improve the product.

Offer reassurance any time the respondent makes self-deprecating statements or appears unsure about the value of their opinion. For example, a phrase like “but that’s just my opinion” should be answered with “That’s exactly what we’re here to learn”.

Sometimes a respondent’s reticence comes from being a novice user. Shy respondents may simply be afraid that they’re expected to perform as experts. This is why it’s always important to begin each session with an introduction that sets the stage appropriately. Phrases like “There aren’t any right or wrong answers here”, and “We’re not testing you, you’re helping us test the product” can go a long way towards putting respondents at ease and instilling confidence.

If a respondent is especially shy or appears to lack confidence, consider pausing the session and spending a few minutes addressing the problem. I once conducted a user testing session with an elderly woman who was especially timid and unsure of her capacity to provide meaningful feedback. I spent a few extra minutes in the middle of the session explaining to her that the study involved speaking to people of all ages and backgrounds, and that it was a key goal of the study to make the product useful to anyone regardless of their experience. I explained to her that by participating she was ensuring that people with limited technical skills would have a voice in the product design. This seemed to help her a great deal, and she was considerably more confident and vocal throughout the remainder of the session.

To reiterate: Orient this person, offer encouragement and reassurance.

The Rambler

Fortunately, some Ramblers are aware that they wander off topic. For these people, coping is as easy as reminding them “We have a lot to cover today, so let’s move on.”

Were it always so easy. Because most ramblers aren’t as self-aware—and because most ramblers talk continuously—many of them will deny you an opportunity to interject. For most researchers, it becomes absolutely necessary to assert control over a rambler by carefully interrupting their flow. (Note the emphasis on the word “carefully”. I truly hate to interrupt respondents. It borders on rude and can put the brakes on a useful thought or comment.) Unfortunately, interrupting is sometimes the only choice; some Ramblers may talk continuously for 10 or 15 minutes in response to a single question. (The longest reply I’ve ever heard to a question lasted about 20 minutes—and the respondent actually failed to answer the original question!)

Once you’ve interrupted, acknowledge the Rambler’s story, but also make it clear that you need to move ahead. For example, “I’d like to hear more about that later, but for right now let’s focus on…” or “I don’t mean to interrupt, but we have a lot to cover today so let’s go back to the Home Page…”

In my experience, Ramblers almost never take offense to being politely asked to move on – many just laugh it off.

To reiterate: Acknowledge stories, carefully assert control.

The Off-Piste

Respondents who go off track easily are a lot like Ramblers; many catch themselves in the act and make light of the situation with comments like, “Oh, I’m always jumping ahead with things.” In most cases, gentle reminders and a little humor will go a long way towards getting them back on task. For example, “The developers forgot to finish that part of the application, so let’s just go back a couple of steps”. As with Ramblers, it’s often helpful to acknowledge the Off-Piste respondents’ interest in an off-topic area, saying, “I’d like to hear what you think about that function—we’ll come back to that later. For now, let’s return to…”

To reiterate: Employ gentle reminders, look for hidden opportunities

The Space Cadet

If your active listening skills are a little rusty, you’ll get no better practice than listening and responding to a Space Cadet. You’d like to know what they were going to say, but as a neutral observer you don’t want to color their commentary or opinions. Prompt these users to finish their thoughts by carefully choosing your words. Instead of saying, “Were you about to say…”, – and finishing the thought for them – pose a neutral question, such as “were you about to say something?” Oftentimes, it can help to simply “parrot” the Space Cadet’s language. For example if they begin, “I came to this page and I was looking for…” you might prompt them “you were looking for…?” and then wait for them to finish the sentence.

To reiterate: Employ neutral prompting.

The Yes-man/Yes-woman

Respondents who express nothing but positive opinions — even when they exhibit trouble using a product — can be infuriating. You know they’re capable of expressing constructive feedback or a critical opinion; but you just can’t seem to get it out of them.

As Don Norman observes in his seminal book The Design of Everyday Things, people tend to blame themselves for a product’s shortcomings. I’ve simply lost count of the number of times my respondents have exhibited this behavior. With every type of application, website, or product I’ve tested, some respondents assume that the problems they encounter were their own.

Typical reactions to this include:

  • “The button was there, I just wasn’t looking in the right place;”
  • “It would have been easier if I hadn’t messed up;”
  • “I should have just read the instructions; I always seem to skip them;” and
  • “I just wasn’t paying enough attention”

I advocate politely challenging these respondents. For example, if a respondent encounters significant problems during a task, then later says they didn’t see anything worth improving, challenge them. “It seemed as though you encountered some problems with [task x].” If the respondent then (naturally) blames him/herself, reframe the discussion, saying:

“Perhaps you weren’t looking in the right place, or perhaps the screen could be organized in a way that makes it easier to notice that button.”


“Ideally, each screen should make it easy for you to notice the information that’s most important to you, even if you’re busy or in a hurry. Do you suppose this screen could be made more effective?”

It’s worth mentioning that occasionally you’ll meet a Yes-man or Yes-women who’s simply trying to get through the test session with the minimal possible effort, telling you what they think you want to hear. If you’re working with a good quality recruitment firm or recruiting from list of customers, this type of respondent is very rare. If you encounter this type of Yes-respondent, challenge their opinions and don’t let them “yes” their way through the session. If after a number of attempts you simply can’t get meaningful answers, then thank them for their time and end the session early. It’ll save you from skewing your test results.

To reiterate: Politely challenge, offer reminders.

Go forth and interview

Conducting user interviews, like most skills, gets easier with practice. If this is your first time, or you haven’t come across these personality types yet, I assure you: with enough user interviews under your belt, you will. Being prepared can save you valuable time and effort.

But some of us are always looking for ways to improve our interview skills. If you haven’t already, take a look at the following books and articles that cover additional aspects of the interview process:

Another way to expand or hone your interview skills is to perform mock interviews with a colleague or friend. For an extra challenge, have your partner assume one of the personalities above, and see how effectively you can navigate the session. I think you’ll find it a worthwhile endeavor.

About the Author

Mike B Fisher

Mike B Fisher is a user experience consultant with over a dozen years of experience in the field. He has provided UX guidance and insights to numerous household-name companies including many in the Fortune 500. In 1993 Fisher founded the first Internet consultancy to specialize in the entertainment industry, and later created the first user testing methodology for the world’s largest internet consulting firm. He writes Complete Usability, a user experience blog. Follow him on Twitter.


  • Whitney Hess Reply

    Thanks so much for linking to my blog post, Mike! Much appreciated. You’ve written an interesting piece here. While there are certainly different personality types that can affect the course of the interview, I believe it’s the interviewer’s responsibility to keep things on track, respond to any tension, and get the most out of the session. Basically at the end of the day it’s about forming a rapport with your participants and finding ways to connect that transcend these personality types.

    I’d like to see you write a piece on the personality types of the interviewers!

    • Andrew Maier Reply

      The personality type of UX Researchers? I do wonder if they (we?) share the same characteristics, or if we vary wildly. I bet Jared is a good person to ask.

      I’ve also asked Nate Bolt how he believes these personality types are affected by conducting Remote Research. Do you tend to get more talkative users?

      I imagine the rambling types will keep going and going… One time, I had a respondent show me their entire photo album, remotely. Oy.

  • Mike B. Fisher Reply

    Thanks for the feedback Whitney. I agree, part of the craft is being able to make the most of the interview regardless of the respondent’s personality. It’s not always possible to transcend problem personalities, but certainly it’s beneficial to create as much of a rapport as possible. An article on the interviewers themselves might be very entertaining!

  • IntelliSites Web Design Reply

    Great piece. Seems like some of the more general difficulties a tester might have with a user stem from how the test is initially framed. Setting the stage by assuring the tester that he/she isn’t the one being tested, and that everything they’re working with is malleable, can take some of the pressure off, and encourage honest feedback. Testing can be difficult no matter who it is, since people tend to change their behavior when they know they’re being observed.

    Again, great piece, useful insights that will be a valuable accompaniment to any testers repertoire.

  • Emily Schroeder Reply

    I really enjoyed these articles, but my approach with the “Yes-person” is different. While I do try to get them to admit that the interface made it hard for them to do what they needed to do, I care much more about observed behaviors than reported feelings. If I saw them struggle to figure out how to do something, I don’t really care if they say that they had no problems – I know otherwise.

  • Mike B. Fisher Reply

    Emily, I agree that observed behavior is more important than comments in most cases. But I find that once a “yes-person” is willing to acknowledge problems, they’re more forthcoming with useful feedback and opinions. The best approach to dealing with a “yes-person” depends in part on the mix between observed behavior and comments/verbal feedback you want to collect. Respondent quotes are often very helpful in communicating the essence of a problem to the client, especially if the client isn’t present for user testing.

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