It’s okay: Advice for research newcomers


I recently responded to a community post asking for advice for settling nerves during a first time customer research activity.

I belong to a small community called UXup Brighton, “a friendly group of UX folk who meet monthly, to share skills and experiences, build our network and support each other to grow and develop our careers”. The group is run and hosted by the brilliant Kate Rickard. Alongside the monthly meetup there is a supporting Slack channel where people can openly ask questions to the group.

A couple of weeks ago I spotted one that I thought I could help to answer.

I’m running my first batch of remote usability testing this week. After weeks of planning and organisation. It’s finally time to speak to some real customers. Does anyone have any last minute advice of things that have worked for them in the past to settle the nerves?

Rather than leaving my thoughts locked away in the walled garden of Slack, I thought I’d set them free into the world wide web.


It’s okay if you feel overwhelmed trying to run the interview and take notes at the same time. It’s impossible to do both and still do a good job. Instead try to find someone on your team to take notes. That enables you to focus on the conversation with your participant. Make minimal notes that allow you to come back to interesting parts of the conversation you want to clarify or ask further questions. Find your own preferred method of taking notes. I find using mindmaps useful: branching out from a central topic allows me to track the converation flow, thinking styles and make connections between nodes. I also capture keywords and timestamps. I prefer analogue over digital capturing during a session. I find the it is less distracting for the participant and has fewer points of failure. Another option is to record the session and listen back later, but only do that once you gain consent from your participant.

Informed consent

Get consent from the participant before recording, if you have the luxury transcribe through DeScript and search for timestamps and keywords.

Conversation etiquette

It’s okay if you need to wait for the answers to your questions. Give people time to think, don’t rush or interrupt them. The participant should be doing the majority of the talking - think the Pacman rule. They may talk about something that seems entirely unrelated for what seems like an age, but it’s okay, it may lead to a golden nugget.

The Pacman rule: your participant should be talking for at least 80% of the session, leaving you the other 20%. If you were to represent these percentages as a pie chart it would resemble the shape of Pacman.

Silence is golden

Get comfortable with silence, that’s where the magic happens. You can use it to your advantage during your interview by allowing people to to fill it for you. Trailing off and half finished questions are useful prompts e.g. ”You thought that because…” or “The reason for that is…”.

Building rapport

It’s okay to feel nervous about your interview, but also consider your participant might be just as nervous as you, be aware of their mood and circumstances and adapt accordingly. Be genuinely curious about the person you are about to share the next 60 mins with, the time will fly and you’ll with you had more toward the end.

Discussion guides are only a guide

It’s okay to deviate form your script and use your intuition, live in the moment and be attentive to where your participant wants to take the conversation. You don’t need to read your script word for word either. There’s a change you’ll end up sounding like a robot. In my experience robots don’t make riveting conversationalists. Adapt your script based on the first interview. Like pancakes, the first one never turns out perfect and that’s okay.

We all make mistakes

It’s okay if you mess up a question (e.g. ask a leading or future state question). Make note of it and consider whether the response is worth including in the study.

Challenge your own biases

It’s okay to make assumptions, as humans we do it all the time, but get in a habit of challenging yourself when you assume you understand something based on your own world-view and experiences. If you’re not 100% sure, ask “why?”. Don’t settle for surface explanation, dig a bit deeper to understand what’s really going on. It’s okay to be asking lots of questions, you’re doing research!

Every session and participant is unique

It’s okay if you only get a handful of interesting observations during a session. Or if you spend 50 mins building rapport and only start to got on-topic with 10 mins to go. Or if your participant gives you a 20 min answer to an opening question or only gives you yes or no answers. People are messy, complicated and unpredictable creatures. It’s okay if you speak to someone who clearly isn’t relevant for your research, don’t be afraid to omit that data from the study but be prepared to explain why to your team and stakeholders.

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