Three important phrases for effective user research
by Emma Peters, UX Consultant

Three important phrases for effective user research

Every day, research can be fraught with challenges; from logistical considerations to technical melt-downs.

Added to that is the pressure. Many researchers struggle with the live uncertainty when working with a participant, with a client team watching, and a flexible test script. As an experienced researcher I like to think I can mitigate most risks, but when it comes to live studies I still come across issues that I’ve not seen before.

With the growing use of AI moderators and unmoderated platforms, it is easy for user researchers to escape these tricky situations, but this is often to the detriment of the research. Sometimes you just need to rely on experience and human instinct to be empathetic, reactive, reflective and flexible to capture true depth of insight in research.

Here are a few things I often encounter in research, with phrases I use to overcome them, to ensure I effectively obtain valuable insight for my projects.


One of the more common challenging scenarios that I have encountered in research is participants who struggle to fully engage with the task or scenario, which can result in them losing focus or failing to demonstrate their natural behaviour. This reaction can often be presented by participants deflecting questions, discussing how other people may complete a task, or simply refusing to follow an instruction.

This is unlikely to be defiance or rudeness but relates to their nerves and confusion. It is important in these moments to listen to the participant and acknowledge their responses before gently re-engaging them to the task with an adjustment. For example, change the wording or prompt the participant to consider the task from a different perspective. A good option I use is ‘Imagine a friend has asked you to do…’ .

In my experience, being reactive to the individual in this way has been a very useful tactic to use when feeling like you are coming up against a brick wall in a session.

Show me

It is also common to experience participants oversharing. Some participants offer more verbal feedback and opinions than demonstrating how they would engage with a digital product. This is a significant challenge when the purpose of the research is to observe how users interact with an interface.

In addition, participants in any research can display situational behaviours due to social desirability or demand characteristics, two types of bias which means the participant wants to be seen positively or please the researcher by acting a certain way. For the researcher, it is easy to become overwhelmed and allow the participant to take up valuable time ‘off-topic’.

As a research facilitator, I like to offer prompts that include “ me..”, to reiterate the need to watch what they do. I am also careful to interrupt the participant to manage the flow of session and focus on capturing useful insights as per the project brief.

Let’s pause

Another aspect of moderating research is handling powerful emotional responses from participants. Some research topics can trigger strong reactions, which could interfere with the task and require a pause to the session. As a UX researcher, it is our responsibility to ensure we respond with empathy and prioritise the person’s welfare.

My role is to understand human experiences and this response is just one facet of exactly that. With the welfare of the participant in mind, stopping the session altogether might be necessary. However, allowing a person some time to articulate their feelings and gather their thoughts will create a safe and comfortable environment, even if we stay ‘off-topic’.

So I’m careful not to judge peoples’ reactions, and I’m always willing to take a moment to support participants’ feelings and emotions. My number one role is to listen, then to understand the relationship between a person and an interface.

How we respond

Overall, it is vital that I adapt and respond in research in a way that is appropriate and empathetic. This allows me to capture the intricacies of user interactions and behaviours. Dealing with challenging situations may not be enjoyable, but it is often in these moments that rich and valuable insight unfold.

It can never be forced, but by being attentive and present I find my participants work their way through, and share a perspective I wouldn’t otherwise have seen if I had stuck strictly to the script.

So embrace challenging research scenarios, have a selection of appropriate phrases to hand, and see what unfolds before you.


UX Consultant Emma Peters

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