• Jay Liu
  1. Tale of Two Different Approaches
  2. Lessons Learned
  3. Conclusion

The Temperament of User Research Participants

January 30, 2019

Match user research activities to your subjects’ temperament and be aware of how their temperament compares with your own.

I was planning a user research event with a teammate. We knew the participants would outnumber us 2:1, and what they would be talking about was quite deep and nuanced, in a domain we weren’t very familiar with. Neither video nor audio recording was allowed, so we decided to create a worksheet to capture each participant’s viewpoints rather than rely on our manual, note-capturing abilities alone.

Our goal with the worksheet was to determine the participant’s characterization of their own goals and situation across various dimensions, and the reason for their response.

Tale of two different approaches

We were working on the worksheet on a desktop computer, with my teammate editing the document. I was hovering over my teammate’s shoulder and could sense her annoyance with me as I did that. I wanted to jump in and make a change.

My teammate felt strongly that each of our questions should condense down to a single page. She reasoned that this allowed the participant to see all dimensions at-a-glance so that participants could more easily rank them. This would help us uncover the most important ones.

On the other hand, I thought we should give the participants a lot more space to expound. I agreed on the value of comparing dimensions but suggested that we span multiple pages, print them single-sided, and spread them on the table if we wanted them to compare. I also reasoned that the more space we provide, the more it would encourage them to fill that space with information, essentially applying affordances to worksheet design.

She disagreed with the amount of space I wanted, thinking that the participants would not write anything in there. She said she was willing to bet money that the space we gave them would be left mostly blank by participants.

My intuition was based on a previous conversation with participants, during which we had discussed the same dimensions, only without a worksheet. I also had previous success using a worksheet with the same group of participants. And so, I held my ground. She was willing to go with my approach, recognizing I had more time with them.

When the approach fits

During the actual research session, it did turn out that the participants made great use of the space and provided delightful details. Many divided the space into halves, explaining the situations each extreme was applicable. One even drew a pie chart to show the probability of being on one extreme versus the other. Others wrote multiple lines of context and information.

And so, in this instance, I was right! I know my introverts, the deep thinkers, the reflective types!

But to be fair about the situation, I also reflected on times where I had been dead wrong…

When the approach doesn’t fit

As I took out the stapled packets and started to hand them out, one of them even said it felt too much like a test.

Indeed, in another user research effort with a completely different set of participants just two weeks prior, I had spent quite some time putting together a packet for everyone, in which I gave them a lot of space to expound on their thoughts. I didn’t have enough time to print out the packets while still at the office, and so, the night before the event, I overspent $75 on printing at some FedEx Office after my plane landed. I just had to be as prepared as possible and have those printouts with me. (You can tell my level of desperation by turning to a place like FedEx Office for printing needs.)

In the end, less than half of the participants wrote in the packet, and the rest of them left the packet completely blank. Even those that wrote in the packet only did so a small amount. In fact, participants were uneasy going into it already. As I took out the stapled packets and started to hand them out, one of them even said it felt too much like a test.

I realized that I did not naturally think like this participant group, and even remember feeling intimidated in their presence. I felt like they and I probably would not have hung out with each other in high school. They seemed to be the tougher guys, the social guys, the sporty guys, the cool guys.

Lessons Learned

Fit the activity to the participant

Some participants are prone to discuss openly and readily, while others do very well thinking to themselves and writing. Some welcome a worksheet, while others become intimidated and turned off. Know your participants’ temperament to create the user research activities that have the best fit.

Involve Multiple Viewpoints in Research Planning

In coming up with the best-fit activity, one way is to involve the input of multiple teammates. I particularly appreciate my teammate, not just for putting up with me, but because she and I will often see things very differently. We bring two different approaches to user research and design to the table and check each others’ biases.


As the adage goes, “you are not your users”. On the other hand, it can help you to know the important ways in which you and your participants are alike. It’s also important to know how your own temperament varies from those with whom you are interacting so that your research activities can be catered to their style.

Jay Liu
Written by Jay Liu, experience designer.
© 2023, Jay Liu