Facing Your Fears: Approaching People For Research

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When working on a project, have you ever felt that you and the rest of the team were making a lot of decisions based on assumptions? Having to make choices with limited information is not unusual — especially in complex projects or with brand new products.

Phrases like “We think people will use this feature because of X” or “We believe user group Y will switch to this product” become part of the early deliberation on what to develop and how to prioritize. At some point, though, these phrases start to feel like pure guesses and the ground under your feet feels shaky. What can you do about it?

Regardless of your role in the project, one activity in particular will help your whole team build a solid foundation for product strategy and design: that is, approaching potential users for research, such as interviews and usability tests.

Such research is an important aspect of user-centered design. It helps you build products that are rooted in a deep understanding of the target audience. Among other benefits, interviewing potential users helps you achieve the following:

  • more precisely define who the target audience is (and isn’t),
  • face and challenge your assumptions,
  • uncover unmet needs,
  • discover the behaviors and attitudes of potential users firsthand.

You can conduct informal yet valuable user research yourself with practice and with guidance from great sources like Steve Portigal’s Interviewing Users and Steve Krug’s Rocket Surgery Made Easy. One thing that stops a lot of people from trying their hand at research isn’t just lack of experience, but a fear of approaching people and asking for their time. This obstacle is greater than many would care to admit.

The Difficulty Of “Face To Face”

I was teaching an experience design class in high school when it really hit me. Students were engaged in the design process until they were told that they had to request interviews from strangers. The anxiety levels went through the roof! A look of shock covered their faces. Shortly after, two of the students asked to receive a failing grade on the activity rather than have to face strangers (a request that was not granted)!

This was no longer a case of time, opportunities, resources or priorities. The interviews were a part of the class and were considered essential. The students were presented with a clear set of expectations, provided with aid in planning and writing questions, and taken to the location (a college) to conduct the interviews.

When all of the usual obstacles were removed, what was laid bare? A strong fear of approaching strangers, made even stronger by the fact that so many interactions nowadays are done online, rather than face to face. Ask someone to create an online survey and they’re all over it — ask that same person to pose those same questions to a stranger face to face and they’ll freeze up.

One might assume that the problem afflicts only those in high school, but such a deep-seated reaction is felt by many working adults who are suddenly responsible for requesting something from strangers — even when the thing being requested is a relatively low commitment, like 10 minutes for an interview.

Are you at the point in a project when you would benefit from insights gained from face-to-face discussions with potential users but find yourself blocked by a fear of asking? Read on for techniques to help you approach people for research, the first step to gaining the knowledge you need.

“I’m Afraid I’ll Be Bothering People.”

I’m sure you’ve been approached by a stranger at one time or another. The negative occasions stand out the most, when you were annoyed or felt guilty because you didn’t want to say no to a request for money or personal information or a signature.

When a stranger approaches, the person being approached has several concerns at once:

  • “Who is this person?”
  • “Are they trying to scam me?”
  • “Are they going to ask me for money?”
  • “Are they going to ask me to sign something that I don’t agree with?”
  • “Am I going to have to figure out how to get rid of them?”
  • “How long is this going to take?”

Your memories of being approached could make you uncomfortable if you’re the one approaching others.

The good news is that approaching people for interviews can be a lot easier than requesting a donation. If you make it clear quickly that their time is voluntary and that you won’t ask for anything they don’t want to give, then you’ll generally get a positive response. After all, you’re not asking people for money, just for their time and attention. Time is valuable, but its value varies according to the person’s situation at that moment — and you can do certain things to communicate the value of agreeing to your request.

Increase the Value of Participation

Interview requests are accepted when participation is perceived to be as or more valuable than what the person is doing at the time. People calculate that value in their heads when you ask for their time.

People calculate that value in their heads when you ask for their time.1
People calculate that value in their heads when you ask for their time. (Large version2)

Below are some of the factors that can swing the calculation in your favor.

Find the Right Time

If someone is in a rush to get somewhere, then making your research seem more valuable than their desire to get to their destination will probably be difficult. Someone who is walking briskly, looking tense and not making eye contact is not the ideal candidate.

Approach people who appear to be one or more of the following:

  • Between tasks
    If you’re asking about a particular activity, go to areas where people tend to be finishing up that activity, and talk to them as soon as they’re done with it. You’ll get a fresh perspective on the whole experience, and they likely won’t be in a rush to get to their next activity. For example, if you want to interview runners, wander the finish line of a race. Look for runners who are cooling down and checking out their swag but not yet heading home.
  • Bored
    Waiting in line, waiting for a bus or waiting for an elevator — if someone seems to be idly swiping their phone or staring off into space, they might actually welcome a distraction.
  • Procrastinating
    Some activities take a long time. The human brain needs a change of focus every now and then, and your research could be just the thing. If your target audience is students, visit a study area. When a student comes up for air, ask for some time. They might need the mental break!

Regardless of whom you approach, give them an idea of how long the interview will take (about 10 minutes, for example), so that they can do the mental math of calculating the value of saying yes.

Be Aware of Body Language

As mentioned, pay attention to the candidate’s body language. Do they seem tense? Are they frowning at their phone? Are they power-walking? They might be late for a meeting, so the timing would be wrong. Someone gazing around or strolling casually is a better bet. People on phones are a bit harder to read because many check their phone when bored or procrastinating — still, their facial expression might tell you whether they’re open to being interrupted for something more interesting.

Your own body language is important, too. Planting yourself in the middle of a person’s path and facing them squarely will come off as aggressive, likely triggering a negative reaction. They might feel like they’d have a hard time getting rid of you if they’re not comfortable with your request.

Being aware of your own body language and the body langauge of others is important.
Being aware of your own body language and the body langauge of others is important.

Approach within clear view, but from the side. Also, try angling your body slightly away from the person. You want to seem engaged but also make them feel like they could end the conversation if desired. This will give them a greater sense of control and increase the likelihood that they’ll give you those precious seconds you need to make your request.

Fostering Interest

The feeling one gets from participating in research can be rewarding in itself. Interest is one positive feeling that leads people to say yes to research, which you can emphasize when approaching strangers.

Mention early on that you’re conducting research, which makes clear that you’re not asking for money and tends to generate interest.

Being approached to participate in research is fairly unusual for most people. The fact that you’re conducting a study might inspire a healthy curiosity. People will often be curious about what topic is being researched, what kinds of questions might be asked, and what they might find out about themselves in answering. The prevalence of quizzes and personality tests online is a good indication of this interest; those researchers are gathering data from the tests, but many of the respondents feel like they are learning about themselves (and potentially others) by considering the questions being asked.

People will often be curious about what topic is being researched, and what they might find out about themselves in answering.3
People will often be curious about what topic is being researched, and what they might find out about themselves in answering. (Image: Personal DNA4) (View large version5)

The person might not be expecting to learn whether they’re a “benevolent inventor” or an ENFP6 by the end of the interview, but they might still find your questions interesting to consider.

Will the interviewees be shown something that others don’t have access to yet, like a new product or campaign? If so, bring that up quickly. It really boosts curiosity!

Furthermore, people might be flattered that you’re interested in their thoughts and opinion. Build on that! If there’s a reason you approached that person, share it. If you’re interviewing people about healthy food choices near a health food store and you stop someone who has just purchased something at the store, you could mention that their interest in health is one reason you approached them. Stick to obvious observations — you don’t want to come across as creepy!

Fostering Goodwill

Donating to a cause feels good, and volunteering time for research is no different. If your efforts are for a worthy result, like making texting easier for the elderly, share that benefit.

Another magic phrase? “I’m a student.” If you are, say so quickly to allay the person’s suspicion about your motive. Your effort on the path of learning will appeal to their goodwill.

If you’re not a student and your topic doesn’t sound particularly socially relevant, people might still be willing to help out if they connect with you. If you’re friendly and enthusiastic about the topic, then they’re more likely to say yes.

To keep the goodwill flowing, express your gratitude for their time and thoughts. Let them know before and after the interview that their time will have a great impact on the success of the research.

Offer Incentives

This one might seem the most obvious: You can increase the value of participation by offering an incentive. A $10 or $20 gift card from a popular vendor like Amazon or Starbucks can incline someone to accept a 15 to 30 minute interview. As the inconvenience to the participant increases, so should the incentive — whether that inconvenience is the length of the interview, the location or the time of day.

The incentive doesn’t have to be monetary. Be creative in what you offer. It could be access to a service that most people don’t have or a fun gadget that’s related to your topic (like a pedometer if the topic is health).

Offering an incentive can be useful, but don’t let it turn into a crutch. The point is to get comfortable with approaching people; associating a cost with that adds pressure that you don’t need. Learning to request participation without an incentive — and learning to increase the perceived value of participation without one — will take the cost out of the equation. Nevertheless, if you’re conducting formal research with a specific audience for a lengthy period of time, offering an incentive is definitely a best practice.

“I’m Afraid Of Rejection.”

Rejection is people’s number one fear when approaching strangers. Hearing no has always been difficult, whether it’s a polite no or an angry no followed by a rant. Either way, it stings. Your response to that sting, though, is what matters. How do you explain the rejection to yourself, and does your explanation help or hurt you?

Martin Seligman, one of the originators of positive psychology, conducted a study in the ’70s that gives insight into the types of mindsets that make people feel helpless. Seligman found that those who exhibit long-term “learned helplessness” tend to view negative events as being personal, pervasive and permanent. In other words, if a person is rejected, they might rationalize that the rejection is a result of their own failing, that everyone else is likely to reject them as well, and that they can do nothing to lessen the likelihood of rejection.

Your mindset is important.
Your mindset is important. (Image: Leathers Milligan7)

When you prepare to approach someone, consider instead that, if they say no, they aren’t really rejecting you, but rather rejecting your request. It’s not personal. Maybe they’re in the middle of something, or maybe they’re just not in the mood to talk. The rejection is fleeting, and the next person might be perfectly happy to participate.

Even knowing this, your first attempt will be the most difficult. Think of it like jumping into a pool: The initial shock is certain, but you’ll quickly get used to the water and will be swimming in no time!

Turn It Into a Game

When my brother was in college, he had a friend — let’s call him Bob — who had been single for a long time. Bob wanted to develop his ability to approach a woman and strike up a conversation, but he constantly froze up because of his fear of rejection.

One night at a lively bar, the two of them decided to make a game of it. If an approach led to a conversation — fantastic! He got 1 point. If the approach led to rejection, he still got 1 point for making the attempt. This turned failure into a small win and encouraged Bob to try and try again. The person with the most points at the end of the night won a free drink from the other. This shifted the focus and value onto the attempt, not the result.

Try this technique with someone who also wants to practice approaching people for research. Award a point for each approach, and reward the winner. Choose a prize that you both value but that doesn’t outweigh the good feeling of a successful approach. Not that you want to be turned down, but it helps to have a reward for plucking up the courage to try.

Variation: Football Rules

If you find the incentive to approach is still not enough, award a field goal (3 points) for every unsuccessful approach and a touchdown (7 points) for each successful one. Because interviews take time, the person who is trailing in points could pull ahead even if they’re mostly getting rejections.

“Only Extroverts Are Good At This.”

Google tells us that an introvert is “a shy, reticent and typically self-centered person.” Not a pretty picture! (An extrovert is defined as “an outgoing, overtly expressive person” — a more positive description, at least in the US).

Introversion has been erroneously associated with characteristics like being “bad with people” or being unsuccessful in approaching others.

In psychology, the field that gave us the terms “introvert” and “extrovert” (thanks to Carl Jung), the definitions are fairly different. The focus is on how people recharge their energy. Introverts tend to recharge by spending time with their own thoughts and feelings; extroverts recharge with external stimulation, such as time with friends or adventures in new destinations.

Jung stated that, “There is no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert. Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum.” We all fall somewhere along the continuum. It turns out that some of the most fantastic researchers out there fall almost in the middle (called “ambiverts”). They balance an extrovert’s drive to interact others with an introvert’s skill in observation and reflection.

Daniel Pink explores this in his book To Sell is Human, which summarizes a variety of studies that find no link between high extroversion and major success in sales. (Pink defines sales as “persuading, convincing and influencing others to give up something they’ve got in exchange for what we’ve got” — a broad definition that could include asking someone to give up their time to participate in research.)

There is no link between high extroversion and major success in sales.8
There is no link between high extroversion and major success in sales. (Large version9)

In fact, in the studies Pink cites, such as one by Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania, the highly extroverted — who tend to talk too much and listen too little — performed only slightly better than the highly introverted. Who did the best by far? The ambiverts, who balanced a drive to connect with an ability to observe and inspect.

Ambiverts are good sellers because they balance a drive to connect with an ability to observe and inspect.10
Ambiverts are good sellers because they balance a drive to connect with an ability to observe and inspect. (Large version11)

If you consider yourself an introvert, then you’re probably relieved to hear that you don’t have to swing to the other side of the scale to be successful in interviews. You can use your skill in observation to pay attention to the environment and identify people to approach. You might need to tap into your extroverted side to approach someone, but once the conversation begins, you can call on your skill in observing and listening intently. With practice, this introverted quality will become an important part of the process that leads to the payoff: generating important insights.

Let’s explore a few techniques to ease gently into the ambiversion zone, exercising your interviewing muscles!

Practice Playfully

Practice your requests with a friendly audience and in a comfortable location to make the experience more playful and less stressful. Learning and playing go together!

Set challenges for yourself that expand your skills but that don’t have serious consequences. Instead of waiting for an intense, highly visible project at work to make your first attempt at approaching people, give yourself a short interview challenge. Pick a friendly location and choose a topic of research that would be of interest to most interview candidates and whose results you would not formally present.

Can you think of a local restaurant or cafeteria? Try interviewing its employees about their experience with the lunchtime rush to identify ways to better manage lines (of course, wait until after the rush to approach them). Taking a taxi? Interview the cab driver about their use of technology and how it has changed in the last three years. Do this as though you were conducting research for a real project (for example, ask to interview them, rather than launching right into your questions).

Here are two introductions you can practice:

“Excuse me! I’m a student, and today I’m conducting research on ways to improve transportation information for commuters. Hearing about your experience would be really valuable. Do you have 10 minutes to answer some questions?”

“Hi! We’re conducting some research today. Would you like to be interviewed on your lunchtime eating habits? It’ll take about 10 minutes, and your thoughts will help us improve the availability of nutritional information.”

Make It Meaningful

Whether you’re interviewing for practice or for work, tap into the aspects of the topic that make it deeply meaningful and personal to you. Genuine enthusiasm for a topic is hard to fake and will override fear to a large extent.

Remember the high-school students who were so afraid of approaching people? The class ended up going through the research process a second time with different topics. Instead of being told to interview college students about financial planning, students picked their own topics, like helping other students complete their homework, eating healthier meals and handling peer pressure.

The class picked students to interview, a mixture of friends and strangers. Because they were passionate about the topics (and had practiced once already), the second round of requests was much easier.

Likewise, consider practicing with more than one round of interviews:

  • Round 1
    Choose a topic that you know will be of interest to the people you’re interviewing.
  • Round 2
    Choose a topic that you’re passionate about. (Try to be objective, though!)
  • Round 3
    Take on a challenge for a product or project with support from other team members. (See the section below, “Pair Up Personalities,” for an example.)

If you’re on a team that wants even more practice, you could take turns suggesting practice challenges for each other. The more you practice, the easier it gets — promise!

Pair Up Personalities

If you consider yourself an introvert, pair up with someone who considers themselves an extrovert, and play to each other’s strengths for the first few interviews.

Using your observational skill, you could identify candidates to interview, and the extrovert could approach the first three people.

After the first three or four approaches, take a break and share your techniques with each other. You could share your insight from observing the environment and suggest tips on which people in which location might be best to approach. The extrovert could share tips on conversation openers that seem to be working well. When you’re both comfortable, switch roles to exercise the other’s skills.

This method situates you as mentors to each other, bringing you both closer to the middle of the introversion-extroversion scale.

Go Face To Face

Now that you’ve learned some techniques to get started, don’t let another week go by without trying one of them out! A good first step? Think of topics that you’re passionate about, the ones that are intriguing enough to propel you forward. You’ll find that the skills you develop will give you confidence to pursue the answers you need, leading you to better experiences for yourself and others.

Resources

(cc, al, ml, il)

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Carolyn Chandler is the co-founder and Chief Instructor of the School for Digital Craftsmanship. She’s the co-author of “A Project Guide to UX Design” and this year, “Adventures in Experience Design,” an activity-oriented introduction to the experience design process. Crain’s listed her as one of Chicago’s Tech 50 due to her work with technology start-ups. Visit her professional site at www.dhalo.com.

  1. 1

    I LOVE THIS ARTICLE.

    You can also play with what the “ask” is. In other words, you might ask them for 30 seconds of time to see if they quality (“Do you use an Android phone that you’ve bought in the last year? What model is it?”) to speak with you later, perhaps by telephone, or in some context you really care about, or online while they surf a site, or to come back where you have a place to sit down and talk more in-depth in the next 90 minutes.

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    • 2

      Steve, those are great suggestions. Giving a small commitment up front, like 30 seconds, would make them much more likely to dedicate more time later in a context that lets you really dive in!

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  2. 3

    Hi Carolyn…. thanks for sharing, gave very useful thoughts. it’s really glass breaking thoughts for better user centered design.

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  3. 4

    Great article! Funny how sometimes the “right” article comes your way. Today we’re going to start an interview round – asking 1.000 volunteers at Roskilde Festival for the incentives towards volunteering – thanks for some great advice I can communicate to our team :D

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    • 5

      I’m glad to hear you’ll be able to use this right away! I’d love to hear how it goes, if you want to send an update to @chanan. Good luck with your interviewing, Mark (and team)!

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  4. 6

    Thomas Deutsch

    July 1, 2014 8:45 am

    Great article. I think that the book “Daring Greatly” is a great fit for this article – for anyone who wants to learn more about this topic.

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  5. 8

    The glass is not half empty or half full, it’s just too big ;)

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  6. 9

    There’s always Mechanical Turk, which eliminate the “fear factor” since you can conduct your research online. The nice thing about it is that it allows you to test your assumptions fast and frequently, but like any other tools, cares need to be taken in order to get good results.

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  7. 10

    I am an introvert… thank you for this useful article!

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  8. 11

    Great article! I´ve learn a lot…

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  9. 12

    Thanks, Carolyn. I am not conducting research, per se, but this article will definitely help me when I start looking for people to interview for articles I will be writing. Thank you for your insight and great tips!

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  10. 13

    Joe Wojciechowski

    July 18, 2014 12:58 pm

    I have been and am a big proponent of end-user research and studies. I am surprised by the number of companies and organizations that seem to just pull assumptions out of thin air. Isn’t providing the user what they want/need what we are supposed to be doing as UX Designers?

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