Are research labs just too scary?

Joan Doe is walking through the mall one day when she’s approached by someone with a clipboard. She has some free time, so she answers a few questions and gives them her email address. “Cool!”, she thinks to herself, ” £50 for turning up to a focus group and eating free pizza for an hour. Easy money!”. A few weeks pass and one day she gets an email inviting her to participate in some research. So, she picks a time slot and books herself in.

On the day she manages to find the offices in the center of town and presses the buzzer. A garbled voice invites her onto the second floor, and she finds herself sitting in a waiting room. “This reminds me of a job interview” she thinks to herself. “I can’t believe I’m feeling so nervous.” The receptionist tells her she’ll have to wait 5 minutes because the researcher needs to finish their current test session. “Researcher? Test? This is getting weird.”

Finally she is invited through by a tired looking man. It’s a small room with one table and two chairs. This is not what she expected. “Um, where are the other people for the focus group?” Joan asks timidly. The man gives her a quizzical look and explains it’s a one-to-one depth interview. She notices that one of the walls has a big mirror on it. A bit like in those police dramas. In fact, just like in those police dramas.

Still from The Lives of Others

The researcher starts droning through a script. She feels like she’s having her rights read to her. He gestures for her to sign some kind of contract. This does not feel right. Not one bit. Joan starts to rationalise. “£50 for an hour. I can do this. Just answer the man’s questions. Almost a pound a minute. Just act normal and it’ll be over soon…”

When you’re used to running the show, it’s easy to forget what it’s like to be a research participant. It’s also easy to create a stressful situation, where the participant can’t concentrate and their only real care is to get through the session, get paid and get out.

At a company I worked at a few years ago, one of the Directors stored a load of their belongings in one of the labs while they were moving house. We ended up with well worn sofa, coffee table, stereo, rug, books, and even a pile of logs next to the fireplace. It was only meant to be temporary, but it turned out to be so inviting, we kept it like that. I admit, refurbishing your own lab might not be possible, so here are some practical tips for relaxed lab sessions:

  • Spend the first few minutes building rapport. Don’t even refer to the session or the paperwork.
  • Don’t use labs with two-way mirrors unless the research requires it. If you must, cover the mirrors with curtains when not in use.
  • Make the lab feel homely. Put up some art. Remove any unused cameras or microphones. Use discrete kit if possible.
  • Never say “This is not a test” or “We are not testing you”. It sounds like doublespeak. Also, don’t mention the word “task”, say “activity” instead, it’s less threatening.
  • If you are compelled to use an awkward research technique (e.g. eye tracking or timed tasks), then spend 5 minutes doing a dummy task to warm up. Be honest and admit that it might feel a little awkward at first.
  • Tell the participant they are considered an ideal customer by your client who wants to design their product to perfect for them. Mention that right now, it’s a little rough around the edges.
  • Take a leaf out of the ethnography book: dress in a similar manner to your participants.
  • Sessions should not be rushed, otherwise you will be continuously interrupting them and telling them to move on – another source of stress. Reduce the number of tasks if possible
  • You become less friendly when you’re tired, so don’t schedule too many tests in one day. 4 x 90 minute sessions in one day should be your maximum.

Have you got any other tips you’d like to share? Add them in the comments, maybe together we can come up with an über-list!