For Learners, I gave my thoughts on dealing with very aggressive or disrespectful research participants.

You can watch the original video here.

Talking about disrespectful participants Me talking about disrespectful participants (screenshot only—click here to watch!)

Off the bat, encountering an aggressive or disrespectful person is no doubt uncomfortable. I have some tips on how to avoid that situation, and what to do if it happens to you.

First, after a bad experience with a participant, my colleagues Claire and Anna smartly took it upon themselves to add language to our participant consent form* that lays out that both participants and researchers are empowered to end the session at any time in the face of abusive or intolerant behavior. This way we establish the ground rules going in: abuse and intolerance are nonstarters. If a participant crosses that line, end the session.

*As with any agreements between an organization and a participant, run any changes you want to make by your legal team!

However, as with all things research, there’s nuance to unpack here. Is the aggression or disrespect about you, or is it about the topic you’re discussing? If we’re talking to someone who encountered a hardship, they will have strong feelings.

If we’re interviewing someone who feels angry about changes to a product we work on because we made their job harder, they are well within their rights to be pissed off. I think that’s within the bounds of acceptable—and expected—behavior. For what it’s worth, I start every interview explaining that I’m looking for honest feedback and that the participant won’t hurt my feelings.

In sum I think the right approach here is:

  1. Set the expectation up front that abuse and intolerance are out of bounds, full stop.
  2. Be mindful that the nature of user research is to make space for feedback, and that feedback will sometimes be delivered in an emotionally charged way.

It can be fuzzy and uncomfortable, but as long as the participant is making it about their experience and how it made them feel, it’s not about you. If they venture into personal attacks or abusive or intolerant language, the session is over.