I’ve been working with participants in usability studies and other research for nearly 20 years now. I’ve met a myriad of interesting people: some had backgrounds or interests similar to my own, and others had vastly different backgrounds. I have learned a great deal from these interactions, even beyond the project at hand. There have been a number of odd, amusing, interesting or frustrating participant situations, however. Some of these interactions have stood out over the years, and not necessarily for the substance of the actual research.


I’m not always great at remembering names, but I often remember faces. A participant walked in for a study earlier this year, and I knew that he looked familiar. I remembered that he had participated in a study previously. After he left, I went back in the records and was pleased to find that I had accurately remembered him participating in a different study ten years earlier. I wonder if he remembered me!


Not too long ago, for a study with older adults, a man came in and immediately started telling me about his background as an immigrant to the United States (which had nothing to do with the study). That was fine, and I didn’t mind. However, as I struggled to get him to focus on the areas of interest for the study, he proceeded to pull out an award for a children’s book that he had written many years ago, followed by an application for a patent for something he proposed. When I finally realized that the research was not going to happen in this session, I thanked him, paid him the agreed upon incentive, and told him that the session was concluded. He went on to tell me how he thought I might think that he wasn’t smart, but he wanted to make sure I knew, and he hoped that he had not offended me. I felt bad for him that although he was not able to focus on or understand the tasks of the study, he was aware enough to get the feeling that he did not complete his part in my research.

The Actor

About three years ago, one of the participants for a study turned out to be an improv actor. This skill seemed to extend beyond just his profession. As he would talk about both his background and his reactions to the website, his hands would go flying, and he even stood up at one point to help explain what he was trying to say. While my webcam was unable to capture everything given the large amount of space he was using, I was hesitant to tell him to stay still since this seemed to be how he was most adept at explaining himself. I still got a lot of good video clips to share with the client.


About 8 years ago, when one of the participants for a study arrived at the appointed time, she looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t quite place her. Her name also sounded vaguely familiar, but it was also a fairly common name. As the session went on, I struggled to figure out why she seemed so familiar. Eventually, towards the end of the session, I realized that she went to college with me, that we took a class together, and that we had even gone out once on a date – just one date, twelve years prior, nothing particularly memorable. But at that point, as the session concluded, I wasn’t quite sure what to say, so I didn’t say anything – maybe she didn’t remember either or maybe she just wasn’t sure what to say as well.


Very early on in my career, before I had even considered making any kind of ID check part of the process, I was doing a study with a very particular and narrow career track that was extremely hard to recruit for. The client had also asked for an unusually large number of participants, making the recruit all the more difficult. A woman walked in and went through the session without incident. The next day, it appeared to me that the same woman walked in again for the study. I asked her if she had been part of the study before, and she said she hadn’t. I wasn’t sure whether I was being scammed by a participant coming in twice or if two participants with two different last names really looked almost exactly alike. As I probed more, it came out that she and her sister both had this obscure profession and it wasn’t identified earlier that they were sisters because of their different last names.


Although I had interned in a usability research lab in college, I had not told my parents much about it. When, in 1994, I started actually working full time doing usability research, my parents were naturally curious about what I’d be doing now that I’d joined the working world. The first study that I worked on was for a nascent video on demand provider, and the criteria was pretty open: basically just having to be a TV viewer. Since I was just the logger behind one way glass for this study, and it wasn’t even known to participants that I was watching and logging in real time, I asked for permission to use my mom for the study. Everyone agreed, and my mother really enjoyed the experience and provided some of the most valuable and descriptive feedback for the study.

What about you?

For those who also conduct usability studies or any kind of qualitative in-person research for that matter send me your unique, humorous, and interesting stories, and I will likely post them here.

Movie Projector Image Courtesy of Noel Powell / Shutterstock