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Designing the user research participant experience?

This year we are again sponsoring the UX Bristol event and the lineup of workshops is looking interesting to say the least. We took the chance to talk to some of the speakers ahead of the day. Ben Cubbon, Senior User Researcher in Government at HM Courts and Tribunals Service (working on the Strategic Service design of a Reformed Justice System) and Nic Price, Information Architect and Service Designer are running a workshop on “Designing the user research participant experience”.

We took the opportunity to ask both of them a few questions about their career journeys so far, gathered some career tips and asked about their upcoming session.

ADLIB: In a nutshell, what have been your career journeys so far leading you to where you are right now?

Ben Cubbon

Ben Cubbon: I did Psychology at University and did a Master’s in Investigative and Forensic Psychology in the hope that I’d be the next Cracker. Turns out there’s not a career path for that.

Instead I started off as questionnaire designer at the Office for National Statistics, this was very content heavy as it involved designing questions that people would answer on things like the Census. As part of this role I would test the questions with users to see how they were being understood using a cognitive interviewing technique.

This led me into the field of User Research whilst at ONS and I worked on the redesign of the website and a new digital survey service. That’s where I met Nic. Last year I moved to work on the Courts Reform programme as a User Researcher and what’s so interesting about this project is that we’re not just redesigning our digital services, but also our physical environments.

Nic Price

Nic Price: Varied would be an understatement. And the variety has helped me see many different walks of life and walk in many a person’s shoes – tapping into my curiosity about how things work and what it’s like to use them.

What connects much of what I’ve done is communication and design, which were also what I studied at university. A brief stint producing and presenting radio also really helped.

Back in 1996 I organised events for the Radio Academy – as part of the job I also had to manage the website. In those days that meant rolling your sleeves up and learning the craft as you went along. The web design and development community online was really helpful.

Other memorable jobs I’ve had (including dozens of temping gigs): car auction driver, swiss roll roller, marketing stock photography, bookseller (daytime) and wineseller (evenings), conference centre janitor, team lead, department lead, interactive products and services manager (BBC), trainer, mentor and coach in all things user-centred design.

ADLIB: What 3 top tips would you give a professional within UX to ensure that their skills and knowledge remain top notch?

Ben Cubbon: Listen back to your research sessions, pilot your research, and talk.

  1. Listen back to your interviews: As agonising as it is to listen to the sound of your own voice the time spent listening to how you asked questions will improve your research in the future. If possible do this as a research group with other researchers.
  2. Build in time to review the words you’re using and pilot them: Don’t rush the time in preparing for research, all researchers are guilty of getting excited to get out and speak with users – but build in the time to pilot the research with someone that is representative of your participants and plan out your research aims.
  3. Talk: One thing me and Nic are guilty of is that when we’re together we’re brilliant at talking about everything that we haven’t planned to talk about. In preparing our workshop we’ve had to give ourselves double the amount of time needed to write it because we knew that half of our time will be talking about other aspects of UX in our work. But this time to talk is invaluable, getting words out of my mouth helps me forge my ideas and understand them better, and because of this, I’m able to understand problems better. To aid this I write up ‘weeknotes’ every week that I publish openly, this too helps me understand things better.

Nic Price:

  1. Exposure hours – the term coined by Jared Spool – about how every team member needs to be “exposed” to two hours of user research every six weeks. Every member of a project team should be exposed to user research, this works best when team members are involved in live research, such as note taking in the observation room of a lab based research session. Every team member. And ideally that would be live observation, and actively involved, taking notes for example.
  2. Get out of the office. Take the problem for a walk. Give yourself and your team head space. If you don’t have thinking time, or you try to solve all your problems in meetings, it won’t end well.
  3. Stay curious and think in systems. Look for analogous situations. If you’re stuck with a problem ask yourselves what it’s similar to. It can really help you think through what’s going on. In what ways is your product or service similar to ones in other domains or industries? How have they solved the problem? Tim Brown, the CEO of Ideo, tells the story of how he took a team of medical staff to work as a Nascar pit crew for a day, to help them redesign the operating theatre experience. Think sideways.

ADLIB: You conducted a discovery to answer the question “what journey does a user research participant take?”. What were the reasons for you to look into this?

Ben Cubbon: For me, this was about using the methods that we preach about so much within our work on an aspect of our own work. Without participants the domain of UX would fall on it’s face. We need people to want to take part in research. So understanding what it is like, should help us design research that is better, get’s better insights and interests people who’ve never done research to take part.

Nic Price: As well as the reasons Ben gives, I’m keen we find ways to promote understanding of what we do when we research within our project and product teams. I’m hoping we’ll discover new ways to communicate what we do when we do user research, looking at things from the participant’s point of view.

ADLIB: What will participants be able to take away from and learn about during your UX Bristol workshop?

Nic and Ben: In the workshop we’ll be sharing what motivations people have for taking part in research, and it’s not just for an Amazon voucher either. Through this we’re going to explore how you might advertise research to prospective participants to get them involved. The big takeaway however from the workshop will be a picture of the participant journey, with what needs participants have and where they have them on the journey. Through understanding this participant journey we’ll be able to design research in the future that get’s richer insights.

ADLIB: For those that might miss your session, can you share, just in a nutshell, what are the crucial steps in the user research participant journeys that should be considered when recruiting participants?

Ben Cubbon: Of course, I think the biggest thing we’ve discovered is how crucial the step of recruitment is in the participant journey. In fact you could argue that ‘the research’ from the participants perspective starts at the point they get recruited, and not when the session in the research lab formally starts. So you need to be aware of what things you’re asking at the recruitment stage.

Nic Price: We’re writing up our work as we go along on the People Thinking blog and we’re working on a ‘task model’  view of the participant journey which we’ll share after the workshop.

Thank you both for sharing.


UX Bristol 2017 is set to be a memorable day of UX workshops. Learn hands-on UX techniques from leading practitioners in a friendly and sociable setting. Tickets and event info via