You know the feeling. It’s your fifth interview for the day. Your eyes start to glaze over. Your interest fades, and you start to hope your next participant is a no-show.
You’ve been struck by the dreaded research fatigue.
I consulted an online medical resource to learn more about this condition. Here’s what I found.
User research fatigue: overview
User research fatigue can strike even the most passionate and curious of researchers. It’s typically an acute condition, characterized by an overwhelming feeling of ennui and malaise during a user research or usability testing session.
Highly communicable, it can infect participants and team members, leading to a similar loss of enthusiasm and lack of effort. At its extreme, without treatment, user research fatigue can become a chronic condition leading to career-changing decisions to specialise in UX design or development.
Symptoms of user research fatigue appear gradually, and may include:
- Mental numbness and dullness
- Loss of focus
- Difficulty concentrating
- A strong feeling of déjà vu
- Boredom and loss of interest
- Sleepiness and general lethargy
- Mental wandering to thoughts unrelated to the session
- Failure to notice details
- Decrease in note-taking
- Skipping tasks or questions
- Failure to ask follow-up questions
- A sudden, overwhelming urge to flee the room and never return
The root cause of user research fatigue is the repetitive nature of user research and usability testing. It’s especially likely to occur in these situations:
- Conducting too many sessions in the same day
- Failing to take enough breaks between sessions
- Conducting unnecessary, extra sessions with the same user groups and tasks, beyond the point where there’s new information to learn
Fortunately, this mostly acute condition responds well to treatment. The more serious strain of chronic user research fatigue may indicate the need for a career change.
Acute user research fatigue
User research fatigue is most often a temporary condition that you can endure until the end of a session. Encountering a particularly interesting participant, who reveals a particularly interesting insight, is often enough to rekindle interest and break the spell of the fatigue.
Stop the research or make changes
If you keep seeing and hearing the same things, without learning anything new, ask yourself these questions:
- Have you learned what you set out to discover?
- Are there other things that you want to learn?
- Are there other user groups that you’d like to include?
Keep your research flexible, so that you can make changes to the schedule, the questions, and the tasks to observe. Move on to conduct sessions with a different user group, or change the questions and tasks to learn about other areas of interest.
Avoid scheduling too many sessions per day
Facilitating user research is very mentally taxing. So avoid scheduling too many sessions per day. Four testing sessions or three field study sessions are realistic daily limits.
Take breaks between sessions
Take time between sessions, and at the end of each day, to relax and not think about the project. It’s tempting to jump right in to typing up your notes or to debrief with the observers, but force yourself to take a break. Get some sleep. Have a few drinks. Go to a movie. Read a book – but not a UX book. Do anything other than thinking about the research, to give your mind some rest.
Break up large research projects
For large-scale user research projects, instead of scheduling participants on every day, break it up with occasional desk days in between research days. This breaks up the gruelling schedule of non-stop user research, allowing you to review what you’ve learned, assess your progress, and make changes before the next round of sessions.
Chronic user research fatigue
Everyone experiences acute user research fatigue from time to time, but if you find yourself suffering from user research fatigue often, that’s a sign that you may need more variety in your work. A change to another type of project or a different research method may solve your problem.
If fatigue persists, then user research may not be the right career for you. User researchers are a special breed after all. Extreme patience and interest in others gives researchers the ability to sit through repetitive sessions and notice patterns, issues, and problems. It’s definietly not the career for everyone. Instead, you may want to specialise in UX design and only occasionally observe user research.
The prognosis for preventing and curing user research fatigue is very good for those who possess patience, perseverance, and an extreme interest in understanding people and their needs.
It may sound dire, but you can do it. Battle against that fatigue! Discover that interesting new angle, find that new nugget of information, break up the routine with an unusual question, and you’ll be back in the game in no time.