Design processes often include regular play testing sessions to better understand how users respond to a product at varying stages of development. It's a familiar situation for researchers, but testing participants come into something of a foreign land, where strangers are watching their every move. For this reason, the simple subtleties of rapport building are often the secret ingredient to getting great data.

The goal of rapport building is to mitigate the feeling of being watched and judged so that test subjects feel comfortable enough to play games or try an app as they normally would. In essence, the challenge is creating a testing environment where users can openly say: “This is stupid!” This challenge takes on new dynamics when your test subjects are kids. I work at Sago Sago Toys where we build interactive apps for preschoolers and some of the measures we take to create a comfortable space for our young users can be just as helpful when testing with adults.

The challenge is creating a testing environment where users can openly say: “This is stupid!”

Here are some of the things that we’ve found to be particularly effective:

Be a Good Mimic

Generally, people will respond better to those who are similar to them. Simple things like mimicking body gestures make you more amicable to your conversation partner (see: Chameleon Effect). When testing, I try to match a kid’s energy, body language, and even verbal language. If they use the term “granola face,” better believe that I’m using it too!

Dress the Part

How we are dressed impacts how we are perceived. Remember this is about rapport building because you want to be perceived as a friend. If you are wearing a suit, the participant might feel a need to qualify him or herself to you and would filter out the “dumb” comments. A friend will be more likely to get the unfiltered version of a subject’s reaction. Clearly, that’s what we are after and sometimes, I’ll even wear clothes that elicit conversation. I’ll wear bright hats, robot t-shirts, or even stickers on my hands; stuff they can identify with and makes me part of their wolf pack.

They’re Batman, You’re Robin

Allowing the subject to run the show is central to successful user testing. Being encouraging is fine, but driving while they watch is a waste of time. To give them the confidence to take the wheel, you want to ensure that they are the alpha, the one in charge. To this point, I try to sit in a position of submission, relaxed, and either lower than them, or sitting on my hands (see: Dominance and Deference in Pantomime). If I tower over them, I’m all of a sudden an authority figure. They’ll ask for help, or seek approval more than they would otherwise.

Win Over the Ones They Trust

Ample research suggests that gaining approval—especially from the people your subjects trust—helps ease them into participation. Parents are the gatekeepers to the digital content that kids digest, so obviously it’s important for them to feel at ease. A secondary objective, however, is to garner a kid’s trust, by demonstrating social acceptance by their parent or guardian.

Don't Talk Shop

Probably the most important point: Don’t put them to sleep talking about how your product was conceived and designed. Spend 10 minutes talking about the butterfly they saw or the pizza they ate for dinner. Make a connection, find commonalities, and don’t treat them like lab rats. Informal conversations help immensely with building a rapport, which can lead to fantastic insights.

Bill Cosby had it right all along, kids say the darndest things; they just need to be comfortable enough to open up.


Image of adult in superhero costume courtesy Shutterstock.