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24 November 2020

The value of small talk in User Research

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Rachel Abbott

“you are so good at all the small talk by the way — I’m always so impressed”

Setting aside my discomfort with accepting compliments in general, when a colleague recently said this to me after a user research session, it made me stop and think. Was small talk a good thing?

I’d held a quiet belief that User Research needed to strive to be more like the scientific method — rigorous, controlled, clinical. I’d been given advice by much more experienced researchers than me in the past, and read various sources, that made me feel that the way I ran my research sessions was not aligned with the textbook expectations of our discipline. Small talk was “unprofessional”, unnecessary or a form of bias, and I almost considered it a weakness on my part. I wondered if maybe I was too “loosey goosey” with my approach, too familiar.

But then I observed some sessions by other researchers from different organisations — and whilst they were effective in the sense of getting answers from the participants — the sessions felt…….cold. Clinical. Overly distant. It was straight down to business.

This is not to say that they were poor researchers by any stretch, but that having a comparison helped me to identify the benefits in my personal approach. Historically, small talk has retained its reputation as the lowest form of speech. So I’d like to talk about what I’ve found to be the benefits of including small talk in my research approach.

What is small talk?

Small talk is “an informal type of discourse that does not cover any functional topics of conversation or any transactions that need to be addressed”

In essence polite, but pointless. But I’ve found the small talk to be anything but pointless. Here are some of the ways in which I have found it a valuable skill in research.

It serves a purpose

Speech says things, but it also does things. It’s not necessarily about the words we are saying (semantics), but what that represents socially. Anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski (1923) described it as “speech as social bonding rather than communication.”

Speech can convey reassurance, trust, encouragement, acknowledgement, interest. It lubricates the way for future communication, putting the participants at ease.

It can help with first impressions

When we work as researchers in government or the public sector, we’re lumped in with the rest of the huge hulking machinery of those institutions, including how people feel about them and their activities. It doesn’t matter that you’re not the one processing their benefit claim, or dealing with their tax payments — you are perceived as part of that faceless machine and sometimes, part of the problem.

Small talk helps us assess the environment we are conversing in — we can read the atmosphere, which enables us to understand the person better and make a more positive first impression. It’s like dipping your toe in the water to see how warm it is — this may then direct your approach for the rest of the research session.

It can build a positive relationship

We have a very short space of time in a research session to build an open, honest and safe relationship with a complete stranger and ask them to tell us what they really think about something. That something is often emotive, so it’s important that there is psychological safety for everyone.

When I am making “small talk” I try to listen to what they have to say and keep a mental note of any interesting facts about them — eg: a participant mentions how she used to work in education — which explains why she is pointing out font and language issues in the prototype, so I make some small talk about noticing her “teacher” approach because my mother was a primary school teacher — which she then laughs at.

I strongly believe that we have to humanise research. This also includes making some small talk about ourselves — some researchers would disagree with this, feeling it oversteps professional boundaries, however having worked in community substance misuse services for years prior, I believe that if you want to learn more about someone, you have to share a bit of yourself. So sometimes I will drop in a quick reference to a similar experience, or a similar personal circumstance. This reciprocity can be key to creating a trusting relationship, and about making someone feel comfortable opening up to you.

How can you make small talk effective?

Small talk can be someone’s worst nightmare. It can feel awkward and uncomfortable, especially for people who consider themselves introverts (I am one of those people). It may feel like empty “filler” words, but if delivered well, it can be a valuable skill. I would like to share some advice for making effective small talk in research sessions:

  • Make it personal — forget the weather — try to make small talk about something that is likely to be shared (to avoid one-sided conversation), but not cliche.
  • But not too personal — if like me you’ve been researching throughout Covid19 times, you’ll know it’s a stressful time for everyone, with some people experiencing significant losses in their life. Avoid any small talk around things that could potentially be upsetting, and ensure you are prepared to respond sensitively to a user becoming emotional, as well as looking after your own wellbeing
  • Open questions — it’s an oldie but a tried and tested method — invite small talk by using open questions that encourage the participant to respond.
  • Channel your curiosity and show genuine interest in the other person — they shouldn’t feel like just a name on a list

You can contact me on [email protected]

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