UX Truth Bombs: How to prepare for hard lessons during user research

Expect to face some hard truths, but here's how to learn from them!

Speaking to users, whether for research or testing purposes, provides invaluable insight into how people behave and what they need.

The more users we speak to, the more we know. But even the best of us will face some hard truths from users no matter what stage we are in our career.

Testing designs, whether it’s the first time or the 100th time, can be an incredibly eye-opening experience. With these experiences come some hard truths about the realities of our users and the gaps in our empathy and designs. Sometimes these hard-to-hear nuggets can be where we learn the most, while other times they give you the best anecdotes.

Let’s explore five of the most common ‘truth bombs’:

Truth Bomb #1: Missing information that feels obvious in hindsight

Let’s start with one piece of feedback you’ll often hear: users pointing out information that feels like such an obvious issue in hindsight.

When we design solutions we need to design with a lot of context. Happy paths, edge cases, business needs etc. All this context can be a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that we design for all the edge cases and user needs. But we are only human. When the context is given as a lot of information at once, it’s so easy to miss the tiniest of details, which can have a huge impact on the experience.

Here is a quote from a session where a user buys insurance from a website and is told they have a discount:

“10% off of what? Thanks a lot for telling me I’ve got a discount but I don’t know how much it is to start with.”

Yay a discount! But where is the starting price? The discount could mean savings of £100 or 10p. Who knows at this point? If you don’t know, your users definitely don’t know.

“It says ‘choose from a wide range of rims, but it doesn’t give you any.”

On the face of this quote, we’re all left wondering why the site said there were rims but no rims were provided. Honestly, information like this is so simple to miss but it never feels easy to hear something that simple was missed from a user.

Truth Bomb #2: Hearing issues that you can’t fix (but you’ve tried!)

Another truth bomb painful to hear is one regarding common issues that are well known, and that you’ve heard every user complain about, but there’s nothing you can do about them. These issues are usually because of business decisions that are out of your control like security reasons. For instance, meet truth bomb number two’s best friend: complaints about CAPTCHA forms and password fields.

“There’s nothing more frustrating when you do a password and it tells you it’s wrong, but it doesn’t tell you what aspect is wrong.”

“I never get this bit with the ‘I’m not a robot’.”

“But that is bloody annoying, these ‘I’m not a robot’. It’s just annoying.”

This type of truth bomb is painful to watch as well as hear. It can take a user so long just to sign up because they can’t tell if an image provided by the form is a car or a bus stop. Problems like whether they’re a bot or not aren’t even the user’s problem, it’s a problem of the business. The business needs to keep out bots, not users!

This truth bomb is also difficult to deal with because it’s one you will hear time and time again and the decision to fix the problem is out of your hands.

Everything you need to know about getting started with user research

Truth Bomb #3: Users despise your website

Users can be the most creative when it comes to telling you how much they hate your website or product. It’s somewhat easier to hear how bad your product is when users make it funny, but during sessions, we all have to learn how to deal with hearing how much users don’t like our designs and just how bad they are.

“I’d be outside having a smoke or four and putting the kettle on. I’d be thinking ‘b*llocks to this, I’ve had enough’ and go lie down in a bucket of Radox.”

Sometimes these honest users are the best ones. Although dramatic at times, when you ignore the emotion and get down to the real issue, you can really uncover a lot of meaningful issues and why they are an issue. These users also give you the best quotes to use when reporting insights to clients or stakeholders.

The downside to this truth bomb, in particular, is that when users are quite brutal in their honesty it can throw you off in the conversation. If you have a user who is the type who complains excessively, then it can often feel like there is nowhere to go, since the user has the mindset of hating everything.

Some participants will also make it very clear that they are not interested, often putting down the device or sitting away from the computer and not engaging.

Truth Bomb #4: Users don’t like what you’re offering

This user truth bomb is more about the business model and content rather than usability issues, which is what makes it difficult to hear. It doesn’t feel great hearing how bad the design is, but usability issues, even the serious ones, are often easier to fix than the content and offerings like delivery times, prices, discounts, etc, because those are business decisions and not ours as designers.

“An ashtray available in 10 weeks?! Does that mean I have to wait 10 weeks for my ashtray?”

“I would have thought that actually if you’re spending £30k on a car, that to pay £100 to deliver a car is a bit cheeky.”

Anyone would think that it doesn’t take 10 weeks for an ashtray, regardless of the context. And who are we to question a user when they ask us why they have to pay £100 for the delivery of a car they just spent over £30,000. It’s very difficult to respond to this type of user truth bomb in a session, other than we have made a note of it and to press on.

These issues can also cause problems from then on in the session, because often you’ve lost the user’s interest and you both know that they probably would have abandoned at that point.

Bonus Bomb: When users catch onto your methods

This is less of a truth bomb but something you’ll hear from users that is more uncomfortable to hear than difficult. In interviews, users are not there to have their mental models corrected. People are naturally curious and will ask questions, especially if there is someone there who looks like they know the answer.

One of the things that you should aim to avoid as a moderator is answering user’s questions, as in real life you wouldn’t be there to answer their questions at home.

A technique for dealing with user questions is by turning them around, asking users what they think the answer is to their own question. If you have a user that asks a lot of questions, then you’re going to have to do this many times. If someone has ever turned around every question you’ve asked in a conversation, you’ll know this is really annoying.

“You’re making me laugh not answering my questions. I don’t know how I’m not learning that you’re not gonna answer my questions. I keep just asking.”

How to deal with Truth Bombs

Unfortunately, when we decide to take on the challenge of working with users we aren’t given a manual on how to deal with them or these situations. They just aren’t that black and white. What we can do is learn to understand our users, their context, their current mindset and then adjust the conversation accordingly.

For the simple truth bombs like ones around missing information, you learn to accept the faults and fix them in the hope you don’t have to hear about the flaw again. Where it gets more complicated is when the truth bombs affect the research. When users point out flaws in the business model or ones you can’t fix, then inform the user that you have made a note of the issue and will pass it onto the relevant team. Hopefully, this inspires them to continue their realistic mindset so they can continue the path of achieving their goal.

For issues where it is clear the user despises the product or website and would abandon the situation, you have to make the call on whether they are still your target audience. If a user is passionately complaining and saying they don’t want to continue or they are making you uncomfortable because they don’t want to be there, you have to decide on how much longer you should spend in that session.

User truth bombs are just one part of the job. Some will be funny, some will be hard to hear, but the more we listen to users the more we learn to understand where they’re coming from. They may be hard to hear but they all contribute to making a better product.