‘Being a people person’ may not be an essential requirement of a user researcher role, but it’s one that I think can really help improve the reliability of the insights that you get, so it shouldn’t be underestimated. If you’re looking at improving your skills at facilitating usability testing or even designing products with users in mind, I’d say to look at yourself as a starting point for this.
No, I’m not talking about whether you chose to wear a suit or gym clothes to facilitate a usability test (although I would recommend something inbetween).
The first impressions that potential participants get from you begin before they even meet you. Think carefully about how to prepare for usability testing, from how you recruit to how much contact you have with users before sitting down and asking them to do tasks. I always make the effort to send participants a personalised email to confirm details, give more information or even to say thank you for taking part.
I was well informed about the session before taking part. Emailed prior and explained again before starting. – Participant from one of my usability tests
Not using jargon (fancy words) is really important here too! Keep language relatable and clear and then you won’t isolate certain groups who could actually give great feedback if they knew what the heck it was they were being asked!
Your immediate environment
The key to making people feel comfortable and connecting with them sometimes lies in your immediate environment, and how you behave within this.
I like to make sure I offer coffee, biscuits and fresh fruit whenever I’m doing testing or asking for feedback. When there’s a natural break, use refreshments to keep checking in with people – ‘how are you finding this?’, ‘are you comfortable?’, ‘would you like a glass of water or something sweet before we move on?’.
Making sure you factor this into timings for research is crucial, because I find that when I have dedicated slots to pause recordings and ask users some casual questions, or chat more beforehand without rushing into a testing scenario, they always engage with the tasks better.
Sometimes, it’s good not to be too professional
There’s a fine line between acting professional and clinical. The scenario of a usability test is by nature quite artificial, so there’s no need to make people feel like they are interviewing for a job and need to break out in a sweat.
I like to acknowledge that it’s a bit of an odd situation, and ask people if they’ve done anything like this before. Sometimes, people will point to an example much more intimidating than the usability test, so you can put them at ease straight away!
I like to ask lots of questions to people when they arrive. Small talk is key, and anything that we might have in common I ask more questions about. By the time the participant has settled, they feel more like they’re having a chat with a stranger than taking part in web testing (which, even though not ideal, is a lot more relaxing!).
Very aware of Helen making the session as relaxed as possible. – Participant from one of my usability tests
Be a good listener
This one is crucial to getting the most out of usability testing and research generally.
If you are paying attention, you will be able to ask relevant and well-timed probing questions to get more information from people and enhance your research.
You can also use information you gained while the participant was relaxed at the start to help them complete tasks during the test, by making scenarios more relatable to them. For example, imagine you were testing a website that sold sports equipment and one of your tasks was to order a set of football keeping gloves. However, you knew your participant was playing golf with their friends at the weekend from asking them questions at the start of the test. Since the task would be testing the same kind of thing, you might ask them instead to find a set of golf clubs ahead of the weekend and order these next day delivery. You’d probably get higher engagement from the participant this way, as they would be completing a task that they would be genuinely interested in, so you see them behaving more naturally.
I felt as though my opinion was valued and respected; I felt listened to. – Participant from one of my usability tests
You might have been told not to do this at all if you’re moderating a usability test. Which is correct, and incorrect!
You shouldn’t answer questions that will direct participants to completing tasks a certain way, things like ‘is this right?’, ‘should I click on this?’, ‘is this the right page?’. You should be asking them to do what they would at home, or asking ‘what do you think?’ in your response. If they ask content related questions during the test, I usually say ‘I’ll answer that at the end for you! For now, do what you would based on what you think that means’. I’ll then note their question on a post-it note so that I don’t forget.
At the end of the test, if we finish up way ahead of time, I’ll let them know we can finish now, or give them the option to have a click through other bits of the site while the recording is still running. While this information isn’t often used in the research analysis (since it isn’t moderated), sometimes it will be relevant, or will remind a participant of something they would’ve said before.
Participants are often quite curious when testing new websites and sometimes agree to take part in usability testing to get exposure to something that they might use in the future. So, it’s actually a great opportunity to sell the product and let them have a play around and ask questions. People are also more likely to do a study again if they have learned something new, so it’s great to give them an opportunity to do this.
‘Helen was very kind to me and I learnt a few new things too!’ – Participant from one of my usability tests
So, what are your top tips for making people feel comfortable during research sessions? What qualities do you look for in moderators?