Why Do People Want to Observe User Research?
It’s natural that clients and project team members want to observe user research sessions. Often, you have a packed house of observers, but sometimes no one bothers to show up. Why do certain user research projects attract so many observers?
People Are Curious
It’s interesting to hear what people think about a product or service and see what they do when attempting to use it. Many clients and project team members have never had the chance to hear what their users think directly. Many clients are also curious about user research techniques themselves and how they can use them to learn more about their users.
There’s A Lot at Stake
More people come to observe when there’s a lot at stake in a project. High-profile projects, projects where there are disagreements among stakeholders, and risky or unusual projects attract more observers.
People Don’t Trust You
Some people want to observe the research themselves because they don’t trust you. They want to make sure you report the findings accurately and that the participants represent real users. Such people may include developers, designers, product owners, and other project team members who are defensive about their work. Sometimes clients don’t trust you to be alone with their customers or employees and insist on having a representative of the company present.
Clients Want to Learn How to Do Research Themselves
Some clients hire consultants to observe their techniques, so their internal team can perform the methods themselves on future projects.
Research Makes an Interesting Diversion
Who wouldn’t want to get out of the office, away from their typical workday routine for a day or two? Add in a comfortable atmosphere and free food, and it’s no wonder that you draw a crowd to the observation room.
Why Don’t People Observe User Research?
So, what accounts for those times when no one shows up to observe? Sometimes it’s the result of successfully evangelizing the value of user research. As the practice of user research within an organization becomes more frequent, sessions become routine, losing their luster, and people have satisfied their curiosity. People are busy and may attend only the research sessions for more important projects. Those who were formerly distrustful learn that user research isn’t out to get them, and they don’t need to be there to defend their work.
Research Is More Important Than Observation
It’s very important to make sure your observers understand that the research itself is far more important than their ability to observe the sessions. You must let participants know that they are being observed, and for many people, that’s a source of anxiety. However, most people overcome this initial discomfort if the observation is subtle and doesn’t interfere with the session. Observation is a nice-to-have that should never interfere with the comfort of participants, the naturalness of their behavior, or the ability of a researcher to interact effectively with participants.
Where to Locate Observers
The ideal place for observers is out of participants’ sight and hearing. Observing sessions from a separate room or viewing them through a Web conference and speakerphone are discreet methods that don’t provide a constant reminder to participants that they are being watched.
When Observers Are in the Same Room
If you must have observers in the same room as participants, take the following steps to minimize their impact:
- Limit the number of in-room observers to as few as possible.
- Introduce the observers to the participants. This allows the participants to see them as regular people, not mysterious, unknown observers with unclear agendas.
- Set strict rules about where observers should sit.
- Instruct observers to refrain from talking, making verbal utterances, or sending signals with their body language.
- Provide a specific time when the observers can ask questions—preferably at the end of a session.
- Give observers guidance on how to ask neutral, non-leading questions.
Observing In-Lab User Research
Usability labs and focus-group facilities are designed specifically to accommodate a large group of observers—whether they are observing usability testing, individual interviews, or focus groups. With one-way mirrors, cameras, video monitors, lounges, kitchens, and free-flowing food and drink, they make observation easy and comfortable.
However, labs are sometimes uncomfortable for participants. Bringing participants into a lab takes them out of their natural element and puts them in an artificial environment. Fortunately, there are ways to minimize their discomfort and make the experience more natural.
Mirrors Versus Cameras
Whenever possible, avoid facilities that use traditional one-way mirrors to observe participants. Mirrors instantly create the unnatural feeling of being scrutinized in a lab. Unlike more subtle observation methods that participants can quickly forget about, mirrors are a large, blatant, constant reminder that unseen people are watching and listening.
Instead, use modern, mirror-less facilities that have discrete cameras and feed video of the sessions to large monitors in a nearby observation room. You must still inform participants that they are being observed, but it’s much easier for them to relax and forget about the observers without the obvious and continuous reminder of a mirror.
If you must use a room with a mirror, set up the room so participants face away from the mirror, so they won’t have a constant reminder of its presence and can avoid the distraction of seeing their own reflection. Acknowledge the mirror and use humor to defuse their potential discomfort. You may be able to use curtains or shades to cover the mirror when no one is observing a session, or when you have cameras and a video feed set up.
Handling Observers’ Questions
Observers often think of additional questions that they would like to ask during a user research session. The problems are how to get those questions to the researcher and when to ask them.
Some observers want to be able to instantly ask questions during a session and may try various methods of getting them to the researcher—for example, sending em ails or instant messages or even coming into the room with a Post-it note. All of these methods are far too disruptive and difficult to handle when in the middle of a session. Plus, the questions observers want to ask may be unclear, inappropriate, lead participants, or require additional discussion before you can ask them.
The best way to handle observers’ questions is to have them note their questions throughout a session. At the very end of the session, excuse yourself from the participant and go to the observation room to ask the observers whether they have any additional questions. This allows you to discuss what they would like to know and think about the best way to phrase the questions. It also helps the observers to feel more involved in the research.