While your role as a usability test facilitator isn’t to play Oprah or Dr. Phil, it should be to facilitate according to your understanding of test participants. And what better way is there to understand them than to engage them in conversation before the testing begins?
Of course, random topics like How’s the weather? or debates about who should be the new manager of the Red Sox won’t fulfill your conversational goals. Instead, your focus should be on asking a series of questions that reveal what a participant thinks—about the Web and the products you are testing—and give you their general sense of the world around them. This is an opportunity to ask probing questions on certain points, as well as to gain a participant’s trust. In other words, it’s an abbreviated critical interview session.
Critical interviewing is an important research technique in its own right, but in combination with usability testing, it is a powerful tool for gaining an understanding of your users and what they might think about your products.
Make Users Feel Comfortable
Typically, when participants arrive at a usability test session, the test facilitator is unknown to them—except perhaps for a brief email exchange to recruit them or confirm their test session. Since, as a test facilitator, you are essentially meeting a stranger for the first time, here are some ways to help a participant become comfortable sharing information with you:
- Play the gracious host or hostess. Welcome the participant, making eye contact; introduce yourself in a clear, strong voice; and offer him a seat and a glass of water. A warm and welcoming attitude goes a long way toward helping someone feel at ease.
- Confirm that the participant knows he has some control. Make sure the participant understands that he can stop the test at any time if he is uncomfortable. While I have never had anyone take me up on this offer, I do notice that users relax once they feel the facilitator is on their side.
- Don’t forget your introductory script. Many test facilitators have been conducting test sessions so long that they don’t need to read from a script during the introduction before testing begins—but this may not necessarily be a good thing. You must not forget to relay important information to participants—such as the fact that the testing reflects on the product or application, not the user. Simple statements like “We are not testing your abilities in any way” or “There are no right or wrong answers” help participants to focus on the test tasks rather than on how the facilitator perceives them.
- Offer participants their reward up front. Handing a participant a cash payment or gift card up front, before the test session begins, is an act of good faith that tells him you have confidence that the test session will go well. When I gave participants their reward at the completion of a test session, they would fret about offering criticism of a design during the session—sometimes asking me, “Does this mean I won’t get my reward?”