The Art of Facilitation: Tips for Usability Testing

by Linn Vizard

posted on 02-06-2017

You understand your research objectives. You’ve screened and recruited participants. The prototype and tech set ups are ready to go. Today is the day that your test participants (who are basically strangers to you!) show up to the lab, and you are tasked with facilitating usability tests.

It can be nerve-wracking and tiring to interact with strangers, make them feel at ease, ensure the test is hitting all of the tasks and key points, all while keeping an eye on test timing and wrangling the test setup. Great moderated usability test research hinges on great facilitation. But what does that look like? And how can you up your facilitation game?

Facilitation Best Practices

Like a play, a usability test unfolds in three acts – the opening, middle, and closing. Ensuring your discussion moves through these phases will set-up the test for success. The goal of the opening is to put participants at ease and ensure that they understand what is about to happen. Even before a participant enters the room is an opportunity to build rapport, if you are the one bringing them in from the waiting area. When the participant is settled, this is a good time to explain the purpose of the research, any recording or note-taking that will happen, as well as the test protocol. For example, you might explain the think aloud protocol and ask the participant to try out thinking aloud.

Building comfort and rapport with the participant is crucial at the start of a usability test. Your opening questions in the discussion guide should be easy to answer and set the participant up as the expert.

In the opening phase is it important that participants understand their role, as well as their rights – the right to agree or not agree to recording, or to stop the test at any time. It is crucial to reassure them that they are not being tested – it is the design of the website or app that is under scrutiny. In the opening questions, setting the participant up as the expert in their own lives and approaches is a great way to put them at ease. Asking them contextual questions about how they use technology, or questions related to the subject matter of the test app or website can start things off on the right foot.

The middle part of the test is the meat – this is where you get into task focused questions. Here you need to stay focused on the task you are asking the participant to do – for example, this could come in the form of a question like, “Can you show me how you would buy a plane ticket to New York?” It is important to remember that the usability test is not a conversation per se, even though you may want it to seem more conversational upfront to put the participant at ease. During the task-focused part of the test, the following facilitation techniques can really help to keep the test observational and to avoid leading the participant:

If you want to read more about these facilitation techniques, check out this Nielsen Norman article.

As you come to the end of the usability test, make sure to give the participant the opportunity to ask any questions that they might have. A satisfactory closing includes thanking the participant for their time, reassuring them that their feedback and input has been very helpful, and giving them space to make any final comments. We want our test participants to walk away on a positive note.

Common Pitfalls When Facilitating

Great usability test facilitation is easier said than done – it can feel like a strange way to interact with someone, and getting the balance of rapport and observation right is tricky. Facilitation is a skill built with practice and continuous improvement. Here are some of the common challenges and approaches to deal with them.

Practice makes perfect (or close enough!)

As mentioned earlier, practice is the key to improving facilitation skills. Usability testing is a particular research methodology, and there are several techniques that will help you as a facilitator to get the most out of the research. It can also be an unpredictable situation – dealing with prototypes and technology set ups, as well as the excitement of the recruited participants. You never quite know how a session will go, but with some facilitation best practices up your sleeve, you will be well prepared, regardless of what comes your way.

Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends, Design

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