User Testing Facilitation Techniques

A common mistake people make when facilitating usability tests is to treat them more like interviews, like conversations instead of observations and doing things like interrupting, asking priming questions or offering assistance. On the flip side, some facilitators are afraid to talk to the test participant at all. So never probe and don’t know how to react when the user asks for a question. It is better to be quiet when in doubt. But let’s look at three techniques I’ve used for years and that you can master in usability tests to inquire without leading and respond without stifling. The first is Echo, which you use to help the user clarify what he meant when he said something incoherent or unclear to practice echo. You repeat the exact word or words the user said.

For example, imagine the user said, this is not how I do things now. The facilitator could say, not how you do things.

Now, if the user mumbled hmmm, weird, the facilitator might clearly repeat weird, repeating the same words the user said, but with an interrogatory tone eliminates judgment and suggestion, but plainly asks the user to say more. The next technique is boomerang, named after the tool that Indigenous Australians used for hunting. It’s designed to return to the person who originally hurled it. I use it in my research studies to deflect a user’s question.

So if a user asks, for example, is it even possible to do this, I might ask him, what do you think? Or if the user asks, should I log in to comment? A facilitator could say, what would you do if you were at home? Watch your tone, because there is a big difference between what do you think and what do you think? And the more gentle what do you think find boomerang phrases you’re comfortable with.

And until they become second nature to you, I suggest you write them down and keep them by your side as a reminder when moderating any test. That way, you won’t panic and risk invalidating your results. When the user turns to you and ask you a question, the third and final technique is more advanced than the other two. Colombo, named after the character in the popular 1970s TV series starring Peter Falk. Lieutenant Columbo look disheveled and seen scattered but always caught the culprit. Many methods contributed to his success, like being disarming and unassuming, then gently questioning the perpetrator, all the while not tipping his hand. We’re not chasing killers and usability testing, and I don’t use all the techniques that Columbo did. But I do sometimes adopt elements of his persona and ask partial questions, especially when I can’t on the fly, think of a non-leading way to ask the question. For example, I might point to an area of the screen and say, you swiped here. I only say the part I think is safe to say I’m not overly articulate when I do this, nor am I acting completely confident or like an expert. And I wait. I wait hoping the user will rescue me, which they often do. But Colombo is advanced because if you overreact, you come off as disingenuous. And when you ask a partial question, some users politely wait for you to finish. Still, the technique is worth trying because it can be so difficult to construct a non-leading probing question about an area which you need more information. And being unimposing is an important element of making the user drive the session, not you. I love Colombo so much. I named my awesome, inquisitive Karen terrier after him and so I hope you’ll try these three techniques next time you facilitate a usability test to be more successful, practice your tone record and review yourself and evolve your method in a test. When in doubt, say nothing. But do remember Echo, Boomerang and my best friend Colombo.

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