The Art of Facilitation: Tips for Usability Testing

The Art of Facilitation: Tips for Usability Testing
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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:

  • Boomerang – When faced with a question from the participant during the test, rather than answer it, a good facilitator will find a way to ask the question back to the participant. Some examples of these questions include, “What would you normally do at home?” or “What would you expect?” The goal is to get the participant to continue to try to complete the task without the help of the facilitator.
  • Echo – The echo technique involves simply repeating the participant’s phrases by turning them into a question. The goal is to get the participant to further expand on a comment that you want to understand better or probe more deeply on. Simply adjusting your intonation will imply that you are asking a question when you repeat words or phrases the participant is using.
  • Columbo – Using the Columbo technique is another approach to getting the participant to further elaborate or ‘help’ the facilitator to understand. This technique involves trailing off a question or sentence, leaving space for the participant to step in and provide insight.

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.

  • Not matching your energy to the participant. If a participant is slower paced and more quiet, a very bubbly and eager facilitation style can be a mismatch. As much as possible, notice the pace and energy of the participant and match them. This will build rapport and synergy.
  • Being too eager to fill the silences. It can feel awkward to leave silence, and a nervous facilitator will often talk too much. If in doubt, wait it out, and more often than not the participant will volunteer something further. Learning to get comfortable with silences is a crucial skill for facilitators.
  • Asking multiple questions at once. At times, you may feel compelled to ask two variations on the same question back-to-back. This is often because you are nervous or afraid of not being clear or understood. It’s best to keep questions succinct, and allow the participant to ask for clarification if they need it.
  • Soliciting feedback on future behaviour. It can be very tempting to ask users questions like, “Would you buy this?” or “Do you think you would use this?” We need to remember that people are not good at predicting future behaviour. In addition, in a one-on-one research context, the participant will be eager to please you and seem co-operative, especially with an incentive at play. It is best to stick to observed behaviour and actions.
  • Not paying enough attention to body language. Participants will say a lot with their body language and facial expressions. These can be excellent cues for a facilitator to probe on – for example saying something like, “I noticed you are smiling – can you tell me about that?”
  • Panicking when people hit roadblocks. Sometimes people are not able to complete a task. This can be challenging to facilitate, especially if the participant is getting frustrated. It is crucial not to panic and lead the participant, or instruct them on what to do. Instead, stay focused on the task and encourage them with questions like, “What else might you try?’” or “What would you do if you were at home?” Knowing when to abandon a task and move on is also useful. If you sense the participant is extremely frustrated it is often best to leave it there and note the task as a fail.

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.

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