Usability Testing - N01.

Putting participants at ease.

By Brendon Hull

In this series of posts we’ll be discussing what we’ve experienced performing numerous usability tests. The posts won’t follow a usability test plan process according to what happens first in a test, but rather touch on points throughout the process and discuss what we find relevant.

Putting participants at ease

Your first test participant for the day arrives, pleasantries are exchanged and introductions are made. You try your best to make them as comfortable as possible by offering them refreshments and inviting them to have a seat but it still feels like the first day of primary school for both of you. Unsurprisingly, the word test is one of the main reasons participants feel a certain level of discomfort, but let’s explore the whole situation and a few other points in a bit more detail.

Provide them with as much detail as possible

Even though participants are offered incentives and have been sent a screener explaining what is expected of them, the length of the test as well as the full process, most participants are anxious and self-conscious when they arrive. Before the test starts, create an environment where they feel a bit more in control of the pace, at ease with the process and comfortable with how much time the test will take. Break the ice with a brief question about how their day has been. A brief sweet talk titbit is acceptable if it gets the test running a bit smoother.

They can’t be wrong

It is still human nature to reprimand yourself with a ‘duh, I must be blind or dumb’ when presented with a form or process that you deem to be designed by professionals or someone that knows better than you. We as facilitators need to reemphasize the fact that the website / application is being tested and not the user. There is nothing they do that will reflect negatively on them, the only thing that can come out of the process reflecting an error is the website / application.

Be neutral

Invite participants to ask as many questions as they want before you begin. There may be something you left out in your explanation that is important for them to understand and become comfortable with. Another imperative point to bring up is that they can ask any question they want during the test, but that you can’t answer them directly, for fear of being bias and steering the users flow towards a path you want it to go. These questions are usually in the form of, ‘Should I click this’ or ‘What does this mean’, this behaviour reflects a quest for acceptance from the facilitator, they usually want to please, and will generally be more careful as they work through a given task on a website than if they were alone at home.

Get them to think out aloud

It’s important for the participant to think out loud, especially when they are confused or think they have made an error. Communicate this to them using examples, e.g. ‘Ok, I don’t know where I need to go now’, or ‘I don’t know what this button means’. A participant who isn’t comfortable will clam up and not say what they are really thinking and confused by. Sure you can tell a lot form facial expressions and body language, but try probe gently with a smile and get them talking, the more data you can get from all the senses the better.

Watch your body language

Accept any answer and don’t correct the participant, the whole process needs to feel relaxed (while keeping to the task at hand). We’ll chat about body language in more detail in a later post, but just remember to never show surprise at an answer or action that the user takes. Keep a poker face.

Conclusion

The more usability tests you facilitate the better you’ll understand participants and know how to handle different personalities and tough to answer questions. Getting your participants to relax and be less self conscious leads to a more open usability test resulting in more useful data and an overall more successful usability project.

Brendon Hull

Brendon's love for user experience was born back in the day sitting in front of a boxy Phillips TV set blasting 8-bit aliens away with grubby paws covered in Monster Munch dust (Yes, he's that old). The simple, flat interfaces of these early TV games created an obsession with simple, colourful design and one dimensional women (until he met his fiance, love you my 3D lady!)