The Many Hats of a Usability Professional
Published: October 8, 2012
Sometimes it seems as though usability professionals need to have superhuman multitasking abilities to conduct usability test sessions. As a usability professional, you have to wear the hats of a facilitator, a consultant, a conversationalist, a note-taker, a technologist, and a psychologist. You have to do everything from handling technology issues to understanding participants’ personalities and comfort levels, all while working within a session’s time constraints—and perhaps with the added pressure of having your client observing. But despite your having to do all of these things, your main responsibility is to gather high-quality, valuable data for your client.
In a perfect world, a team of at least two researchers would work together to gather this data: one in the role of a facilitator; the other, a recorder. However, on fast-paced UX projects, this is not always possible, and you may often be working on your own.
So, how do you handle juggling all of these roles during a usability test session, while still gathering high-quality data for analysis? First, get a good night’s sleep before a session. Then, breathe deeply and adopt a good frame of mind before the session, and hope that everything goes well.
In this article I’ll describe some objectives for each of the roles you’ll need to take on, as well as provide some tips that you should remember to help you wear each hat successfully.
The Facilitator Hat
Your main responsibility during a usability test session is being an effective facilitator. There are three parts to facilitating test sessions, as follows:
- before sessions begin—A facilitator should go through a pre-test brief with any observers, explaining the purpose and methods of usability testing, as well as what observers should do during a session.
- during sessions—Once a session begins, the facilitator should greet the participants and put them at ease. As a facilitator, you need to ensure that your conversations with participants touch on all of the points that you need to cover and that you gather the most useful data possible. At the same time, you need to be conscious of not interrupting or talking over participants and avoid introducing bias into a session by asking leading questions. You should also observe participants’ body language. (See “The Psychologist Hat.”)
- after sessions—The facilitator should debrief any observers, going over their observations and any information that you should keep in mind for the next session.
Things to remember when wearing your facilitator hat:
- Before your usability study begins, create a discussion guide to direct the flow of the test sessions. The guide should include tasks and scenarios for participants. Always remember, this is a guide, not a script. (See “The Conversationalist Hat.”)
- At the beginning of each session, put participants at ease by explaining that the session is neither a test nor an evaluation of their skills and that there is no such thing as a right or wrong answer.
- Maximize the number of data points that you can gather by instructing participants to think aloud during the session. Also, whenever necessary, ask participants to clarify their points.
- To avoid asking leading questions, speak in general terms to participants. A facilitator might ask: “What is your opinion of this page?” or “Talk to me about what you’re seeing here.”
- Do not talk over participants. If you find that a participant is sharing too much information that is redirecting the focus of a session away from the points you need to cover, wait until there is a pause in his remarks, then politely move the conversation forward, refocusing the session.
The Consultant Hat
During a usability study, usability professionals’ responsibility to their clients is to gather valuable information for them. But having a client observe usability testing in person, or even remotely, can be a double-edged sword. While they are able to hear feedback firsthand, they also require some hand-holding from researchers. Clients do not always understand the different things that take place during a test session, so you may need to explain—for example, “I am asking this question this way because of x and y.”
Having a client observe a session in person does require you to be more mindful of yourself during the session, because the client can hear and see everything that a participant says and does, as well as what you say and do.
Things to remember when wearing your consultant hat:
- Enlist the assistance and support of a project manager or other team member to entertain the client whenever you are unable to sit and chat with them.
- Sit down with your client before the sessions begin and explain observation etiquette. Also, fill them in on common things that they may see or hear during a usability test session.
- Do a dry-run in front of your client, so they can get a feel for the flow of usability testing. This lets them bring up any concerns or questions before the sessions begin.
- Be open to hearing your client’s feedback between sessions. Listen to their concerns, be mindful of what they say, and make any adjustments that you can make without compromising the data quality.
The Conversationalist Hat
A usability test session is not meant to be a monologue, with one party talking non-stop. Whenever appropriate, a session should be a conversation. It is important to remember this at various points during a session. At the beginning of a session, a conversation helps a participant to relax and feel comfortable talking to you. Perhaps the most important conversations are those that occur throughout a session: when a participant gives you a golden nugget of information, you respond with a new question, and your question opens up a brief conversation that answers questions you didn’t realize you would have.
Things to remember when wearing your conversationalist hat:
- Use your discussion guide to lead the conversation, but do not treat it like a script. Sometimes the conversation might deviate from the guide for a few moments, but it will eventually make its way back.
- Do not be afraid to deviate from your discussion guide to ask a participant probing questions on a specific point. Acknowledge that the participant has said something interesting and indicate that you would like to learn more. One good way of doing this is by saying: “The point you just made is very interesting. Could you tell me more?” or “A few moments ago, you mentioned that you really liked the description of this feature. What about the description did you like?”
The Note-Taker Hat
For busy UX teams, it is not always possible to have another researcher on a project who can take notes for you during usability test sessions. So, this responsibility may fall to you. The biggest challenge when conducting a session and recording your own notes is doing so in a way that does not distract you from your conversation with a participant. Remember, your priorities are to be a good facilitator and conversationalist.
Things to remember when wearing your note-taker hat:
- Record your test sessions—both audio and video, if possible. Then, you can go back later and capture parts of a session that you may have missed in your notes.
- Develop a simple coding system for your notes. This way, you do not have to write down everything. Don’t make your codes so complicated that you must waste time during a session, figuring out which one to use. There are a few different codes that I use in my notes to make analysis and note-taking easier for myself:
- I use an ellipsis (…) after the first three or four words of a quotation that I know I may want to use in a presentation or highlights videos, but that I’ll have to finish capturing after the session. Later, when I am doing analysis and see this code, I know I need to go back to the video, at around the time the participant said this, to capture the whole quotation.
- I use an exclamation point (!) to indicate that a comment or observation seemed to be extremely important at the time—either because I had not heard something before or because it really showcases the user experience.
- I use an asterisk (*) to mark common usability trends, so they are easier to find later on.
- Before a study, create a key to your codes. Then, keep it with your session notes. That way, if you need to revisit your notes a week or two later, you’ll know what the codes mean.
The Technologist Hat
Have you ever been in the middle of a session and had your application stop working? Or what if your eyetracker loses its connection in the middle of a session? During a session, the last thing you want to worry about is having the technology you’re using not work properly. On top of everything else you have to think about, this may just push you over the edge.
Things to remember when wearing your technologist hat:
- Be aware of things that could go wrong beforehand. If you are using an audio recorder, check its batteries and bring plenty of spares. If you are using an eyetracker, know what types of problems could occur and how you can solve them. Ask colleagues about any problems they’ve run into and how they solved them. It may even be a good idea to alert your IT department that you’ll be conducting test sessions on particular days and let them know what equipment you’ll be using, so they can be on standby if there are any issues you cannot solve.
- Do a pilot test at the beginning of each day to ensure that the technology is working properly. If you are doing screen recording, your pilot test should last the full length of a session, because problems with recordings often seem to occur after you’re already halfway through a session.
- If an issue arises during a test session, calmly explain the situation to the participant. Do not let the participant see that you are feeling overwhelmed, because your stress may affect the participant’s state of mind. To lighten the air, tell a joke about technology.
- If your client is observing a session when an issue arises, wait until after the session to talk to them about what went wrong and any impacts it may have had on the data.
- If a problem is significant enough that you need to bring in a more experienced colleague or the IT department, explain to the participant who you are bringing in and why. While that person is in the room, keep your conversation with the participant going to build the relationship.
The Psychologist Hat
During a session, you need to pay attention to a participant’s body language. It often gives you information that you aren’t getting from your conversation. For example, if a participant says “Yes, I like this page,” but there is a pained expression on his face, he’s probably not telling you the truth. On the other hand, if a participant looks at something and smiles, you’ll want to note this, so say, “I noticed you smiled when you saw x. Why is that?”
Another type of body language you need to be aware of shows a participant’s comfort level. If a participant is uncomfortable, conversation may be stiff. For example, if you are leaning toward a participant and you see that she is leaning away from you, this may mean that you are in her personal space, so try sitting back slightly to make her feel more at ease.
Things to remember when wearing your psychologist hat:
- Understand the fundamentals of body language, including facial expressions.
- Mind your body language as well as that of participants. Neither sit too stiffly nor slouch.
- Note important facial expressions next to key findings. If a participant says he likes something, but his body language indicates otherwise, make a note of it.
- Ask participants to explain their facial expressions or body language when appropriate.
Conducting usability test sessions is hard because you have to wear the hats of many different roles. This can be exhausting, both mentally and physically. To prevent your becoming overwhelmed, schedule a smaller number of sessions in a day, so you can ensure that you are fresh and ready to undertake all of the roles your job requires. Once you learn how to prioritize each role’s tasks, you can perform all of these roles successfully.