User centred design and usability testing

The internet is rife with articles on usability testing, some are especially insightful and could likely help professionals conduct a good usability session. In venturing through these articles I realised that they largely neglect one of the most important, if not the most important, components of usability testing – The human being you are going to be speaking to in the usability session!

Imagine walking into a room with a stranger. They ask you to give your honest opinion while working through an interface which you have never seen before. They tell you the session will be recorded – you have camera’s in your face, with the stranger sitting next to you asking you in-depth questions about the interface; such as your opinion of the interface, it’s value and sometimes having this stranger lack empathy with this stressful situation.

The facilitator needs to have heaps of empathy, patience and drive a positive, judgement free environment. The long and the short of it is, if the participant is comfortable they are more likely to provide you with valuable information, which in turn benefits your product or service.

Here are a few pointers on becoming a more empathetic, engaging and caring facilitator:

Dress appropriately:

This is less dress to impress and more, dress appropriately for the target audience you will be talking to. I always dress down with younger participants and generally dress smartly when I am seeing higher ranking professionals.

Be a participant yourself:

It’s invaluable to be a usability participant at least once in your life. You realise how anxious you are about giving your opinion about an interface, not to mention that you don’t want to insult the person who created it. You may even find yourself apologizing if you feel you’ve made a mistake or didn’t quite understand something the interface was trying to communicate (ever so vaguely). So being in the “hot seat” requires an empathetic ear to guide you through the session. A great way to pave this relationship is to start with building a solid rapport.

Build solid rapport:

I enjoy spending some time at the beginning of the session getting to know the person I will be spending the next hour with. I ask them about what they do, and a few other questions about their lives to create a connection. This can be done by making eye contact, smiling, being warm and friendly. Remember, it’s your job to help the person feel as comfortable as possible during the session.

The more comfortable the participant is, the more likely they are to give you honest feedback, which is exactly why you are doing usability testing. Think about it, if you feel comfortable with someone you are more likely to tell them the truth about how you are feeling, especially what you like and don’t like.

Body language and tone of voice is extremely important. So sitting with your arms crossed and speaking very loudly is a rather bad idea. I always try to engage with people the way I would with a new friend. I am interested in what they have to say, I listen intently and I acknowledge when they speak. It is however important to note that you are not meant to influence the person’s conclusions. You can acknowledge what they have said but you cannot confirm or deny this opinion, as this runs the risk of skewing results.

Be careful about confirmation bias:

Confirmation bias is when you set out to prove your hypotheses, you drive conversation towards proving what you believe to be true and therefore skew the results. You may think a design or function solves a problem and drive conversation towards finding proof for this assumption. Open ended question are your friend. They allow participants to make up their own mind rather than being coaxed into giving information they feel they ought to give.

Create a calm environment:

Be a friend, not an authority figure. You are going on this journey with the participant. You are working through all of the complicated/delightful things together. Be a shoulder to cry on, be part of the frustration, and be empathetic about the experience. If you are having a bad experience with an interface no one would like a comment such as “chin up” or “get over it”. Show that you care by asking questions and listening carefully to what is being said.

Are you hungry?

Let’s be honest, when you are hungry or thirsty you are not going to be able to give your best at whatever it is you are trying to do, I know that the word “hangry” resonates with most people i’ve spoken to. The same goes for people in the usability session. I’m not saying serve them up a steak, but rather have a small snack like cookies or chips to keep the hunger at bay and get better results and frankly better opinions.

Your language is important:

The way in which you say things can affect the session. Never, and I repeat never tell participants you are doing usability “testing”. The word testing gives the impression of responses being right or wrong in usability testing. There are no right or wrong answers in the session, only opinions from experts as they are the target audience for the product.

I like to use positive language. Negative sentences stop communication and create defensive remarks. “Tell people what you want, rather than telling them what you don’t want and edit “don’t” out of your vocabulary”

Don’t be married to the design:

It is important to explain to participants that you want them to be brutally honest with their opinions. It is the human condition to want to make people happy. Participants will try to do the same by giving you feedback they think you want to hear. You need to distance yourself from the intended research and explain that you welcome their opinions and won’t take any of their opinions personally. The main aim of testing is to  make the product better for people like the participant.

This is not only empowering but gives them a sense of being the expert. Let’s face it they are the experts, you need to be the apprentice; they are teaching you and giving you insights you probably wouldn’t be able to come up with yourself as your mental model is likely to differ from theirs.

Understanding the mental model:

A mental model  is a model of what users know (or think they know) about a system. This means that they base their actions and assumptions on previous experience of other interfaces. Essentially, we all know that if you click on a home button (on most websites) you will be taken to the main landing page. If the home button takes users to the contact page, it doesn’t align with our mental model and therefore causes confusion. Be careful not to pass judgement here, users see things differently to you and that’s good, that’s exactly what you want! You want to understand the way in which users think and navigate an interface. This leads to delightful things being created for the target audience.

Keep participants on track:

You are in control of the session, you have to gently nudge participants back onto topic if they veer too much from what you are researching, but it is also very important to allow participants to talk, they are in the process of creating opinions on the service/product they are working with, allow them to create this and not be cut off mid sentence. Respect their opinions.


The more usability sessions you do the better you will get.  You may realise  that these tips work for some people but don’t work for others. You will learn to analyse people and provide a caring, engaging and empathetic relationship, it just takes time. Good luck!

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I love all things Psychology and User experience related. I completed my honours in Psychology with an extended internship in Psychometry. My degree in Psychology gives me many advantages when it comes to UX. I have a strong background in research which directly translates to user testing (quantitative and qualitative), analysis and report writing. I have set up the UX lab for Mxit running regular usability testing sessions. I thoroughly enjoy creating test scripts, conducting user testing, user recruitment, analysing results and reporting back in an audience specific manner. Personas, story telling, mental models, wireframing and many more form part of my tools when analysing a system for the needs, wants, goals and pain points for users. I am an avid reader of all things UX with an special interest in Neuropsychology. I enjoy working with aspects such as memory, senses, learning, thoughts and emotions in order to understand how a design will affect the individual. I am always ready to talk about UX, lets chat.

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