September 2021
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User research can be conducted in many ways. You could usability test a prototype in a lab, interview users to discover their motivations, or guerrilla test a sketch you’ve drawn up.

One thing the above methods all have in common is that good facilitation is key to generating the best insights into user behaviour from them. However, facilitation can sometimes feel like the most unnatural thing in the world as it goes against the grain of our normal human interactions. You’re not supposed to step in or offer any interjections that could skew the research.

The best way to get better at facilitating is to observe experienced facilitators and get as much practice as you can yourself.

In the meantime here are some of my key learnings from facilitating to help you get the best out of your user research sessions.

1. Don’t ask the user what they want.

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This is the first rule of facilitation, and for good reason. It seems like the most natural thing to ask a user what it is that they want. However, we’re here to figure out what they need.

What people want and what they need are commonly very different things. A person may want a website filled with cats and unicorns, but that’s getting them no closer to finding a piece of information, booking a gig ticket, or finding out directions. In the words of The Rolling Stones:

“You can’t always get what you want
 But if you try sometimes you might find
 You get what you need”

Let that be your motto when facilitating user research.

2. Put the user at ease.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash.

To get the most natural behaviour from a user, they need to feel as comfortable as possible.

First off, assure the user that it’s not your work that is being tested. They therefore can’t hurt your feelings by being honest — it’s this honest feedback that is most useful for you.

If what you are testing is scenario based, set the scene for them. Let them settle into their scenario. You need them to fully understand it to complete the rest of the steps.

Always consider your environment as well. Ensure that where you are testing has minimal distractions. For example, if you are planning to guerrilla test, don’t grab people on the street. Try a coffee shop setting where people have more time, focus and may be swayed by the promise of a free coffee (!). I also attended a talk by Richard Shotton who recommended that a lottery ticket was the most effective way to get users to partake in research — may be worth a try!

As you know with user research, there is also no right or wrong answer. Tell the user this. If they do ask ‘Is that right?’ avoid all temptation to respond with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ based on how you think something should work and ask something like ‘Is that what you would have expected to happen?’.

3. Don’t hypothetically ask a user what they would do, ask them what they have done.*

Photo by Hugo Frey on Unsplash.

*There’s a caveat on this one. If you are conducting research that requires users to fulfil a series of tasks, such as usability testing a prototype, then asking them what they would do next is of course fine.

However, in interviews where you are trying to find out motivations and behaviours, it is always best to get users to think back to a time they have done something, rather than what they might do in the future.

For example, if your purpose is to find out what a user would consider when buying a car, ask them how they chose their previous car. What kind of factors did they consider, who did they discuss the purchase with, where did they go to buy the car, what made them choose that brand of car?

We are not interested in hypothetical behaviour, we are interested in performed behaviour. So asking a user about a previous experience captures exactly this.

4. Observe what people do.

Photo by Hugo Frey on Unsplash.

There is quite often a disparity between what people say and what they actually do. People want to be seen in a positive light. They’ll display this in their words, but not necessarily their actions.

I was once observing users whilst I was conducting some contextual research at a wedding fayre. I tried a quick test to prove my point. I went to one particularly expensive stall. As one mother of the bride was looking at their products I got chatting to her. As we chatted I asked ‘Have you come with a specific budget in mind?’. She replied instantly ‘No, it’s whatever my daughter wants, we’ll get it.’

A few seconds later I heard her whisper to her daughter that this particular stall would throw them well above their budget and pulled her away to look elsewhere.

This is the perfect example of how a user’s actions don’t match up to their words. Understandably in this instance, this user did not want to lose face. However, actions always speak louder than words. Observing what a user does will give you a lot more information about your proposition than they ever could ever have told you about it.

5. Don’t jump to help a user straight away.

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In usability testing it can be difficult to watch a user struggle. It goes against every human instinct to not dive in and help the poor devil out.

However, whilst this may alleviate the awkwardness of the user flailing around for a couple of minutes, this struggle is what we need to see. We need to see how our products are creating pain points for our users. In order to identify these, we cannot jump in and/or be leading.

I have seen facilitators take a sharp intake of breath after a couple of seconds of the user struggling, cave in and either just lead the user to where they need to be or basically give the game away ‘Can you see a large red button to click?’

Try saying instead ‘Where else could you look?’ or ‘What is it that drew you to here?’.

This allows you to probe into what the user is doing, what they are looking for and why the product is so hard to navigate in the first place.

6. Parrot back what the user says.

Photo by Nery Montenegro on Unsplash.

I love this one. Use the user’s language to probe further into what they mean.

Here’s an example:

User: ‘Gosh I just find this so confusing. It’s too busy.’

Facilitator: ‘Busy?’

Just repeating back one key word of a user is very powerful. Repeating their one word back as a question ensures that the user will elaborate more. They’ll feel the need to justify their terminology and the shortness of the question will also prompt them to say more as well (no one likes being left sitting in silence, hence why the facilitator job can be so difficult when you’re not used to it). Using the user’s language also creates a sense that you’re on the same wavelength and builds rapport.

Most importantly, this also ensures that you are not being leading. You’re using their word. Winner.

Just be careful on this one with your tone. The tone you are aiming for is calmly curious. Confused or aggressive parroting will not get the user to open up, it will make them clam up.

Concluding thoughts

The key to successful user research is to observe and not intrude — you are here to watch the user and see how they use a product. Whilst this may feel unnatural to be so removed, it’s a crucial skill to learn and improve on to get the best insights on projects. I hope the above tips help you with your journey.

Do you have any more tips for facilitation or any anecdotes of success from your experiences when facilitating? I would love to hear about them in your responses.


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