Your (Super Important) Role as a Usability Study Observer

You may not be the usability test facilitator, designer, developer, or business analyst, but as a business stakeholder, your participation is critical to the success of the usability study. Yes, you.

As a subject matter expert in your area, you know things NO ONE ELSE on the team knows.

Your unique perspective and knowledge allows the facilitator to better collect and analyze the data.

First, What Is a Usability Study?

Usability studies are used to evaluate a website by testing it with actual end-users. This process gives direct input on how real audiences use the website. Participants perform specific or open-ended tasks, then we listen and watch as the user attempts to complete their real-world goals.

Test participants are encouraged to think aloud, so we can understand their thought process and areas of frustration.

It’s important to not jump to conclusions after a single test session. Each participant will identify several, if not dozens, of “issues” no one else experiences.

After 3 sessions, themes will begin to emerge.

By the fifth session, it will be clear which areas of the site or app cause the most confusion.

When testing 8 or more participants, usability test results have been proven to reveal 95% of all issues for the given tasks. However, due to the small sample size, any market research — such as attitudes, perceptions, and future intent — will be directional only.

My Typical Usability Session Format

For more about my usability testing process, start here.

  1. Introduce a general overview of the project to the participant
  2. Ask a few ice-breaker questions
  3. Explain the “think aloud” methodology
  4. Provide realistic tasks for the participant to complete
  5. Ask follow-up questions after each task
  6. Lead recap sessions with the observation team

The observation team might sit behind glass in a usability testing facility or in another room at the client’s site.

What’s a Recap Session?

After each usability session or few sessions, the facilitator leads the observation team (that’s you) through a recap session.

  • What did you hear?
  • What did you see?
  • What was surprising?

Often, you will hear participants say things like:

  • “I think it should be…”
  • “I want…”
  • “Most people…”

Be careful not to translate preferences into usability issues. Just because a few people don’t like the color blue doesn’t mean it’s an issue. See my market research disclaimer above.

The purpose of the recap session is NOT to begin solutionizing. Rather, the goal is to help the facilitator:

  • Have a shared understanding of the usability issues
  • Take note of observations they themselves didn’t observe
  • Understand where within the site/app to probe further
  • Alter tasks to better get at the root user goal

3 Important Rules for Observers

1) Know Your Participants

Become familiar with participant profiles to better understand his/her experiences, background, level of expertise, and demographics.

Keep in mind that the usability study is testing the website or app, not the user’s abilities or knowledge. The tester cannot fail, only the website can fail.

2) Listen & Observe Carefully

Focus on the test participant’s frame of reference and thought process, and less on their specific wants and needs. Listen to their questions and overall impressions.

Take careful notes during the test to discuss with the project team, but do not worry about translating findings into solutions at this stage.

If you’re testing in person, behind one-way glass, don’t make any comments or sounds during the session. One-way glass isn’t sound proof. The participant will be able to hear if observers burst into laughter.

3) Do Not Speak About the Test Outside of the Observation Room

If you will be in the same building as the participant, do not speak about the test outside of the observation room. Participants might overhear you in the hallway, lobby, or restroom.

Related Articles

The 5-Step Process I Use to Plan + Conduct Usability Studies
10 Mistakes to Avoid When Conducting a Usability Study
What to Usability Test First
Are 5 Usability Testers Really Enough?

Author: Kristine Remer

June UX is led by Kristine Remer, a CX / UX research and strategy consultant in Minneapolis. She helps companies drive significant business outcomes by finding and solving customer problems. When she's not creating customer journey maps and user personas, Kristine is either kayaking or watching her kids play soccer.