User Testing can be an art form. A performance that you repeat and replicate, over and over again. Any expert user tester has a finely tuned script in their head – a sequence of steps they rely on to welcome a participant, explain the research and put them at ease. This script develops and improves with practise and experience. Over time, an expert user tester also develops a rapid ability to assess the personality, confidence and comfort levels of participants – quickly identifying when extra time is required to put a participant at ease and ensure they feel happy and comfortable enough to be open, honest and behave naturally.
When considering what makes an outstanding user tester, it’s easy to only focus on their knowledge of research methods and overall experience working within a UX-oriented environment. However, there are some far more fundamental traits and abilities that can be the difference between an ‘ok’ user tester and one that truly excels in this type of research environment…
- Patient – Patience is about waiting for things to happen in their own time. In user testing, patience is vital for uncovering new insights into user behaviour. When a user gets confused or is struggling with a task, a natural response might be to help guide them back towards what you asked them to do. However, stepping back and taking a few moments to consider why a user is experiencing confusion and thinking about what isn’t clear enough in the digital solution you’re testing, can be incredibly valuable for learning where the user experience is failing.
- Approachable – When running user testing, it’s useful to think of your participants as customers. In the service industry, an unfriendly and hostile approach to customers can destroy a business. In user testing, it could seriously impact your findings. A user tester should convey their warm and friendly persona from the moment a participant steps through the door. This can do wonders for making a participant commit to the research and ensures they know that the fact that they have taken time out of their day to offer their feedback is both valued and appreciated. It can’t be underestimated just how much of a difference this can make to the findings you’re likely to obtain from a user testing session. If a participant senses that you’re not enthusiastic about the research, why should they give it their full attention?
- Observant – User testing sessions can be long, and it can be hard to stay focused when you know the website or app that’s being tested so well. However, an outstanding user tester stays observant and focused on exactly what a participant is doing. This is really important to do, so that when issues do arise, the user tester can immediately probe the participant for what is happening, what the issue is, and why. Being observant during the testing itself is also beneficial when it comes to analysing the videos and pulling out the key findings, as you will already have a good sense for when key moments have occurred.
- Flexible – It is an inevitability with any research project (particularly when technology is involved) that things will go wrong. Wi-Fi drop outs, unexpected system errors, and last minute changes to the interface you’re testing can all disrupt and change a testing session. Being a great improviser and being able to flexibly adapt to the situation at hand is therefore a really important skill to have when running user testing. When things go wrong, it’s important to quickly and intelligently respond in a way that means you can still obtain the maximum value possible from the session, despite the circumstances you’re now faced with.
- A Fantastic Listener – A user tester should always make the participant the central focus of the room. They are there to facilitate and guide conversation – particularly if a participant requires encouragement, but they should never lead conversation or speak over a participant. An outstanding user tester will not only be a great listener, but will also be able to withstand potentially awkward moments of silence long enough for a participant to be the one to continue talking and offering their opinion. If a user tester isn’t a good listener, it’s likely that the participant will sense this and as the session progresses will begin to talk less and less. If a user tester is a good listener, a participant will equally sense this as well, and as the session progresses will talk more and more openly.
On their own, these traits are not enough. An expert knowledge of research methodologies, UX principles and data analysis are just some of the other factors that are critical for conducting high-quality user testing. However, when it comes to dealing with real participants, face to face, an expert knowledge of research methods will be rendered entirely useless if you’re unable to connect and empathise with the person sat in front of you.