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User research – what makes a good facilitator

Posted by Sophie Knight on Dec 14, 2023 11:29 AM

Research facilitation the ‘Web Usability way’ is grounded in adopting a user led approach. From our experience, the best facilitators are able to explore issues as they arise, probe on why testers do things and their reactions to the site, all while remaining neutral. 

Here is a breakdown of the factors we believe make up a good facilitation technique...

Preparation is king 

Before getting stuck into the research, it is essential to familiarise yourself with the project scope and objectives – what does the client really want to achieve with this testing? This will help the facilitator establish how they should explore the site with the tester and the questions that should be asked to surface the required insight. 

The facilitator will then crawl over the website under test and prepare a facilitation guide with a series of questions and tasks. We refer to this series of questions as a guide rather than a script – the best facilitators allow these questions to give structure to the research but let the session be led by the user. 

Ahead of the testing, it’s important to have a look at the tester profiles so you know who you are talking to. Get comfortable with testing set up – whether this is checking the setup for remote research or double checking the equipment for in-person research, preparation is king! 

Build rapport with the tester 

The best facilitators put the tester at ease right from the start of the session. 

Don’t rush the session introduction – this is when the tester is settling in: explain clearly what will happen and what the tester is required to do – emphasise that it is the site, not the person, being tested. 

Use the tester’s personal introduction as an opportunity to have a conversation with them, building rapport, putting them at ease and understanding their background and information needs that will help you frame the research. 

Neutral, non-directive and naïve  

We swear by the 3 Ns in our facilitation approach:

  1. Remain neutral – do not get defensive or protective about the site  
  2. Be non-directive (i.e. don’t tell testers where to go, even when it is obvious). Do not answer questions – throw them back to the tester “What would you expect?” 
  3. Ask open ‘naïve’ questions and do not venture an opinion  

Respond to issues as they arise 

The best facilitators are able to naturally explore issues as they arise. This can often result in the facilitator having to go ‘off script’, probing with unexpected questions, but ensures the session is much more insightful.  

The difficulty for new facilitators is knowing when to probe further. The trick is to always ask for more information when the tester says something unfinished or unclear. Follow up with an open, ‘naïve’ questions like ‘why do you say that?’ or ‘what makes you think that?’ to really get to the bottom of what a tester is thinking or feeling.   

Control the time, don’t rush the tester  

Adopting a user-led approach to usability testing does not mean the tester controls the session. This job sits firmly with the facilitator, but the best ones guide the session without interrupting the tester’s flow.  

Don’t rush the tester – don’t be frightened of silences! As Nielsen of the NNg says “It is in periods of silence where participants often offer crucial and most-poignant information”. But, at the same time, control the time and move the tester on to new tasks subtly. 

Thank the tester 

At the end of the testing, stop the recording and thank the tester – whatever feedback they’ve given!  

Finally, let’s recap our top tips for a solid facilitation technique: 

  1. Preparation is key – get familiar with the testing asset and the tester you will be speaking to
  2. Put the tester at ease from the get-go! 
  3. Follow the 3 Ns! Remain neutral, be non-directive and ask naïve questions 
  4. Be prepared to explore and respond to issues as they arise 
  5. Don’t make the tester feel rushed / pressured; equally, control the time 
  6. Make the tester feel valued – always thank them for their feedback 

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