Just follow the script: Working with pro and proto-pro co-researchers

She wrote to me to ask if she could give me some feedback about the protocol for a usability test. “Absolutely,” I emailed back, “I’d love that.”

By this point, we’d had 20 sessions with individual users, conducted by 5 different researchers. Contrary to what I’d said, I was not in love with the idea of getting feedback at that moment, but I decided I needed to be a grown-up about it. Maybe there really was something wrong and we’d need to start over.

That would have been pretty disappointing – starting over – because we had piloted the hell out of this protocol. Even my mother could do it and get us the data we needed. I was deeply curious about what the feedback would be, but it would be a couple of days before the concerned researcher and I could talk.

This was a protocol for a usability test of county election websites. It was just before the November 2012 Presidential election, and Cyd Harrell and I wanted to seize that moment to learn where voters looked for answers to their questions about elections, and whether they were successful finding useful, clear answers that they could act on. There was a tight window to conduct this research in. We had wanted to do as many individual remote moderated usability test sessions between the end of September and Election Day as we could manage. We needed help.

Fortunately, we had 300 new friends from a Kickstarter campaign and a roster of UX researchers collected over the years who we could call on. Amazingly, 30 people volunteered to help us. But not all were known to us, and many told us that they had not done this kind of thing before. There was no way we were going to turn away free labor. And it seemed important to include as many people in the research as possible. How were we going to train a bunch of (generous, awesome) strangers who were remote from us to do what we needed done?

Clearly, we needed to leave no room for error. So, even though the study participants would be exploring as they tried to find answers to their questions on county election websites, this would not be an exploratory study. Cyd and I agreed that we needed to design support into the research design. (We also agreed that we wouldn’t allow anyone who didn’t do the training to conduct sessions.)

Focus on the research question

Everything in a study should be done in the service of the research question. But it’s easy to lose sight of the Big Question when you’re planning logistics. So, in the same way that I’m constantly asking every team I work with, “What do you want the user’s experience to be?”, Cyd and I kept asking ourselves, “Does what we’re planning help us answer our research questions?” We had two questions:

  • What questions do voters have about elections and voting?
  • How well do county election department websites answer voters’ questions?

We developed an instrument for our volunteer researchers that combined a script with data collection in a SurveyMonkey form. (SurveyMonkey, as you might have guessed from the name, is a tool for setting up and conducting surveys.) SurveyMonkey wasn’t meant to do what we were making it do, so there were some things about the instrument that were clunky. But pilot testing the instrument helped smooth out the wording in the scripted parts, the prompts for the data collection, and the order of the questions and tasks.

Pilot test and then pilot test again

I wrote the instrument and did a dry run. Cyd tried it out. We made some changes. Then Cyd asked her mom to try it. We made some more changes. Whitney Quesenbery joined us, tried the instrument, and gave us feedback. We got one of the volunteers to try it out. We made even more changes. After about 6 pilot tests of the instrument, we decided it was ready for our volunteer researchers to be trained on.


To train our volunteers, we scripted a walkthrough of the instrument, what to do and what to say, and then delivered the training through GoToMeeting in 45 minutes. We held several of these sessions over a few evenings (a couple of them quite late Eastern Time to make it possible for people in Pacific Time to attend after regular working hours). The training demonstrated the instrument and gave volunteers a chance to ask questions. Anyone who wanted to conduct sessions with participants was required to attend training. Of the 30 people who originally volunteered, 16 attended training and ended up conducting sessions.

Snowball rehearsals, pairing pros with proto-pros

There were a few volunteers who looked like pros on paper, but none of the core team knew them and their skills. So Cyd or Whitney or I paired with these folks for a session, and if they did well, they were allowed to do sessions on their own. There were still a few people who weren’t user researchers at all, but who were interested in learning or who had other kinds of interviewing experience. We paired these people, who we called proto-pros, with approved pros to take notes or to do the data collecting while the pro conducted the interview. Some of them graduated to doing sessions on their own, too.

And this, my friends, is how we got 41 30-minute sessions done over a few weeks.

Office hours

Cyd and I also made ourselves available online to answer questions or address issues through Campfire, a closed group chat tool from 37Signals. We invited all the volunteers to Campfire, and sent out notices by email of when we’d be holding office hours there. A few volunteers did indeed have questions, which we could then clarify right in Campfire and then send out answers by email. Nothing came up that meant changing the script.

Check the data

Every now and then I wanted to know how many sessions we’d done, but I also wanted to make sure that the data was good and clean. Because the instrument was set up in SurveyMonkey, I could go look at the data as it came in. I could tell who had collected it by the participant numbers assigned, which used the researcher’s initials along with the date. This way, if I had a question or something didn’t seem right, I could go back to the researcher to correct the data. Fortunately, we never needed to do that.

A solid script focused the session

So many interesting things happened as we observed people trying to find answers to their questions on their own county election websites. We learned about what the most-asked questions and how people asked them. We heard what people had to say about whether and why they had or had not been to the site before. And we learned whether people found the answers to their questions.

We did not track where they went on the way to finding answers or giving up. And that is what the earnest volunteer researcher had wanted to talk about. “Can’t we add some fields to the data collector to put in notes about this? People get so lost! Some of these sites are train wrecks!” she wanted to know. My answer: “It’s fascinating, isn’t it? But, no.” What would we do with that data over 40 or more sessions? It wasn’t as if we were going to send feedback to every site. I reminded her of the research questions. “We want to know whether voters find answers, not how they find answers on the sites,” I said. “But if you want to take notes about how it happens, those notes could be helpful to understanding the rest of the data. And I can’t tell you how much the whole team appreciates you doing this. We don’t want you to take on extra work! We’ve already asked so much of you.”

Whew. No need to start over. “You’ll get to do more sessions within the time you have available,” I said, “If you just stick to the script.”

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Hi, Dana. What a great post! Were all your field teams pairs of people, or were they bigger than that? If they were bigger, how much bigger?

Hi Wayne,

All of the teams were pairs. We paired people mainly for the purpose of training one of the people in the pairs. The experienced person in the pairs was usually someone who could easily have done the sessions themselves, but was game for helping someone else learn.

One reason for keeping the teams small was purely logistical. Everyone was remote from everyone else. Coordinating times to do sessions between two researchers and then bring in a participant was really really really challenging. And then Hurricane Sandy happened, and many of the researchers and participants who had signed up ahead of time were taken off line by losing electricity or Internet or both for a week or more. We had to ask volunteer researchers to do more sessions and we had to start over on recruiting participants.

I’d like to repeat this study. I think I would do the same thing again — have people work in pairs — because I think both the pros and the protopros enjoyed working that way. I hadn’t thought of making the teams larger until I saw your comment. It might be a way to get more data faster.

If we were to use larger teams, I think we might make each more autonomous. For example, we’d have them do their own recruiting rather than working from a central list. I have no idea how we might make sure that each team ended up with a good, diverse, and appropriate sample, though. I’ll have to think about that.

One dynamic that worked in our favor but was also a disadvantage in some ways was that everyone involved was volunteering their time. Fortunately, everyone who ended up doing sessions was keen and professional. And we tried to set the work up in manageable time chunks so someone could give us an hour or maybe two and be done. I’d have to think about what might be different in a corporate setting if I were going to try something similar.