Observers are your friends


(This article was originally published on May 30, 2008. This is a refresh.)


Research that you do alone ends up in only your head. No matter how good the report, slide deck, or highlights video, not all the knowledge gets transferred to your teammates. This isn’t your fault. It just is.

So what to do? Enlist as many people on your team as possible to help you by observing your usability testing sessions. You can even give your observers jobs, such as time-keeper if you’re measuring time on task. Or, if you are recording sessions, it could be an observer’s job to start and stop the recordings and to label and store them properly.

The key is to involve the other people on the team – even managers – so they can

  • help you
  • learn from participants
  • share insights with you and other observers
  • buy in
  • reach consensus on what the issues are and how to solve them

Who should observe: Everyone

Ideally, everyone on the design and development team should observe sessions. Every designer, every programmer, every manager on the project should watch as real people use their designs. People on the wider team who are making design decisions should also observe sessions. I’m talking about QA testers, project managers, product managers, product owners, legal people, compliance people, operations people — everyone.

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Easier data gathering: Techniques of the pros

In an ideal world, we’d have one person moderating a user research session and at least one other person taking notes or logging data. In practice it often just doesn’t work out that way. The more people I talk to who are doing user research, the more often I hear from experienced people that they’re doing it all: designing the study, recruiting participants, running sessions, taking notes, analyzing the data, and reporting.

I’ve learned a lot from the people I’ve worked with on studies. Two of these lessons are key: Doing note taking well is really hard.

There are ways to make it easier, more efficient, and less stressful.

Today, I’m going to talk about a couple of the techniques I’ve learned over the years (yes, I’ll give credit to those I, um, borrowed from so you can go to the sources) for dealing with stuck participants, sticking to the data you want to report on, and making it easy to see patterns.

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Making it easy to collect the data you want to collect

As I have said before, taking notes is rife with danger. It’s so tempting to just write down everything that happens. But you probably can’t deal with all that data. First, it’s just too much. Second, it’s not organized.

Let’s look at an example research question: Do people make more errors on one version of the system than the other?

And we chose these measures to find out the answer:

  • Count of all incorrect selections (errors)
  • Count and location of incorrect menu choices
  • Count and location of incorrect buttons selected
  • Count of errors of omission
  • Count and location of visits to online help
  • Number and percentage of tasks completed incorrectly

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Data collecting: Tips and tricks for taking notes

A common mistake people make when they’re new to conducting usability tests is taking verbatim notes.

Note taking for summative tests can be pretty straightforward. For those you should have benchmark data that you’re comparing against or at least clear success criteria. In that case, data collecting could (and probably should) be done mostly by the recording software (such as Morae). But for formative or exploratory tests, note taking can be more complex.

Why is it so tempting to write down everything?

Interesting things keep happening! Just last week I was the note taker for a summative test in which I noticed (after about 30 sessions), that women and men seemed to be holding the stylus for marking what we were testing differently and that it seemed that difference was causing a specific category of errors.

But the test wasn’t about using the hardware. This issue wasn’t something we had listed in our test plan as a measure. It was interesting, but not something we could investigate for this test. We will include it as an incidental observation in the report as something to research later.

Note taking don’ts

  • Don’t take notes yourself if you are moderating the session if you can help it.
  • Don’t take verbatim notes. Ever. If you want that, record the sessions and get transcripts. (Or do what Steve Krug does, and listen to the recordings and re-dictate them into a speech recognition application.)
  • Don’t take notes on anything that doesn’t line up with your research questions.
  • Don’t take notes on anything that you aren’t going to report on (either because you don’t have time or it isn’t in the scope of the test).


Tips and tricks

  • DO get observers to take notes. This is, in part, what observers are for. Give them specific things to look for. Some usability specialists like to get observer notes on large sticky notes, which is handy for the debriefing sessions.
  • DO create pick lists, use screen shots, or draw trails. For example, for one study, I was trying to track a path through a web site to see if the IA worked. I printed out the first 3 levels of IA in nested lists in 2 columns so it fit on one page of a legal sized sheet of paper. Then I used colored highlighters to draw arrows from one topic label to the next as the participant moved through the site, numbering as I went. It was reasonably easy to transfer this data to Excel spreadsheets later to do further analysis.
  • DO get participants to take notes for you. If the session is very formative, get the participants to mark up wireframes, screen flows, or other paper widgets to show where they had issues. For example, you might want to find out if a flow of screens matches the process a user typically follows. Start the session asking the participant to draw a boxes-and-arrows diagram of their process. At the end of the session, ask the participant to revise the diagram to a) get any refinements they may have forgotten, b) see gaps between their process and how the application works, or c) some variation or combination of a and b.
  • DO think backward from the report. If you have written a test plan, you should be able to use that as a basis for the final report. What are you going to report on? (Hint: the answers to your research questions, using the measures you said you were going to collect.)