Roles moderators play

Usability test moderators need to play several roles, such as ensuring the technology is working properly, ensuring the session runs to schedule and schmoozing the client. But the moderator’s most important role is to ensure that the participant is heard. With most test sessions lasting less than 90 minutes, this is one of a small number of opportunities that the design team has to understand how people use their product.

15 Tips for good listening

  1. Do try to read the participant’s “non-verbals” — inflections, gestures, posture and facial expression.
  2. Do work hard at overcoming distractions (such as problems with the recording equipment) that may interfere with good listening.
  3. Do try to stay with speakers who may be hard to follow — those who speak slowly, those whose ideas are poorly organised or those who repeat themselves.
  4. Do use non-verbal communication (eye contact, smiles, occasional head nods) to indicate that you want to hear more.
  5. Do re-state or re-phrase the participant’s statements when necessary so that the participant will know that you have understood him or her. A good way to reflect back is to begin a sentence with, “What I hear you saying is…” or “If I’m hearing you correctly…” or “Let me just check what I understand you’re saying…”
  6. Do admit it if you don’t understand something that the participant said and ask the participant to re-state it.
  7. Do avoid preparing your response to what is said while the participant is still speaking.
  8. Don’t just listen for the factual statements that a participant makes about the interface. These are important but just scratch the surface of what the participant is thinking. Also listen for feelings, attitudes, perceptions and values.
  9. Don’t just listen to what’s said. Participants often spend a lot of time saying nothing, even when you use the phrase, "What are you thinking right now?". You should also listen for what is not said since this indicates what is being taken for granted.
  10. Don’t interrupt. You’ll get your chance to voice your opinions when you contribute to the report. If you find yourself talking over a participant, bite your lip.
  11. Don’t fake attention. If you find yourself day dreaming, re-orient yourself and ask a relevant question that shows you are paying attention.
  12. Don’t tune out participants just because you think they’re dull. There are always nuggets of useful information, you may just have to work hard to find them.
  13. Don’t get distracted from what participants say by their style, mannerisms, clothing, accent or voice quality.
  14. Don’t allow a participant’s status to have any bearing on how well you listen to him or her. Every participant recruited for a usability test has passed the screener and so each one is equally important. It’s not your place to prioritise one participant over another.
  15. Don’t let your expectations — hearing what you want to hear — influence your listening behaviour.

What next?

I hope I’ve convinced you that listening is different from hearing. Your next step is to improve your listening skills, and the best way to do that is to practise listening. So pick one of the ideas in the list above and try it out when you next talk with someone.

About the author

Anna-Gret Higgins

Anna-Gret Higgins holds a BSc in Psychology and a PhD Counselling Psychology. She is a Chartered Psychologist and an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Anna-Gret manages the usability testing team at Userfocus and has logged hundreds of hours in usability tests of public and private sector web sites.

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