Be the first to tell me this has never happened to you: You’re waiting for the elevator to get to your doctor’s appointment. You know you’re going to be a few minutes late and it is taking its sweet time. You realize after several minutes that it is NEVER going to come. Why? Because someone (you!) forgot to push the button!
A little thing like forgetting to push the elevator button, while innocuous, can have negative consequences, especially if it’s frowned upon to be even a few minutes late for an appointment. That minor flub like forgetting to press the elevator button because we are too busy thinking about a hundred other things, is similar to how I feel when I forget to press ‘record’ right before the start of a UX research session. Having to remember everything you need to do to prepare for research sessions can be daunting. Especially for those who don’t do it often enough. Tasks like testing the recording technology or checking that the prototype are in working order can be easy things to miss and can have serious consequences for a research project.
I recently trained a colleague of mine who is a product owner how to moderate research sessions and collect data. In the midst of getting her up to speed on the ins and outs of research I thought it would hugely beneficial to put together a UX research prep survival guide to make sure you’ve covered all of your bases. This guide will not only help people new to UX research prepare for sessions but will also benefit the UX research community as well.
The guide is divided up into 4 sections based on timing around the sessions:
1. Pre-session prep (preferably done on a day prior to the sessions)
2. Just before the session
3. During the session
4. At the end of each session
1. Pre-session prep:
● Review the hardware
○ Decide which computer you will be using for the sessions. If you need more screen real estate and you have a laptop consider plugging it into a large screen monitor.
○ Make multiple mouse options available for navigating the computer. Some participants prefer the trackpad while others prefer a mouse. Allow them to select which method they are more comfortable with.
○ Be mindful of how much hard-drive space is available on your session computer. This one is easy to forget! I remember once during a session when I was recording using QuickTime Player, I received a message that I was about to run out of disk space. A scary moment, indeed. Make sure you have enough disk space to save out your recordings. If disk space is scarce on your computer, consider cloud-based recording solutions. (It eliminates the disk space issue altogether!) Web conference solutions like BlueJeans and WebEx tend to have recording features that save them out remotely and can then be downloaded and viewed later.
○ Don’t forget to plug your computer in. Just as easy it is to forget to press the button on the elevator to have it pick you up, it is also simple to forget to plug in your computer into the wall. Don’t rely on your laptop battery to get you through the whole session. It takes three-and-a-half seconds (I timed it!) to get out your computer cord, connect it to your computer and plug it into the wall.
● Check your recording software
○ Make sure you have the URLs and credentials for recording software handy.
○ Remember to test it out before using.
○ Ensure intended microphones are set up, especially if you are using mics that plug into USB ports.
○ For activities that require your participant moving around a table to sort cards or co-design an experience, definitely use external mics. The internal mic on your computer may not pick up all of the dialogue going on during the exercise.
● Prepare interview and other note-taking guides
○ Make sure you have enough copies of the interview guides to cover all interviews. Print out extras just in case.
○ If you have a task list or scenarios for participants to read aloud make sure you have a copy printed out before the sessions.
○ Have extra pens in case your ink runs out while you’re taking notes.
○ Bring something comfortable to lean your interview guide on while moderating and taking notes. Usually a clipboard helps.
○ Keep any other note-taking guides handy. I use a quick shorthand to facilitate note taking. I keep a copy of my notation key next to me during sessions in case I forget some of the annotations and symbols.
○ Keep other items like counterbalancing sheets (if you’re randomizing tasks) readily available during sessions so you don’t forget to do it and to ensure you’re following your protocol.
● Prepare the prototype or other stimuli required for the sessions
○ Bookmark prototype URLs for quick access. Putting them on the bookmark bar where they are more visible ensures you won’t forget where you stored them. Storing them in a deep bookmark menu item ensures that you can’t find it as easily. Make sure that it’s as salient as possible.
○ Make sure you can login to the prototype if it requires a login. Browsers like Google Chrome normally have password saving features to eliminate the need to login each time you use a website. (You’ll want to use that to make your life easier!)
○ If you’re using physical stimuli like index cards or post-it notes, or other paper-based items, make sure that they’re aggregated together in a file folder or bag, and sorted in such a way that it will be easier to lay them out on the table just before the session. It also ensures you don’t leave anything behind, especially if you are traveling somewhere else to do the research.
○ Have a backup stimulus if you think there is a possibility that there may be technology glitches during the session. For example, if you think Internet connectivity may be an issue then bring a paper-based prototype with you. This is especially helpful if you’re less focused on performance and usability testing and more concerned about measuring their overall understanding of the concept.
2. Just before the session:
● Do any pre-session rituals
○ Meditate if it’s your thing. A former colleague of mine usually spends some time just before sessions by himself meditating so he can be refreshed and focused for his sessions. Doing a common ritual gets you focused and energized for sessions.
○ Caffeinate if it’s your “cup of tea.” Moderating sessions requires a tremendous amount of cognitive resources. Listening to others takes energy. Probing with follow-up questions requires thinking about the implications of what participants are saying. Caffeinating with coffee or tea or whatever stimulant you use to keep you focused and sharpened during the sessions can make the difference between getting through a long day of sessions that makes the day go by fast, fulfilled and inspired, or a day that drags on making you feel anxious, exhausted and never ending.
○ Scope out where the restrooms are located. This sounds strange, but if you’re doing research outside your workplace you want to make sure you know where the restroom is in case the participant needs to use it, or, in case YOU need to use it throughout the day. Knowing where it is located will help you better plan your bio-breaks if they are needed. (If it’s a six to eight hour day of research, you will surely need it!)
○ Empty yourself. Make sure you’re all “clear for take-off” just before your sessions. The last thing you want to do is stop in the middle of a session to take a bio-break.
● Administer permissions and disclosures
○ Have the participant sign and date the non-disclosure agreement.
○ Ask permission to record the session; assure them that the data being collected is not tied to their personal information and is only used for research purposes.
● Managing the recording software
○ Don’t forget to press record!
○ Don’t forget to share the screen so that it gets picked up by the recording software. If there are observers who are logged in then they are also going to want to see what is going on.
● Readying the prototype and other stimuli
○ Start off all sessions at the same place on the computer. I usually load up an empty result Google search page to avoid participants seeing the stimulus before they are supposed to. Showing them the prototype beforehand may give them an unfair advantage over other participants.
3. During the session:
● Do a quick “sanity check” on sound.
○ Ensure that the mic is sufficiently close to the participant. Move it closer if they are a low-talker. Otherwise, you may end up hearing the fading sounds of a participant during playback. A wasted effort.
● Ensure the participant is sitting comfortably with the mouse and computer.
○ If they look uncomfortable ask them what you can do to make them more comfortable.
● Keep guides handy during the session.
○ If you are having the participant do some tasks, always refer to any guides (e.g. counterbalancing sheets, task lists) to determine where to start the participant off. If you lose track of what is next on the task list always keep your task and counterbalance sheets near you for quick reference.
● Listen and watch for any basic needs from the participant.
○ Offer the participant some water during the sessions if you see them coughing or if they are fatiguing. Always make sure they are comfortable. Otherwise, they may want to rush through the sessions in discomfort leaving you with data points that are shallow in detail.
4. At the end of each session:
● Manage your participant list
○ Keep your participant list at the table next to you. Keep track of who showed up, who didn’t show up and who got incentives. You might end up paying someone twice or not at all if you lose track of who you did or did not pay.
○ Keep track of back-ups. These are the participants who want to do research but signed up for a filled timeslot. If your primary participant shows up then use them for future research efforts.
● Manage the prototype or other stimulus
○ Re-establish the initial page or condition in-between sessions. Always make sure participants are starting from the same place at the beginning of each session. You don’t want to introduce any variations in experience for participants during the research sessions. It may skew your data.
○ Have them complete any post-session questionnaires. If they are filling out the questionnaire at the same table where you are conducting the sessions then walk away from the table until they are finished. You don’t want to make them to think you are peering over their shoulder while they are trying to give you honest feedback about their experience.
○ Give them their incentive.
○ Smile and thank them. You want them to return again and leave the session on a positive note. Small things like a smile and a thanks might seal the deal for future participation.
○ Give them any follow-up recruiting paraphernalia. The UX research team which I am part of sometimes gives out business cards with URLs for participants to take an in-take survey. This is a longer survey which puts them into a research panel for future research efforts.
There is A LOT to remember when you’re trying to do so many things at once on Research Day. Being prepared is half the battle. Following this survival guide will ensure you can think about the things that matters most during sessions: having all eyes and ears on your participant to capture the key insights that your stakeholders are looking for.
Have any good tips for UX research prep? Tweet me @mmorganUX.