#UX101: How to facilitate a usability test

When you are facilitating a usability test, there are many different factors that you should keep in mind. These techniques will help you get the most out of your test and will prevent most awkward uncomfortable moments. Here’s those tips.


A lot of people who are facilitating a usability test feel they are “on stage” and they have to get everything perfect. Stop worrying. We are all human beings, and no matter how practiced and focused you may be, something will inevitably go wrong – either you will misspeak, or technical problems will occur. Roll with it.

It’s not about you

I’ve observed many usability tests where the facilitator does most of the talking, and these (novice) facilitators ended up providing a walkthrough of the design instead of a task-driven test of the ideas that the design reflects. This is the wrong approach – the facilitator should not be the focus of attention and discussion, the participant (and their reactions to the design) should be. Ask questions, but listen more than you talk.

Follow your script, but don’t read it out loud

I’ve watched people new to UX look at the test script as “sacred scrolls,” and they follow it to the letter. This has lead to awkward situations, when the facilitator ends up talking to the piece of paper instead of to the participant. The key is to learn and be comfortable with the test and the planned scenarios, but don’t read it verbatim… reading the script will get in the way of you from having a real interactive conversation with the participant. Those type of conversations often lead to interesting topics and insights that are usually “off script.”

Use Active Listening techniques

I first heard about active listening years ago, when I was a practicing journalist, and I think applying those techniques will absolutely help any usability test go smoothly. Among the many ideas discussed in Active Listening courses are:

  • Pay attention. Read body language to get a better sense of the person’s reaction.
  • Focus on the speaker. Show you are listening by nodding and leaning forward.
  • Let people finish. Don’t interrupt, let them finish their thought.
  • Don’t take notes. It prevents you from engaging fully in the conversation (Have a note taker nearby or observing remotely)

More details on Active Listening are here.

Reassure participants they are not being judged

One of the things I always make certain to do is to emphasize at the beginning of the test that the participants are not being judged or tested – what is being judged and tested is the design. This helps to reduce any possible stress they will be feeling (especially if they had never done any usability testing before – and most people haven’t). This will also prevent them from being self-conscious about their feedback, and when they don’t understand something they’ll be more comfortable saying as such.

Remind them that you aren’t the designer

Let the participant know that you did not design what is being tested, so that they won’t hold back negative feedback – many people are uncomfortable expressing criticism to someone they think did the work, but will freely criticize the work to someone else. By emphasizing that you are not the creator of the work, people will be more open and provide more feedback.

Keep things on track

Be mindful of the clock and try and keep the conversation on track. I always like to do a “dry run” of a usability test protocol with a colleague, to make sure I have allocated enough time for the topics and designs that  are being covered. This way you can adjust the test protocol before the first test and get a sense of “timing”. That being said, people are different, and because some people being more talkative than others… you may have to actively facilitate some tests more than others.

Don’t ask yes or no questions

If you ask yes or no questions, you will get… yes or no answers. You will gain no insight or understanding as to what you are covering. Ask “Why?” questions instead, to open up the topic to detailed conversations and understanding.

Be grateful 

Even though you are usually compensating test participants, thank them for their time – they had to change their schedule to make time for your usability test, and you should show gratitude. Don’t overdo it, though… you don’t want to make the participant think every piece of feedback is wisdom plucked from Mount Olympus. Thank them for their time and their feedback, but don’t gush.

Don’t flirt

This is an obvious point, but I have to mention it. If you find the participant attractive, do not act on that response. Be objective and don’t treat the usability test as a blind date (I’ve actually seen facilitators aggressively flirt in sessions, and it’s inappropriate and distracts from the task at hand).

Don’t beat yourself up when a test “goes south”

About every ten participants I encounter are what I call a “dud.” You either don’t get any additional insights, the participant lied to get into the test and are only interested in the compensation, or the person expresses opinions that are so “out there” they are a clear outlier. It happens. Don’t fret or get angry – just understand that the nature of usability testing will expose you to all types of people and some of them will not add a lot of value to your usability testing.


There you have it, some techniques that will help you run better more effective usability tests. The key is to start applying these (and other) techniques and START TESTING. It will make the work your team has done better, and will in turn make lives better for users.