Alongside users

I really like this article: “Liberating Usability Testing” by Phil Carter of Auckland University of Technology.

I grabbed the march/april 2007 the ACM Interactions magazine off a stack in my house – a little reading after the kids fell asleep – and switched from skimming to reading when I hit this article because I have a user testing session coming up in mid-May, and thought it’d be good to stir my knowledge.

It includes a table with examples of interventions for eliciting verbal reflection from a participant during a “talk outloud” usability test, when, for example, the participant is only giving non-verbal cues in reaction to using the product being tested. The examples showed increasingly less-controlling interventions. The idea being highlighted was that many commonly recommended intervention statements (e.g. “What are you thinking?” and “Why are you frowning?”) trigger a constructive cognitive activity that, while probably eliciting the desired self-reflection, causes the participant to start searching for reasons for their behavior and thus gets in the way of their direct experience of their use of the product. The author suggests light-weight intervention, such as “Something’s up, eh?”, encouraging users to stay in their experience, and yet creating an opening for the user to naturally comment.

Then the author introduces the general concept that “being alongside the user” is a more honest and accurate approach to observing during a usability test. This is in contrast to the approach that encourages the interviewer to remain neutral – an approach that Carter suggests destroys genuineness and comes off as threatening to the user. Recognizing and respecting that an observer is in relationship with the observed frees both the observer and observed to create an open safe environment that encourages exploration and curiosity.

Then the article starts to get down-right transformational. “The relationship establishes a strong motivation for a truly ethical approach that can have an ongoing attention to the well-being of all.” Wow! This is not the usual usability ROI-speak.

Then he starts to talk about the initial introduction and warm-up phase of the usability test – when the observer first meets the user – as an opportunity to develop gratitude for the participant. So very cool. And “In addition, emphasize and clarify the value of the artifact during the warm-up phase so that the whole enterprise can take on greater respect and dignity.”

I really like this way of talking. It bridges the separation between work and the rest of my life. Usability testing where the words surrounding the activity shift to include words used to describe conscious awareness and respect for others. Buddhist awareness training through usability!


“Sit along side someone as they use something, and find out how it’s going: That’s usability testing. It’s that simple….. There is room for us to attend to what is actually happening. We avoid the narrowness of thinking we are dealing with the process of extraction – we are in a human process. We bring the human qualities of inquisitiveness and friendliness because they are most effective.”

Nice work Phil Carter.