When a face-to-face chat isn’t best

  • Aim to meet the customer face-to-face
  • Pick a neutral location
  • Avoid recording interviews

1. Broader geographical reach

Back when I used to work as a journalist I was deeply aware of the risk of writing articles that might be London-centric, so took care to ensure I rang contacts across the country. But if you are a business trying to arrange face-to-face user testing near your office you will invariably end up speaking to a disproportionate number of users who are in easy travelling distance.

2. Reliance on user’s own devices

When you’re showing a user a digital prototype in your office or a fancy testing lab, chances are it’ll be on a decent computer, with an up-to-date browser and a strong wi-fi connection. When you see them testing at home (or in their workplace) on their own device, you’ll come across problems you may not have anticipated. These can include predictable-but-easy-to-forget matters such as them using a different screen size to the one you and your designers have been using. And then there are more specific problems, which for us have included the vagaries of schools’ firewalls.

3. The enforced “hands off”

I don’t think I have ever committed the cardinal sin of grabbing the mouse off a tester to show them how they should use a system. But any temptation to leap in and take over is removed when you can only give guidance through your voice. Your helplessness to intervene directly can also make you even more aware of the problems when they get stuck using a prototype.

4. Removal of body language cues

Part of the reason for doing user testing face-to-face is that you get to pick up on subtle signals from the user. But they can also pick up on the signals from you. I stress to the user every session that they shouldn’t worry about offending anyone by being negative and that actually critical comments are often the most helpful (I also intentionally mislead them by implying I’m not connected to the team that built the product). However, in a recent face-to-face user test I noticed that a user seemed more eager to praise the project than those I’d been chatting to by video — and it was my fault. Sitting next to him, I’d failed to conceal my delight when he rocketed through the system, using it exactly as we’d hoped. In the video tests I had found it easier to appear detached.

5. Visualising your user’s setting

Yes, it’s nosy. But getting a direct peek into our users’ homes and school does make it easier to visualise where they will use our products — the desk in their classroom where they will do a bit of extra lesson planning in a free period (and still get interrupted by a student) or the sofa where they will be half-watching TV while browsing jobs and news. It is a variant on the old technique of waiting in the store for a user who will buy your product and agree to let you follow them home to see how they use it. But, hopefully, a tad less creepy.

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Michael Shaw

Michael Shaw

Education technologist (and recovered journalist). Follow on @mrmichaelshaw