The soft skills of user testing

So much research has been written about how to conduct the ‘perfect’ user test. How to write the most comprehensive brief and how to be prepared for every testing eventuality. Which is all well and good. It’s valuable information and important to know.

But what about the kind of characteristics you need to be a good tester? What qualities do you need to get the most out of your participants?

On this…I found very little. And in my years of testing, I’ve come to realise that it’s these testing traits that can determine how successful your output is. …and how successful your output is can determine if you get paid by your respective client or not. So yeah, it’s pretty important stuff.

I feel that the following quote sums up the premise of this blog perfectly:

“The quality of a usability session is directly related to the rapport you build with the participant” (Smashing Magazine)

I think this is all too often overlooked.

We all know that observation, understanding, and analysis should be the three key skills employed by effective UX testers. But if the ‘understanding’ isn’t there, then surely that makes the analysis pretty near impossible?

That’s why I wanted to provide my own perspective on ‘understanding’ the user based on what I’ve observed during my testing sessions.  A look at the soft skills that are essential for a moderator. The personal characteristics that make some people more suited to the role of user researcher than others.

So here goes…


Curiosity killed the cat (but made the tester’s job a heck of a lot easier)

A good user researcher needs to be curious.  Curious about people. Curious about problems. Curious about how to fix those problems. I take inspiration from my 4-year-old son during testing… and am perpetually asking my users ‘but why?’. ‘But why did you do that?’ ‘But why do you think that?’ and so on. (It’s really not as annoying as it sounds).

I do this because I am genuinely inquisitive by nature. I like to know what’s going on in people’s heads.  I really do want to know why a user dislikes a CTA or is tuned off by a landing page.  And that trait is really valuable when it comes to user testing. So as it transpires I’m not actually a nosey person … just an effective user tester.


Friendliness (it’s nice to be nice)

When a session starts, the participant might be nervous and unsure about what to expect. So, it’s important to try and help them feel relaxed. A smile, a handshake, a question about their morning journey / the weather / if they loved/hated the GOT ending etc … really can help to put someone at ease. Sometimes this ordinarily mundane conversation can make a participant feel more comfortable. And break down that participant > moderator barrier. Making it more natural for them to open-up. (Which is the whole point of the test).

So, if you want to be a good tester it really helps if you like people.


Patience really is a virtue

As much as I love testing (and I really do), patience and tolerance are so crucial to the success of a test. A client once said to me after watching 6 of my back-back sessions that they saw no difference in my approach between the first test and the last test. And this really stuck with me. Each session requires the same level of interest, attention and care as the last. Each answer a user gives (no matter how many times you’ve heard it), requires the same degree of enthusiasm from your response.

And that’s why patience is essential here.  As it can be a bit like ground hog day asking very similar people the same questions about the same website / product / service or setting the same tasks….over and over. So you either need to have the patience of a saint … or at least be able to fake it.


Adaptability (the key to survival according to Darwin)

In my experience, each user test requires a different approach. I don’t mean a new set of testing questions or objectives.  I mean being able to adapt your moderating style to match the needs of your participant.

No user test should ever be set in stone. As long as you remain focused on your end objective, an effective tester must be able to modify the way they engage with participants. If a user is quiet, and less responsive… you may have to work that little bit harder to extract information from them. I do this simply by sounding really interested in everything they say. Validating their responses so they feel confident to offer more information. A lot of ‘wow, that’s a great point’ and approving head nods can go a long way.

And for those loquacious participants… just sit back, listen, soak it all up. But be sure to guide them back on track if they start telling you about their best friend’s dog.

Really what I’m saying is you are the moderator, it’s your job to adapt your personality and approach to suit the needs of the participant. In order to get the most from them.


Empathy is the best policy   

As a moderator it’s so important to empathise with your participants. And not just when the ‘test’ officially begins. But right from the start, I mean the minute the participant walks in. Ask them how their morning was. And if it was horrendous, as the kids were a nightmare, it was raining on the school run etc, offer a sympathetic response. And if possible, relate ‘Oh yes my kids were horrendous this morning too.” It will just help the participant to see that you’re on their level.

User empathy is really important too. Seeing problems and experiences through the eyes of users. Putting personal opinions and biases aside by looking beyond your own experiences. And really trying to see and understand what the user is seeing, feeling and thinking (even if you disagree). Afterall, we want to produce a website /product /iteration that our audience loves, so empathy at this stage is critical.


I guess what I’m really trying to say is that whilst the hard skills of user testing are essential (the planning, the testing brief, recruiting the right participants etc), the soft skills are equally as significant to a session’s success.

There’s no point putting in all of the hard work and effort in to create a perfectly planned user test if you’re not armed with the soft skills needed to extrapolate the information.

And assuming you’re prepared and have recruited well, your participants will have all of the answers you need.

So, my advice to you would be this – make them your best friend for the next hour or so. And they’ll tell you everything. And probably a whole lot more too.