— 14 August 2007 —

How to Be A Good Usability Test Participant

There’s plenty of articles (yes, those are still written sometimes) and posts about how to run a usability test, but what about information for the poor people who have to be the participant? The testee? The rat? They get nothing. Until now. (And since I haven’t googled this topic, I can still safely make that assertion.)

Step 1: How To Find A Usability Test

Search Google for Usability Test and Usability Study.

Search the Craigslist in your area.

Come to this site because I just now thought it would be a good idea to offer a page for companies to list usability studies. Contact me if you are interested.

Step 2: How Not to Seem Like a Nut Job

When you fill out the form to get your name in the hat, be honest. Nothing irritates the people in the lab coats more than being told they’re getting an engineer with 20 years experience only to find out they got a 20 year old engineering student. If you are a 20 year old engineering student, say so. There are hundreds of studies taking place every day and you are bound to match the profile of a few of them just by being who you are.

That said, consider generalizing some of your experience. You may not own an MP3 player (oh who am I kidding… an iPod) but you spend a bunch of time down at Best Buy thinking of ways to not look conspicuous as you fondle the scroll wheel. You don’t have to own something to know a lot about it. Often participant forms will ask about questions in terms of “Do you own/have a …” Generalize.

Generalize, but don’t lie. Many studies want your perspective as a “potential buyer” or someone with no experience whatsoever in the realm of what they are testing. This is often called “warm body testing.” Testers sometimes just want to see if any n00b can get through a workflow. You could be that n00b!

Testers also sometimes look for Contrarians: people who hate the product they’re testing. Do you hate Microsoft? That could get you a gig as a participant at… Microsoft! Testers try to not bias tests, but realistically there’s always bias. Noting the bias is the important part. And sometimes if a tester can get a harshly biased person through a workflow efficiently and effectively (you’ll still likely say you hate it though — that’s experience talking) all the better for them. And in the end, they’re just doing this to make themselves feel better about what they designed.

Step 3: You Are Not Being Tested

Speaking of feeling better… Once you are selected to participate you need to think in terms of how to please the people in the lab coats.

Start off by showing up ahead of time. Not on time. Not late. If you are going to be late, call. Once you’ve agreed to be a participant, you’ve made a commitment. There’s a lot of work that goes on to set up a test (at least that’s how the tester feels) and it’s hard to reschedule these things sometimes. Especially if there’s a lot of people who decided to show up to stare at you from the safe side of the one-way window.

Those testers are going to hate me for telling you this, but they are all severely fragile and the tiniest frown from you during a test will send them running to the couch of the nearest therapist. But you need to look beyond this. In the long run, they need a bit of ego bashing in order to make them better people. Go into this with the mindset of being brutally honest. Like something? Say so. Hate it? Let it out! Confused? Pause and ask a lot of questions.

The testers will tell you that you are not the one being tested. To an extent that’s true. The purpose of the test is not to find out how well you do, but to find out how well the interface (in its broadest sense) does at communicating to you what you should be doing.

Likely, if something doesn’t go right in the test it isn’t your fault. Don’t get stressed out. You are not dumb even though that’s likely how you feel. But here’s the important part: you need to tell the tester that you feel dumb. Then tell them your ideas as to how they might go about not making you feel dumb.

Many tests use what is called “Think Aloud Protocol.” This is where you are expected to say each and every little thing that comes to mind, when it comes to mind. Just try to keep it related to the context of the test.

The biggest aggravation testers experience is being faced with a participant that won’t talk. If you notice you aren’t talking, just say what you are thinking or doing. “I am moving the mouse around the screen because I can’t figure out what I am supposed to do next.” You will fill the tester’s heart with glee when you say this.

Step 4: What’s In It For You

Beyond building up the fragile egos of lab coat-wearing xenophobes (they don’t get out much), don’t get into the Usability Test Participant industry without knowing what’s your take on the job. Many companies offer schwag, or cash, or free whatevertheyaretesting.

Never do a test that isn’t compensated somehow. Get, in writing (email is fine), what the pay out will be. Some companies pay for your travel expenses (within reason) plus the stipend for doing the test. If you need to take a cab or subway, ask if they will compensate you for that too. It doesn’t hurt to ask. Usually these people will be so hard up for participants that they’ll send you though college just to get your feedback on their new design for a door knob. Well, maybe community college.

You are providing a service. A valuable one. Said company may go on to make millions off your recommendations; cash in on their soon-to-be good fortune. In places like San Francisco and New York City, I’d expect you to be able to get compensation worth $150 (that’s $50 cash plus a $100 t-shirt). It’s going to vary based on where you live. If the cost of living is high, so should be the compensation for sitting through a test of the next VC-funded, AJAX-powered, rounded-cornered, social-networked, Google Ad revenue-based web application.

Keep in mind also that this is a networking opportunity. You’ve just finished the test and are wrapping up the debriefing session. The tester is reaching for the t-shirt and cheque. This is where you chime in to say, “This was really enlightening. Do you know of other studies I could participate in?” If they don’t have any upcoming tests, ask if they know of other companies. These testers are connected professionally and would likely be very willing to “do a favor for a friend” (they’re own, not you) by hooking them up with a good participant.

Insert Catchy Wrap-Up h3 Here

Start by following these steps and you’re sure to be on your way to a career in the Usability Test Participant industry! Let me know in the comments if you have other ideas for how to be a good usability test participant.

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