10 Golden Rules Of Facilitation

Jeff Sauro, PhD

Facilitation is a valuable skill for measuring the user experience. A good facilitator ensures sessions run smoothly, make participants comfortable, and extract the right data for even the most difficult scenarios, stakeholders, or participants.

Joe Dumas and Beth Loring wrote a great guidebook that is an essential read for anyone interested in facilitating a usability session.

Even though it’s almost a decade old, it’s still full of relevant insights, including the ten golden rules of facilitation. I’ve modified those rules slightly based on our experience facilitating hundreds of sessions a year at MeasuringU.

Good facilitation is more than following a script and rules; it’s knowing when and how to apply the rules and when to go off script to get the right data while balancing the needs of the stakeholders and participants.

1.    Adjust interaction based on the purpose of the study

Not all studies involving a moderator are created equal. You need to adjust your facilitation style (amount of probing, talking, and assisting) based on the study goals and the stage of product development. We facilitate sessions that range from very structured with an emphasis on metrics, to less structured and exploratory. Consider the level of involvement needed as a spectrum going from babysitter to therapist.

2.    Respect participants’ rights

Ethical treatment of participants has a long and sometimes dark history in the behavioral sciences. We’ve come a long way since Zimbardo’s prison; as the facilitator, you need to consider the rights of the participants.

Participants have to know they can stop at any time, ask questions, and speak up if they feel uncomfortable (a part of informed consent). Most studies are straightforward and painless for the participant, but can get complicated when participants need to make a purchase, log in to their accounts, or use other private information to complete tasks. Be sure participants have a general idea of what they need to do before they participate to minimize potentially uncomfortable situations.

3.    It’s okay to let participants struggle

It can be one of the more challenging things for new facilitators to get used to: not always intervening when participants struggle through tasks. Dumas and Loring call this a help to future users. Allowing a participant to struggle in a usability test will more likely lead to a usability fix, which saves countless other users from struggling with the same problem. This doesn’t mean you go Stanley Milgram on participants—you want to respect their rights—but a little struggling can be insightful for finding and fixing interaction problems.

4.    Remain in charge

Participants look to the facilitator as the person in charge. This means managing logistics, answering questions, dealing with disruptions, and keeping the sessions running on time. It also means dealing with the unfortunately occasional, uncooperative or distracted participant and keeping participants focused on the task.

We’ve had participants text friends and answer calls in the middle of sessions, clearly not paying attention; we’ve had others who were extremely late or in some cases crossed a personal line by making inappropriate comments. In such situations, the facilitator has to redirect and remind the participant to stay focused, and in rare cases be prepared to end the sessions early.

5.    Be professional

It’s okay to be friendly but you don’t need to try to befriend a participant. Keep a professional tone to your questions and probing. Participants will make mistakes and often get confused. Don’t say discouraging words or sigh. And, of course, don’t belittle or mock participants. If a participant is uncooperative, end the session gracefully (compensate them and don’t invite them back).

Facilitation is a demanding job and there’s usually plenty of other tasks to get done in the day, but don’t distract the participant by doing other tasks unrelated to the study (like being on your phone or computer). Sometimes it’s unavoidable (such as when your client or stakeholder need to get a hold of you immediately), but keep it short and professional.

6.    Let the participants talk

There can be a temptation, especially for newer facilitators, to want to break the uncomfortable silence and talk to the participant (especially if they are struggling). Talking is okay for the facilitator, but too much talking can impede your ability to get into the participants thoughts and allow them to uncover interaction problems. If facilitators could have a song it would be “I’ll shut up and you talk to me.”

7.    Intuition can hurt and help

Intuition in facilitation, like in life, has its powers and perils. New facilitators may intuitively speak to “break the silence”, offer help, or provide clues to participants (all intuitive response). Conversely, experienced facilitators know when to go off script if a participant needs assistance, and are able to let the participants struggle through an interface (helpful intuition)

8.    Remain neutral and minimize bias

Bias has a way of creeping into any study. It can be in the way questions are asked but also how facilitators answer questions. For example, participants often look for confirmation that what they are doing is right by looking for clues on their performance.

You can’t eliminate bias but you can identify and minimize it. While you don’t want to discourage participants, you need to remain neutral by minimizing praise. Facilitators should develop neutral reactions for both positive (successful tasks) and negative behaviors (task failures and usability problems).

9.    Don’t reveal info accidentally

While you don’t want participants to struggle and become unnecessarily frustrated, you also don’t want to reveal key functionality or steps for using an interface. Revealing information can be overt (through assisting or giving hints) or subtle, such as the timing and type of utterances you make after participant actions. I recall one participant years ago who told me they knew they did something wrong because I started taking notes!

10.    Monitor and manage your performance

It’s easy to form bad habits, like speaking too quickly, revealing information inadvertently, or not giving participants enough time to complete tasks. When possible, have a colleague monitor your performance and provide any suggestions for improvements. Or as painful as it may sound, watch video recordings of your own sessions for ways to improve. A good place to start is reading (or rereading) Moderating Usability Tests.

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