The Facilitation Spectrum: From Babysitter to Therapist

Jeff Sauro, PhD

Facilitation is a valuable skill for collecting data from participants.

It’s used extensively with several methods including usability tests, in-depth interviews, and focus groups.

A good facilitator can ensure sessions run smoothly, make participants feel comfortable, and extract the right data in even the most challenging situations or with less-than-cooperative participants.

Not all studies involving a facilitator are created equal though. A good facilitator needs to adjust his or her facilitation style based on the type of study and particular research goals.

At MeasuringU we facilitate hundreds of sessions each year for different clients. It allows us to see a range of research goals and requests for different types of facilitation styles. Sessions vary from structured with an emphasis on metrics to unstructured and exploratory.

You can think of the facilitator styles needed for each type of study on a spectrum, from babysitter to therapist. The amount of talking, probing, assisting, and investigating the reasons behind actions and utterances depends on where your study is on this spectrum.

Identifying the role and expectation for the facilitator ensures you’re getting the right data to answer your research questions and helps studies run smoothly. Of course facilitators are well educated and skilled professionals. Part of the skill of good facilitators is knowing when to reduce their involvement and change their facilitator style based on the research goals.


For studies that are performance focused and scripted, the facilitator is often there to be sure the study runs smoothly. The research goals are less about uncovering reasons and more about observing and recording behavior. But like a real babysitter, if something goes wrong or unexpected in these structured studies, the facilitator needs to be able to troubleshoot the situation.

We have run large moderated benchmark studies where facilitators mainly babysat while participants followed scripts to complete tasks; facilitators only intervened when problems occurred. Even the metrics were recorded electronically. Participants thought-aloud if they wanted to, but they weren’t prompted to do so. There was also no probing or interruptions from facilitators, only short briefing and debriefing sessions and the occasional need to end the session when the tasks took too long.

News Reader

Some studies require more than a babysitter but still don’t require planned intervention from the facilitator. For example, in heavily scripted studies a facilitator reads questions and prompts and probes and records responses. In such sessions, the type of responses don’t vary much and don’t require judgment or deviation from the script; it’s sort of like reading the news from a teleprompter. But like the babysitter, when things go wrong the facilitator needs to be able to respond to questions and actions in the session.

We take on a news reader facilitation role when we’re collecting data in a moderated survey or when we’re running multiple rounds of usability testing where we’ve seen problems repeatedly and are looking to verify improved performance rather than identify problems.

Investigative Reporter

The facilitator acts more as an investigative reporter when a session is scripted with notes, questions, and hypothesis, but may need to deviate from the script from time to time to answer questions and explore behavior. This role requires more judgment and situational awareness than the news reader and babysitter roles. In this role, the facilitator needs to have done their homework on the product and user type and knows what questions to ask to answer the research questions.

This is the common role for the facilitator in a formative usability test to uncover problems as well as when conducting contextual inquires.


When there is a guide or rubric rather than a script, the interaction can be more like a teacher following a lesson plan. The facilitator needs to understand the domain, the user’s salient characteristics, and the research questions. The facilitator can deviate from the script to address research questions and react to behaviors.

This is often the role we take in an in-depth interview or in an early stage usability test where we won’t know the type of problems we’ll encounter. While the same topics will be covered (like a lesson plan), the type of questions and actions are likely to change from participant to participant.


When there’s not a script or guide, only broad research questions, the facilitator needs to act more as a therapist. In this role, the facilitator probes comments to uncover root causes, which allows participants to go deep into topics. What may seem like a tangent can turn into an important insight. Each participant session will likely vary in the types of conversations, actions, and insights.

The facilitator needs to address research questions, help refine hypotheses, and uncover new research questions to explore. These can be the most challenging types of sessions and require careful attention of a facilitator.

We see this role when we’re conducting generative research, such as in new products or features, exploratory in-depth interviews, or usability tests that are in the early stages of interface design.

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