Physically Listening During Remote User Testing Physically Listening During Remote User Testing Mar. 6th, 2017 Donna Habersaat
A woodcut image of an ear against a switchboard.

Physically Listening During Remote User Testing

March 6th, 2017

There are many aspects to being a good listener, not surprisingly some of these aspects are physical actions. For a UX professional, these aspects may need to be exaggerated, over extended, or elongated.

Listen during Remote Research

When we’re doing remote user testing we use computer screen sharing and video broadcasting technology to watch our participants’ interactions without being in the same room as them. Most of the monitor space will display the shared screen in which both you and your participant will be able to interact. But in corner of the monitor, you will be able to see each other—similar to FaceTime or Skype. I want to talk about how to effectively communicate that you are listening during this kind of remote research.

Maintain Eye Contact

We have all heard that it is essential to establish and maintain eye contact when you are attentively listening. This is still important—perhaps even more important when technology is between you and your participant. But how do you do this when your face is no larger than two inches on a computer screen?

First be sure that you are getting the most of those two inches. Remove all distractions from your background. I removed all of my artwork and personal decorations that I keep in my office. I even removed office supplies and organizational cabinets. I do this because I want to appear as a blank slate to my participants, having no influence on them. I don’t want them investigating what I have behind me instead of listening to my instructions.

Next I move closer to the camera so that my head and top of my shoulders occupy the entire space. I have additional lights on each side of my desk that I turn on when conducting remote user research to ensure that my face is well lit. Since images always appear darker in video,It is much brighter than what I need to work; I use these lights for the benefit of the participant.

“I want to appear as a blank slate to my participants, having no influence on them.”

Any time I am talking to the participant, for example when I’m providing instructions for a task, I look straight into the camera. Not at the image of my participant in the corner of the monitor screen. Though it feels strange not look at the face on my participant on the screen, I know by looking directly into the camera the participant perceives that I am looking directly at them. I will also glance directly into the camera throughout the session particularly when I notice that the participant is looking at the corner of their monitor where my image appears. I know that they are looking towards me—usually for me to provide them with assurance that they are completing the task correctly. Though I don’t want to sway their actions or thoughts on how to complete the task, I do want them to know that I am focused on only them.

Honestly, while the participant is explaining to me how they would complete a task, I am busy capturing notes about what they say and do. I prefer to capture my notes through typing on the computer. On an additional monitor to the right of the shared screen and camera, I use another application to type my notes. The entire time my face is always looking at the camera, while my fingers are below the view of the camera, madly typing.

Use Gesture

There may be times that it is hard to hear or understand the participant. At times when they are deep in thought and completing a task they might mumble or talk softly. Before ever interrupting the participant to ask questions, I lean slight forward and move my ear closer to the camera. Now as you remember, the participant can only see my head and shoulders, so any slight movement appears grander. This slight moment will usually cause a reaction by the participant. They might clear their throat and restated what was just said. They might move closer to the camera and/or start talking louder. They might ask if I understand — with a pause for me — and then they will usually starts to explain again. If they missed that motion, I’ll bring my hand up to my ear, performing the classic symbol for not hearing by cupping my hand behind my ear. I have never had a participant miss this action.

“…the participant can only see my head and shoulders, so any slight movement appears grander.”

When a participant asks me questions, for example, asking “Are you able to hear me now?”, I will use the thumbs up/down hand signals. I try to use hand signals when I can so there is no chance I’ll speak over the participant. Also, I like to keep my microphone muted so that noise from my side won’t be a distraction to the participant. By the time I unmute my microphone the participant may be speaking again. Another hand gesture I use to refer to people is an open palm: for the participant an open palm will gesture towards the camera, for someone(s) other than the participant an open palm will gesture away and to the side of the camera. When I need to refer to both the participant and others together I will move my hands together and interlace my fingers. These gestures are great for confirming with the participant how they interpret or compare themselves with others.

Stay Active, Yet Neutral

Lastly, I want to mention how a lack of physical actions is also a technique. I mentioned before that participants will look for clues that they are completing the task correctly. It is important that we don’t guide their thinking with the usual “un-ahs” and head nods that occurring during conversations. Many times the participant will end their statement with their voice rising and a look to me instead of the product. They are looking for confirmation that they completing the task correctly. It is especially important not to influence the participant at these moments so I remain extra still and quiet. Through the lack of movement and vocal expressions, the participant will re-evaluate their statement and decide if they are committed to that statement. We usually hear them more confidently express their statement about what they are thinking. It is important for the participant to formulate and be confident in their statement before I ask and questions or confirm that I understand completely.

Be Patient

As I have performed more and more remote user testing using video sharing technology, I have learned these tips to help communicate with the participant with minimal interruption to the participant. Being still and quiet makes others feel more relaxed and at ease. I try to be conscience of my actions and communications while in workshops or meetings. Of course there is always room for improvement, at times I get very excited about the project I’m working on but I try to be mindful of my actions. Having patience with the participant and the technology is key. But you can still effective communicate with your participant. Do you have any tips or tricks for actively listening when you’re doing remote research? Let us know in the comments!

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