In praise of Louis Theroux — Usability Testing God

Usability Testing God? Bit strong innit? I think the guy’s legendary — blazing a polite trail of insight since way back in the 90’s.

So why, do you ask, am I — a UX designer — bringing up the erstwhile Mr Theroux on my first full-blown blog? Simple really, I think the guy is the perfect role model for UX designers running usability testing sessions and interviews… In a nutshell, his style has a relaxed friendliness that some can find difficult to convey when pressing strangers for information. Question is, what can we learn from him?

Become a child

Louis Theroux is well known for putting across a naive, almost child-like appearance when interviewing. He comes across as curious, friendly and non-judgemental, meaning interviewees are far more likely to open up. I think it’s a great skill and something that all UX researchers should try to take on board.

Being curious is characteristic of designers in general and as a UX designer conveying that curiosity to a user is absolutely key. This leads to greater trust in you and consequently deeper insights into your subject matter. All of which will help you remain the badass UX designer you are!

Silence can be golden

What I find striking is when our Louis stops talking. Whenever I’ve seen it, it reminds me of a fellow UXer who once told me silence is a UX designer’s best friend. In my opinion and experience, he couldn’t have been more right.

When with a user, it’s natural for you to fill uncomfortable silences by speaking. BUT, if we resist, sessions with users can give you so much more than you’d expect. In the end, you’re letting them fill the gaps with what they’re thinking.

Louis sometimes does this at times of high tension. Risky, but effective. It’s like he’s facing off with an opponent. He floats an awkward question which has already been answered but he’s convinced there’s more to it. It’s a brave move — one that’s worth taking note of. Silence, combined with patience, is invaluable. It holds the potential to give you glimpses into users thoughts and feelings that you just cannot predict.

Use the right words to ask for more

Go-on… Continue. OK, I will. On the opposite end of the scale from the last point is Theroux’s use of “Continue” or “Go on”. Just as much as silence can be a weapon in digging further into the trust, urging someone to speak further can be just as powerful. It’s knowing what tactic to use when and who with.

All those W’s. Talking of W’s, learn how to say ‘Why’ in many different ways and without sounding rude… It’s the question you want to ask pretty much all the way through a usability test so there you go, there’s your homework! Sorry, slight tangent there… Onwards!!

Conversation, not questioning

Interviews are not natural situations. Our interviewees are as uncomfortable as we are — probably even more so — so let’s think of our man Louis and humanise the situation. The reason Theroux is so great is that he initiates conversations — framing questions in a way that doesn’t sound questioning and forceful.

So when you’re conducting a user interview or testing session, try to frame questions within the context of a friendly chat. Saying that — when you’re in the flow of that chat, be sure not to forget any questions!

Delve deeper with key interviewees

Like Louis, don’t be afraid to ask more insight from somebody already spoken to. It’s interesting that in his documentaries, he likes to return to a key figure in the story near the end. It gives him another chance to see if he can get further information from them — even if it’s awkward, heart wrenching or upsetting.

With UX, although a great interview is super-awesome, later on in the project you may need those users again. Whether it be for testing purposes or maybe even for further phases of the project — you never know! So always ask them whether they’d mind being involved in any future developments. User recruitment can be a pain so don’t squander those valuable humans!

So in conclusion, be more like Louis Theroux. Inquisitive, curious, polite, humble, non-threatening, patient and generally bloody nice!