7 Observation Room Strategies to Help Your Product Teams Hear Your Users

Posted by AnswerLab Research on Jun 21, 2018

When conducting studies, there’s always a backroom. Whether via tv screen or two-way mirror, it’s a great resource for building stakeholder engagement and, ultimately, buy-in for user-centered design changes. As a researcher, you should always encourage your stakeholders to observe sessions. But, just inviting them isn’t always enough. As a researcher, moderating participant sessions is your main responsibility, but moderating the backroom is often just as important.

Involving stakeholders in the research process helps them see user interactions firsthand and connect with the goals of the study in a concrete way. Product owners have competing priorities, and your research might not be the one getting the most attention. How do you show the long-term value of your research and partner with stakeholders to meet their needs and yours? Use the backroom.

Having a strategy for your observation room increases the influence of your research insights and keeps user needs at the forefront of the conversation. Here are seven considerations for your backroom strategy:

Set the objectives from the start

Start your day of sessions by meeting with your stakeholders. Remind them of the research objectives, talk through goals, and set expectations for the day. Remember you can use the physical space to cue your stakeholders by writing objectives on a whiteboard in the room or put them on sticky notes on the wall.

You can also use this time to make hypotheses and develop a decision tree. You might lay out possible design next steps based on potential participant responses and be prepared to make those design changes once you hear user feedback. Having these thoughts organized from the start ensures everyone is on the same page before sessions begin.

Encourage multiple-session attendance

Often stakeholders will only have time to observe one session, but there’s a danger in this. If they see a participant with anomalous views and form their opinion based on those observations, it can affect the synergy of the team and bias their interpretations. Encourage stakeholders to watch multiple sessions to ensure they get a well-rounded understanding of the participants’ responses.

Stimulate critical thinking

Affinity Diagramming is a method where you take large amounts of data and organize them into groups or themes. Have stakeholders write their observations of sessions on sticky notes and group them into clusters on the back wall in the room. This activity helps stakeholders pay close attention to the responses and categorize their thoughts into clusters to move forward with. By organizing the data into groups revealing the pain points, you can diagnose more complex issues that solve multiple user problems. 

At the end of the day, they’re more likely to be on the same page as a group because they can organize their thoughts as a whole, see where others line up, and come to a collective understanding. This also uncovers similarities among problems for multiple users and can identify future areas for growth. Get creative with colorful sticky notes to define thoughts from different observers or different participants. Small creative ideas like this can make all the difference.

Create a question policy

Asking questions during sessions can be a tricky process for everyone. To meet stakeholders where they’re at, you’ll want to include their questions in the conversation, but you must do so in a way that meets everyone’s needs from the product owner to the participant. Setting a policy for how to ask questions during sessions is helpful to make sure everyone’s on the same page. Here are a few different methods we’ve seen:

Save questions until the end

The benefit of asking observers to save their questions is it won’t disrupt the flow of the session. The drawback is that the participant may have forgotten what they said by the time a follow up question is asked. Or as they’ve gone through more of the session, their opinion has shifted or changed from their first impressions.

Pause after each section

This technique allows follow up questions following each section instead of at the end, keeping the topics at the front of the participant’s mind, but it doesn’t disrupt the flow of the researcher in the moment. As the researcher, you can structure your approach to include space for questions in this way. 

Ask in a stream of consciousness

Using this method, stakeholders send the researcher questions in an open chat window during sessions, allowing for constant follow-up and clarification. However, this can really disrupt the flow of the session. These questions could be a part of a later section or may be leading for the participant because of the quick follow-up.

Regardless of when they ask questions, remind stakeholders to wait after thinking of a question—take some reflection time to make sure it’s not a leading question, it’s relevant and worthwhile, and isn’t a topic being covered later in the session.


Bring in some help

If you really want to take a hands-on approach to your strategy, consider asking for a second researcher to help facilitate discussions in the backroom while you’re moderating. Not only can they guide the conversation, but they also add a helpful researcher’s perspective to the discussion while you maintain your primary focus on the participant. It’s a win-win for you and your stakeholders.

Stop and reflect

At the end of the day, it may be tempting for both the stakeholders and the researcher to wrap up quickly, but scheduling a short debrief session after your final participant is worth the effort. Ask stakeholders what were the top things they noticed, what themes emerged, and how they feel about moving forward with the design process.

Many stakeholders can leave with differing opinions of how things went, but this strategy regroups everyone immediately following the session to cover most important next steps and discuss how to make the research more actionable. It also stops any differing thoughts at the door and prevents designers from making immediate changes based on their own interpretations of how the day went.

And, let’s not forget stakeholder needs.

Keeping stakeholders engaged is about more than just exercises for the session. If possible, make sure the backroom has a good amount of space and some natural light. Bring in a white board for taking notes and have snacks to keep them focused. These little things can make all the difference in keeping stakeholders engaged in the process.

Need to transition your backroom experience to a remote environment? Learn more about our strategies for creating a virtual backroom. And if you’re looking for other ways to align stakeholders, check out Designing Impactful Research: Techniques for Meeting the Diverse Needs of Your Stakeholders.

Written by

AnswerLab Research

The AnswerLab research team collaborates on articles to bring you the latest UX trends and best practices.

related insights

stay connected with AnswerLab

Keep up with the latest in UX research. Our monthly newsletter offers useful UX insights and tips, relevant research, and news from our team.