HAVE THE SUBJECT VOCALIZE THEIR THOUGHTS
During these types of observational activities, we ask subjects to “talk out loud” so we can know what they’re thinking.
It can feel strange to verbally share every thought one has, so we demonstrate.
We dramatize playfully such as, “Hmm, I need to find where to enter the date. Oh, there it is. Ok, so I’m putting in my departure date. Oh, I see I need to pick it from a calendar,” and so on.
Subjects generally understand pretty quickly and are usually willing to play along.
This method allows us not only to observe what they do, but based on their words, understand their thoughts, and based on their tone of voice and body language, infer their emotions.
In fact, some subjects did get emotional in our rental car study as they encountered obstacles and frustrations on various sites.
We also occasionally ask subjects questions during their task if we need more information. For example, there may be a key moment where the subject completes an action, an expression appears on their face that seems important to understand, and they completely forget to keep verbalizing their thoughts.
If you encounter this situation, and it seems like a good moment, it’s ok to ask, “I’d love to know what you are thinking right now,” or “Can I ask why you clicked on that? What were you expecting?”
The most accurate information about what someone is thinking or feeling is always extracted at the moment rather than later when they need to reconstruct that moment from memory.
The downside is that asking questions does pose the risk of pulling the subject out of their task.
So, researchers need to use their judgment during these types of observational situations and only interject when necessary.
ENCOURAGE THE SUBJECT TO STAY INSIDE THE TASK
You always want to avoid making the subject feel as though the observational session is a conversation with the researcher.
So, if you’re asking questions during the activity, it’s important to direct the subject back to the activity as quickly as possible.
Whether or not questions are asked, if the subject’s “talk aloud” turns into an explanation to the researcher of why or how they are doing something rather than their natural “stream of consciousness,” it is time to redirect them.
Remind the subject, “Just focus on the task and verbalize whatever you are thinking and feeling as you’d hear it in your own head. Afterward, I’d love to hear anything else you’d like me to know.”