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The Five Stages of Grief: Usability Test Observer Edition

I’ve been doing usability tests since the time and motion studies of Frederick Winslow Taylor. Or at least it seems that way. Over those many years, I’ve had plenty of observers who were just the opposite when it came to testing experience: greenhorns, tyros, rookies, newbies, usability test virgins.

They’re typically loath to admit it, but they give themselves away easily. They’re the ones who keep calling the test “the focus group.” Or the ones who spell usability with an “e.” You know who I’m talking about.

One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that every usability test newbie seems to go through the same predictable stages on the other side of the glass. So, with apologies to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, here they are.


This stage comes immediately after the first user and can, in special cases, extend past the first day. It is characterized by expressions of shock, disbelief, and often anger. Basically, the observer has not yet come to terms with the idea that their baby may not exactly be winning any beauty contests here. Lashing out—at the user, the facilitator, other team members, janitorial staff—is fairly standard. “Where do you get these morons from?” is a typical quote. Characteristic body language includes hands on hips or arms crossed across the chest.

Observers in denial are best handled sympathetically, but in a low-key manner. Simple listening and nodding of the head may be enough. They do, however, need to be encouraged to come back. “Well, let’s hope the next user is a little better,” is a typical verbalization to offer these observers.

NOTE: Extreme technical types may never get beyond this stage.


This stage comes after the second or third user or even later for particularly stubborn observers. At this point, the observer has come to terms with the fact that their baby has a few warts and maybe even crossed eyes. Some observers may in fact overreact, feeling that their baby is probably the ugliest baby in existence and they are the worst designers ever [wrenching sob]. Silence, downcast eyes, stooped shoulders, and a shuffling gait are typical.

Observers in the depression stage need plenty of active support. Pointing out easy fixes or the need for more data is suggested. A pat on the back, an arm around the shoulders, or the offer to fix a bagel with cream cheese from the spread in the observation room are not out of the question. Smug smirking and verbalizations, such as “I told you so, I told you so,” are contraindicated.


The acknowledgement stage comes roughly halfway through testing. It can be a very short stage, acting more as a bridge between depression and hypomania. Its fleeting nature illustrates well the basically manic-depressive nature of the first-time observer’s experience.

Telltale signs of this stage can be very subtle. The observer may, for example, wonder aloud “why we don’t move that button to the bottom” or “what would happen if we called that link x instead of y.” Observers often seem lost in thought when not muttering to themselves. During an actual test, with the observer out of sight and hearing, the facilitator may have the uncanny feeling that light bulbs are going off somewhere back behind the two-way mirror.

Observers in the acknowledgement stage need very little intervention of any sort. They are busy working their way through the process on their own. A wry smile and a slight nod of the head after one of their mutterings may be all it takes. They are still very much in a vulnerable position, however, so anything approaching gloating or triumphalism is definitely to be avoided.


At this stage, the observer is basically committed to usability testing and user-centered design, no matter how resistant they may have been at the beginning. Unfortunately, these newly found positive feelings are hard to rein in, and the observer may easily go overboard. Hypomania usually kicks in about two-thirds of the way through the test.

Signs of hypomania include wanting to redesign the entire system between the 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. users. The observer may also want to run another test next week (or even over the weekend), with twice the number of users and incorporating several other systems, as well as open and closed card sorts.

The observer is also now your best friend. You will be pestered constantly for your report and your ideas. He or she may want to discuss possible new designs over drinks. You should expect an invite from the observer on LinkedIn, if not Facebook. Personally, you may look forward to the next user so you “can be alone.”

At this point, the observer needs to be encouraged, but also handled in a very firm manner. They need to realize that there are other users and a report to put together, and that there are other tests and other observers in your life. Experienced facilitators make sure to limit coffee, soda, and sugary treats in the observation room at this time.

NOTE: Extreme marketing types may start directly in this stage and never get beyond it.


This stage typically comes at the end of the test. The high of the hypomanic stage is over and the observer is ready to wait for your findings, consider them wisely, and act on them considerately. In the future, they will readily seek out your advice, as well as the opportunity to test their designs at every step. They will now accord you the respect you deserve and have, in effect, become a seasoned partner with you in user-centered design.

…Yeah, right.

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