User studies are often a little bit like improv. While a loose script does exist, all involved are constantly adjusting to the words and reactions of the protagonist — the user. Improv is tricky, but user studies can get even trickier because you deal with not 1 protagonist, but 5-6 of them, back to back. It's almost like repeating the same play, but with a different storyline every single time. The challenge though isn't having to deal with different stories, but maintaining a consistent set of situations for users so as to be able to draw patterns. Such an ambiguous situation obviously calls for a few prerequisites:

  1. The Screenplay

  2. The Actors

  3. The Stage

Part 1: The Screenplay

By now, we already have a research goal, user tasks and a complementary prototype ready. Our next step, is to seamlessly weave them together into a 3 part act —

Act 1: The Exposition

In theatre, The Exposition sets the premise of the play. Likewise, our goal is to understand our users background, get them comfortable and introduce them to the purpose of the study.

We begin by crafting a warm introduction and a few opening questions. Our aim is to get the users comfortable so these questions need to be impersonal and casual.

Next, like most good plays, we need an inciting incident — a catalyst that leads us into Act 2. For example, if we are working on an events app, we may ask “So what do you do in your free time?” and follow this up with “How often do you attend events?”. This creates a segue from a casual conversation to the subject of the study.

Act 2: The Complication

With our Exposition ready, we need to flesh out our narrative. In Act 2, we orchestrate several tasks for our protagonist to perform and explore.

Our aim here is to ensure that users stay natural. Over time, we’ve realized that the answer to doing this is the same as making a relatable play — recreating reality.

To do this, we turn to scenario-based tasks. If possible, we try to get them to enact the task, for example —

<aside> 👀 An experiment - Use QR code to transfer money. Task - You just purchased a few things from a street vendor. He would like you to pay through UPI.


To add a touch of reality, we complement this activity with a QR Code card. We then design several other tasks similarly and knit them together as a story. Now, we ask several open ended questions — even when the answers are binary (yes/no). For example — "Do you like this feature?" could be rephrased to "What about this feature feels good or bad?". This encourages conversation and keeps our users engaged.

The Resolution

Finally, it’s time for the climax — a summary to tie together the entire session. To quickly sift through the entire session, we ask a couple of debrief questions like the ones that follow: