Researcher as director: scripts and stage direction

For most teams, the moderator of user research sessions is the main researcher. Depending on the comfort level of the team, the moderator might be a different person from session to session in the same study. (I often will moderate the first few sessions of a study and then hand the moderating over to the first person on the design team who feels ready to take over.)

To make that work, it’s a good practice to create some kind of checklist for the sessions, just to make sure that the team’s priorities are addressed. For a field study or a formative usability test, a checklist might be all a team needs. But if the team is working on sussing out nuanced behaviors or solving subtle problems, we might want a bit more structure.

A couple of the teams I work with ensure that everything is lined up and that *anyone* on the team could conduct the sessions by creating detailed scripts that include stage direction. Here are a couple of samples:

Whether the team is switching up moderators or it’s the same person conducting all the sessions, creating a script for the session that includes logistics is a good idea:

  • think through all the logistics, ideally, together with the team
  • make sure the sessions are conducted consistently, from one to the next
  • back up the main researcher in case something drastic happens — someone else could easily fill in

Logistics rehearsal

When you walk through, step by step, what’s supposed to happen during a session, it helps everyone visualize the steps, pacing, and who should be doing what. My client teams use the stage direction in the script as a check to make sure everything is being covered to reach the objectives of the sessions. It’s also a good way to review what tools, data, and props you might need.

Estimate timing

Teams often ask me about timing. When they get through a draft of a script that includes stage directions, they get a pretty solid feeling pretty quickly for what is going to take how long. From this they can assign timing estimates and make decisions about whether they want participants to keep going on a task after the estimated time is reached or redirect to the next task.

Mapping out location flow

It’s easy to overlook the physical or geographic flow – what a director would call blocking – of a session. Where does the participant start the session? In a waiting room, at her desk, or somewhere else? Will you change locations within a room or building during the session? How do you get from one place to the next?

Consistency and rigor

Including stage directions in a script for a user research session can help reviewer-stakeholders understand what to expect. More importantly, the stage directions act as reminders to the moderator so she’s doing the same things with and saying the same things to every participant in the study. This means nothing gets left out deliberately and nothing gets added that wasn’t agreed on ahead of time. (For example, the team could identify some area to observe for and put a prompt in the script for the moderator to ask follow-up questions that are not specifically scripted, depending on what the participant does.)


Any really good project manager is going to have a Plan B. With a script that includes detailed stage directions, anyone who has been involved in the planning of a study should be able to pick up the script and moderate a session. The people I worked with at Tec-Ed called this “the bus test” (as in, If you get hit by a bus we still have to do this work).

Some teams I work with want to spread out and run simultaneous sessions. The stage directions can help ensure consistency across moderators. (Rehearse and refine if you’re really going to do this.)

Finally, when it comes time to write the report about the insights the team gained, the script — with its stage directions — can help answer the questions that often come asking why things were done the way they were done or why the data says what it says.

Stage it

Each person in a session is an actor, whether participant or observer. The moderator is the director. If the script for a study includes instructions for all the actors in the session as well as the director in addition to documenting what words to say, everyone involved will give a great performance.

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