Listening labs

We’re planning some user testing for our new service and just stumbled onto this Tweet by Jason Calacanis. Apparently, they conducted some tests with customers using a method invented by Mark Hurst I didn’t know:

“At Mahalo, we conduct open-ended, non-directed listening labs to understand the experience customers have when they use Mahalo and competitor sites.”


Throw away your scripts and start listening.



  1. The essence of good user- and usability research is to get answers, especially to questions you haven’t thought of before. Therefore a fixed testscenario is often far too restrictive. However, you might need some structure to make sure some obvious questions are answered as well. We therefore often combine both: non-directed and directed.

    We often start our tests based on the perspective of the test-participants. Their behaviour on the site is driven by their own actual needs and expectations and leading and feeding our improvised testscenario. Later on in the test some more structured tasks can still be asked.

    Jared Spool nailed it: “In interview-based tasks, the participants interested are discovered, not assigned.” (

  2. Tnx for the link. If I understand well Mark Hurst states that a limited number of tasks eventually will emerge in the interview from the goals as set by the customers themselves – something I think you also agree to. The only thing he doesn’t seem to do is assign some more structured tasks afterwards because he says these probably won’t help them with the goals they want to obtain, otherwise they would have emerged as a task in the first part of the interview in the first place. What is your motivation to include them anyway?

  3. The fact that goals do not emerge, does not imply that there are no other goals. So we keep some possible goals and related tasks ready to test.

    Furthermore, problems sometimes hide other ones. For instance, searching for a product does not seem to work for a resondent and therefore the ordering process can’t be tested (he/she would never have reached that stage). So we do have a task at hand to test the ordering process as well.

    The bottom line is that the test like Mark Hurst describes is more suitable for a testing in an early stage – you want to get to know as much as possible about the user.

    Whereas a usability-test is focused at the application/website/functionality in a later stage and can benefit from a more structured approach. For each test you should decide what will provide the most relevant answers for your project. And then choose the right method. Off course without rigidity.

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