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The Thinking Aloud Technique: The Fastest Way To Improve Your Health And Fitness Articles, Ads, Posts, and More

By John Berardi, PhD

Client and Customer Research

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For health and fitness pros, creating articles, ads, posts, websites, etc can feel daunting and time-consuming. You may wonder if your work will resonate? Or just be a big waste of time? Well, wonder no more. Thinking aloud can help answer these questions and many more.

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My #1 Favorite Feedback Technique

From articles I’m working on, to ads I’m writing, to websites I’m developing, the Thinking Aloud technique has become my go-to method of collecting feedback from readers and users.

I first learned about this method 7 years ago through this Nielsen Norman Group article—Thinking Aloud: The #1 Usability Tool—where it’s primarily used in web design and usability engineering.

As Nielsen describes in that article:

“In a thinking aloud test, you ask test participants to use the system while continuously thinking out loud—that is, simply verbalizing their thoughts as they move through the user interface.”

After using it, very effectively, for getting extremely useful feedback on web interfaces, I expanded my use to include pretty much every piece of content designed to be interacted with by people, including:

  • advertisements,
  • articles,
  • videos,
  • infographics,
  • intake forms,
  • questionnaires,
  • and more.

Here’s Why Thinking Aloud Is So Valuable

Let’s say you’ve built a new website and you’d like to know what people think of it, how they’ll actually use it, what they’ll get confused by, and how they’ll misuse it.

Running a thinking aloud study is the cheapest, most robust, and most flexible way to find these out.

Plus it’s very easy.

You just recruit five to ten people, the kind of people that might actually visit your website, put the new site in front of them, ask them to use it, and ask them to narrate their experience while they do (i.e. think aloud).

This method works especially well if you give them a set of tasks. For example, you might ask them to:

  • Go to the home page and summarize what your business does.
  • Navigate to your blog and read an article called X.
  • Find your newsletter sign up and share their name/email address.
  • Find your shopping cart, select product Y, and purchase it.

As you listen to them narrate their experience all sorts of opportunities for improvements will jump out, insights that you’d have never come up with on your own because you’re too familiar with the content.

How I Used Thinking Aloud With My Latest Book

I actually made a lot of use out of this technique when creating my latest book, Change Maker.

After completing a good draft of the entire book, I sent it to 15 trusted reviewers to do a thinking aloud review.

Here’s the exact email I sent:

Hey [Person’s Name]

Am writing today because I need some help with something important and you’re one of the few people I trust with it.

Not sure if you knew this or not but I’ve been working on a book for the last 9 months tentatively called: Change Maker.

Now, let me be clear… this IS NOT an email to ask you to promote or give me a cover quote or anything like that.

Actually, my ask is much BIGGER.

I just completed a draft copy of the book and I’m looking for your time and your brain and your unfiltered feedback.

In essence, I’m putting together an all-star team of about 15 people to help me do a ruthless peer review of the material.

To read it through before anyone else, to call out what might be valuable about it, and to make sure I don’t publish a bunch of bullshit.

My preferred way of getting feedback like this is called “Thinking Aloud”. It’s a popular usability and design technique that I also think has a lot of value in content review.

The idea is to NOT shape your feedback on how it might be received (by me). And it’s not to find copy errors or suggest improvements.

Rather, you simply notice what you’re thinking and feeling as it pops into your head (while you read) and you capture it (in a comment within a google document).

So that’s my ask…

Would you be open to reading a fairly polished draft of the book and, as you read through it, capture your thoughts in a google doc I create just for you?

Again, the idea isn’t to catch grammar or spelling mistakes. Or even suggest improvements. (Although you can do either if you want). The idea is to simply call out things like:

Wow, this is a great section! I really like X.

Uhm, I don’t understand what you’re getting at here? I’m confused because of Y.

I laughed out loud here!

This is a terrible joke here!

You said A earlier but this seems to contradict it, what’s up?

I don’t think this is true. I think B instead.

The data and/or my experience don’t support this at all!

I have a different take on Z.

Your comments could be bigger too, related to structure, content that should be in the book but isn’t, content that shouldn’t be in the book but is.

Doing things this way makes it a much faster process for you. And it gives me what I really need: smart people’s reactions to the book.

I can decide what to do next with the content based on those reactions. But without those reactions I’m flying blind.

In terms of timeline, I’d need your feedback by [Due Date].

You up for it?

–  JB

How To Run Your Own Thinking Aloud Tests

Step 1.

Recruit a representative sample of your clients, customers, or users.

Step 2.

Give them a representative task to perform (i.e. browse a website, read an advertisement, fill out a form, buy a product).

Step 3A.

If it’s something you can observe and record, record the session so you can watch it later. Ask them to narrate their thoughts, moment by moment, completely unfiltered as they perform the task.

Such as, OK I’m on the home page now, there’s a red button, should I click it? Oh no, wait, this is the one I click, the link that says “Learn more”…

(This requires prompting as people aren’t used to verbalizing a monologue of their thoughts as they do things. You might even share a one-minute video of a previous thinking aloud session so they a sense for how it should work.)

Step 3B.

If it’s not something you can observe and record, ask people to drop their real-time thoughts into a shared google document.

Step 4.

Once you’ve collected all the feedback, review it and look for common themes.

As with the jobs to be done client research method and the unique abilities assessment, it only takes a few interviews/tests for common themes to appear.

Tease them out for a deeper understanding of not only how your clients and prospects think, but for actionable revisions that can make your website (or whatever it is you’re testing) more useful for your goals and your clients’.

Want to learn more? Dive deeper?

Then download this FREE sample of my latest book, Change Maker.

Change Maker shares the tips, strategies, and lessons I learned growing Precision Nutrition from a two-person passion project to a 200 million dollar company that’s coached over 200,000 clients, certified over 100,000 professionals, and revolutionized the field of nutrition coaching.

Whether you work as a health coach, strength coach, nutritionist, functional medicine doc, or rehab specialist, Change Maker will help you discover the right direction to take, the fastest way to make progress, and the practical steps required to build the career of your dreams in health and fitness.

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