Think-aloud studies are observations, usually of a single individual, where data is collected in “real-time” by having the participant think-aloud as they work through a set of tasks related to a research question. The verbalization of what participants are doing can provide clarification on thinking, understanding, and processes that participants use to complete a set of tasks. Combined with screen capture if appropriate for the task, think-alouds can provide a rich data stream about how tasks are completed and the thought processes behind the task completion.
The key data of think-aloud studies is the verbalization of internal thoughts while completing tasks and should be recorded. Any other data that is collected, like screen capture or biometrics, can be combined with the verbal data via timestamps. The recording is typically transcribed and then thematic analysis or other type of qualitative analysis can help identify key ideas in the data set.
There are several things to consider when conducting think-aloud studies.
Like observations, think-alouds can take quite a bit of time. Since think-alouds are typically conducted on an individual participant at a time, each session will take time to conduct and then later to transcribe and analyze. Taking time to complete one think-aloud before starting another is important to keep the data sets independent.
Most people are not used to verbalizing their thoughts as they complete a task. To help participants become comfortable with the think-aloud part of the study, it is recommended to have the participant complete a small related task that is similar to what they would do in the study, but that is not part of the study. This practice session can help prime the participant for completing the main part of the study. The researcher also needs to be ready to prompt the participant to verbalize their thoughts throughout the study.
Running a pilot study of a think-aloud design is strongly recommended, particularly if you are having the participant work with a prototype system or tool. The pilot study also helps the research practice and refine their think aloud script.