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How to BYO (build your own!) usability lab

Amreetha UX Consultant 3rd Dec, 2014

At our Sydney and Melbourne facilities, we have dedicated testing rooms that are used frequently to test almost anything. Each testing room has a viewing room adjacent to it, which helps client teams to view sessions and have the opportunity to observe users interacting with interfaces.

Viewing area of testing labParticipant area of testing lab

This is a standard set-up. However, if testing cannot be carried out in a structured environment, we can set up a usability lab on the go.

We had one such recent experience where we constructed our own usability lab, in just a few steps.

Objective of the set-up

Our proposed user testing sessions were to be conducted in Auckland – in a home environment. The venue was specifically chosen to simulate the context in which target audiences would access a tablet and mobile app.

Ingredients

  1. Two laptop computers (let’s refer to them as Test PC and Observer’s PC)
  2. Two Microsoft LifeCam and Logitech cameras (preferably HD for a better viewing experience)
  3. One tripod
  4. One HDMI cable
  5. Morae (or any other screen recording software)
  6. Mr Tappy (or any other mobile filming rig)
  7. An internet connection

Optional

  1. Adobe Connect or Skype (or any other screen sharing software)
  2. One HD TV

Method

The steps below are anecdotal and applicable for a windows PC.

For the testing room 

Testing was conducted on a tablet device and we used Mr Tappy with a HD camera mounted on it to capture participant’s interaction with the interface.

I’d read about other UX researchers using Reflector (wirelessly mirroring iPad, iPhone or Android interfaces) to project the interface on a computer. However, the serious drawback with using reflector is we miss participant’s gesture-based interactions (e.g. tapping, swiping).

  1. We mounted Microsoft LifeCam to Mr Tappy (see image below) to track gestures.
  2. The video signal from LifeCam was fed to Test PC (Test PC acted as a receiver and transmitter in our portable lab set up).
  3. The HD camera was mounted to the tripod, to capture participants’ reactions.
  4. We screen recorded the entire session (Test PC had Morae installed on it).
  5. Adobe Connect was used to share the camera feed alongside Observer’s PC.

Portable user testing set up

For the observer’s room 

We’d read about other portable usability setups using an HDMI cable to connect Test PC to Observer’s PC. In theory, this is great. But in our case, it wasn’t practical.

Furthermore, setting up an observers’ room too close to the test room would mean participants would hear audio feedback, which could be highly distracting. Instead:

  1. We connected the PC to a HD TV using a HDMI cable.
  2. We used Adobe Connect on Observer’s PC to stream the entire session.
  3. Observers could view both participant’s reaction and gestures on the tablet interface side-by-side.

The viewing experience was overall good. The lag was virtually undetectable and it did not have a negative impact on the viewing experience. 

Considerations

The success of the set-up was very dependent on reliable Wi-Fi internet. If you prefer, you could connect Test PC and Observer’s PC through a wired set up. We did not choose a wired set up, as we aimed to set up the portable lab with equipment we already had (which could be completely dismantled and transported back to the office in literally two backpacks). 

We’d had number of internal discussions about reducing the number of devices and making it more portable. However, for live projects I’d rather have access to a reliable set up.

As mentioned before, Adobe Connect is only optional. We could have used Morae Observer alternatively for this set up, however we had constraints loading it one of the PCs due to limited admin rights.


About The Author

Amreetha UX Consultant

Amreetha (or Amy) was one of U1’s most seasoned staff members. Boasting an extraordinary 10 years of experience in usability and research, she worked with global players in Australia, North America, Europe and Asia. She knows the art of client management by virtue of her experience, and brought great depth to projects by studying ethnographic, psychological and social factors that influence human-computer interaction.

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