Create your own professional usability lab

for under $ 100

This is a picture from the usability lab I use at Usably. If you have a laptop, you have to invest not more than $100 to create your own usability lab that can handle UX research on any device and livestream this over the planet.

Keep reading to find out how to create this lab for yourself!


It´s never been more easy and cheap to create your own usability lab to investigate and understand the user experience. Yet, I see a lot of companies buy the most advanced stuff from vendors like Tobii or Techsmith. Or outsource the research to a usability testing firm. Either way, you end up spending thousands of dollars in the process. Don’t do that, please!

In the 7 years I worked as an UX researcher (now at Usably), I’m convinced the 90–10 rule is also true for usability testing. That means: invest 10% in tools and 90% in good research(ers)! So save your budget and first look at the laptop you currently have. It has the power to be a usability testing monster!

So where to start?

The fundament: Open Broadcaster Software

Download it here for free

This free program will help you to record everything on your laptop or Macbook. Open Broadcaster Sofware (OBS) can combine several video input sources into one screen. I give you some examples:

  • If you want to do a desktop usability test and film the person that is doing the test, you typically want to combine a recording of the screen with a picture-in-picture recording of the person.
  • In a mobile usability study, you want to make a recoring of the mobile device. You will use a webcam for this. If you also want to film the person, a second webcam can be used.

With OBS, you can do all of this. If you want to record a window/browser, select Window Capture. And select Video Capture Device if you want to add a webcam. It’s as easy as that:

Next, you need to position these input sources and hit the preview stream button to get a preview of the video stream. In the example below, I’m using a webcam to record the mobile phone and a webcam to film the person:

In this setup, I’m using a Logitech C930 webcam to fiml the mobile device. The picture-in-picture webcam is the Logitech C920.

This is also the moment to tweak the webcam settings. One general tip when doing a mobile study: disable autofocus of the webcam and keep the webcam controllers open when you are recording the session. This way you can adjust and keep a sharp picture.

Livestream your sessions

It’s very easy to livestream your sessions with Youtube or Twitch. I use Youtube livestreambecause it’s the most known service for the people that are watching the livestreams.

A great video tutorial to setup a Youtube livestream in OBS can be found here. So check out this video if you are going to livestream your usability testing sessions.

Some checks to do before you start your sessions

OBS is a great program, but setting it up and optimizing the quality takes some testing and tweaking. So always make a test recording to check if video, audio and the livestream quality are ok. And watch out for these things (I bumped into):

  • What audio source are you selecting? Have you selected only one?
  • Youtube livestream privacy settings (don’t select a public livestream)
  • Don’t play the Youtube livestream on the same laptop you are recording/broadcasting with (will result in echoing sounds)
  • Provide enough disk space to record (20 gb or more should do it)
  • How fast is your internet connection? Do you have enough speed to stream at 1080p? If not, consider using 720p. Check you speed at speedtest.net
  • Does you laptop have enough memory to record and to livestream? If not, there are several ways to deal with this. OBS shows will tell you if CPU use is getting too high.

The webcam: Logitech C920 / C930

Prices: between $ 69 and $99, check Amazon prices

The Logitech C920 (left) and C930 (right).

These webcams are great for filming the use of a smartphone or tablet. Both can record at 1080p, have an integrated microphone and the same mounting head (more on that later). The C930 has a wider angle lens, which is very handy for tablet and mobile testing. In this way, the users can use the device more freely. So if you have the budget, go for the C930.

A quick summary.

We have a webcam and OBS, and this is great for recording desktop usability studies. But remember the picture of the mobile recording? How did I create this floating webcam above the smartphone?

Recording mobile usability studies

In general, there are 2 ways of recording a mobile device for usability studies. First I’ll discuss these options so you know what you can expect from both.

Option 1: Mirroring.

You mirror the screen of the mobile device to your laptop and record it there. Airserver and Reflector are programs that can help you with this. Both programs cost around $15 and can handle iOS and Android devices, check their sites for more info.

This option has 2 advantages:

  • The recording has the best possible video quality
  • The user can use the device freely.

But there are several drawbacks:

  • You need a very fast wi-fi connection to make it work flawlessly. Especially if you’re also livestreaming your session, which takes bandwith as well.
  • You can’t see the use of vingers and tapping, because you don’t film the device from the top (there are some ways to view tapping behaviour in iOS and Android but this takes some extra tweaks).

Option 2: Document webcam

In this setup, you use a webcam to film the mobile device from above. In this case, the Logitech C930 is used to film this. The positioning of the webcam is discussed later in this topic, so please keep on reading!

This setup has several advantages:

  • No extra internet bandwith required
  • You record the finger movement (also when not touching)
  • It’s always working stable (mirroring can be buggy)

But, of course, there are some drawbacks:

  • The user can’t freely use the device (needs to be in range of the webcam)
  • Video quality can be an issue because light can reflect on the mobile device (you can solve this by turning the lights off/down or put something before the lights in the room to prevent this).

My advice here is: prepare for both options. But the safest bet is option 2: the document webcam. It gives you the best impression of the user experience and you don’t have to rely on a powerful wi-fi connection.

The home made document webcam

There are several solutions out there. You have Mr Tappy, the MOD 1000, iPevo Ziggi document camera and probably several more options to film your mobile device from above. But with a small investment, we can turn that great Logitech C920/930 webcam into a document camera. With this:

Say hello to mr. Flexible Arm. With this you can connect the arm to your table on one side and on the logitech webcam on the other side. You can buy it here for around $ 15 (Dutch webshop) or at Amazon.com for a little more. The picture below explains it all:

The webcam is attached to the flexible arm and plugged into the recording laptop. In this way, the mobile device is filmed from above, but with enough room for the testing person to freely use this device.

I’ve made a small tweak to make this setup work all the time. Because the flexarm cannot clip to all tables, I’ve connected the flexarm to a heavy piece of Azobe wood (to prevent the webcam from tipping over) so I can put it on any table. How cool is that?

Your shopping list

Let’s recap all the things you need to turn your laptop input a professional, multi-device compatible, usability lab:

  • Open Broadcaster Software (free)
  • Webcam (C920 is around $65)
  • The flexarm (around $15)

That makes a total of $ 80 dollars. Depending where you live, some additional shipping costs will be charged, but you should stay below $ 100.

How to make this setup even better

You can make this setup even more awesome if you have some extra bucks to spend. Here are my recommendations:

  • Mirror software (around $15), so you can also record the screens of your mobile device directly on your laptop (as discussed earlier);
  • Buy the C930 instead of the C920 ($ 25–30 additional costs).
  • Buy an extra webcam (as a backup or to make mobile recordings with picture-in-picture of the testing person possible). Addtional costs: $65–$95
  • A keyboard, mouse and monitor (around $100). In this way, you can duplicate the desktop experience in your usability testing. This setup looks like this (it’s similar to the one in the first picture):

Last but not least, a great video editing tool will help you to turn long recording sessions into short video’s to highlight the most important findings. A great tool to edit the video’s of your user test is Camtasia (pricing around $299). They give discounts from time to time, so wait for those :-)

Happy testing!

As you can see, doing professional usability testing doesn’t need to be expensive. The equipment I’ve discussed should give you a head start in setting up an usability test, without the hassle of big budgets or consultants that need to set things up. So good luck with testing and spending the money you saved :-)

I would really like to know the setup other people are using to do usability testing. So don’t hesitate to share these in the comments!