User Testing: the pain and gain of improving our facilities — part one

I remember the first time I tested anything on mobile. The first time I’d really stopped to think about testing on mobile full stop.

We had to strap cameras to the top of the iPad (we’re talking iPad original here) in order to capture the screen, hand gestures, carpet possibly, etc. We had another camera set up in the room to try and capture facial expressions. I say ‘try’ here as we do tend to look down when using a mobile device… which makes it harder to catch a facial expression unless the camera is facing up from the floor. It made testing precarious and awkward, and rather unnatural.

“Please try and naturally show me how you would use the iPad or mobile phone you are holding. Just ignore the rather intrusive and awkward camera that may or may not take your eye out as it hovers over the screen recording your every move.”

Restrictive to say the least, but it was the best we could come up with at the time.

A few years later and advancements in technology mean that we now have many simple ways of effortlessly capturing the screen of mobile devices depending on what operating system (OS) they are. Once set up correctly, these methods do little to interrupt the user on their journey (as long as they remain working correctly of course). Our London UX (user experience) lab is set up to do just this — but more about that later!

Inside our lab

The type of environment that you conduct your testing in has a massive effect on the test, and on the comfort of both the facilitator and user. I have tested in empty offices, glass meeting rooms, board rooms, next to building works, and in rooms with two way mirrors. In all of these situations the emphasis on friendliness and comfort were somewhat lacking; the purpose behind inviting users in was obvious.

To solve this problem, our lab is set up to emulate that of a quiet, comfortable lounge (I’m not sure whose lounge exactly… but then that might be a bit creepy wouldn’t it?). There’s a large blue sofa, two side lights on two side tables, a large floor lamp, a desk, a chair, a wall mounted TV, and let’s not forget the rug. There is also a selection of devices in the room for the user to help themselves to, as and when we get to the scenarios. Users can switch between devices throughout the testing with ease, or use their own devices if they prefer.

Having the right technical setup also adds to the more natural environment. Small but powerful cameras can be set up around the room to capture many different angles so that users can move freely around the room, as they would at home, and we record most of their true facial expressions. Microphones strong enough to capture every sound within the room clearly ensure that, no matter who is speaking or where they are, the sound is captured. No problem.

The struggle is real

Our struggle was making the room feel homely and not like a windowless cell. As our testing lab is based in a noisy part of London and next to a rail line, and is also often used for industry events and client use, soundproofing was a major concern to ensure that the user and facilitator aren’t distracted during testing. Picking external noises up on the recording for the client could mean the recording is then difficult to listen back to.

Speaking of noise, the other factor (there were really so many) we had to address was how to put an air conditioning unit in that doesn’t affect the soundproofing or recording. We implemented a unit outside of the observation room which we can turn on and off manually in the intervals between sessions. Not ideal if you are too cold, but heat-wise it takes the edge off enough so that you can get through the next session without wishing to escape for an ice cream or a dip in the sea!

Building our newest UX lab has certainly been a journey, one that’s had many bumps along the road but that has resulted in a powerful user testing facility that our clients love to use. In part 2 of my blog I’ll tell you more about how we got to where we are now, our plans for the future and some of my best (and worst) moments in the lab!