We’re still hugging our laptops.

Jenn Downs
4 min readApr 15, 2020

Back in the day, in the times before beaming, airplay, and screen recordings (2011, also when we could still hug people), there wasn’t an easy way to conduct remote mobile usability testing or to record in person mobile testing. Folks were building complicated mobile rigs with erector sets and flexible web cams that they would use to record in person mobile testing. There was an early device you could use, or as it was suggested, send out to your customers to use, that drew a hefty $300+ price tag.

I’d learned about these mobile rigs and created a DIY rig of my own using a bendy webcam, a chip clip, and some industrial strength rubber bands.

(Photo: shows a webcam with a flexible arm attached to a chip clip with a large rubber band. I would only do this with a device protected by a case.)

At that time I was working as a Design Researcher at MailChimp and our official UX research practice was extremely new and very ambitious. As one of our first big projects, we were planning a study on mobile email design and on subscribers’ reading habits. In planning we had a goal of observing and interviewing about 40 people who subscribed to email newsletters. We wanted to expand our recruiting reach outside our local customers in the southeast, and we wanted to do it quick.

In exploring options for how we might make this happen, I thought about screening for folks with external webcams and instructing them how to point the webcam at the phone, but that seemed complicated. It also would produce a more tech-savvy participant pool. I then wondered how I might ask folks to get the phone in front of their laptop webcam. After pretzeling myself around my laptop for a bit and staring at other people trying to pretzel, it occurred to me to swing the laptop around and have folks rest their arms on a table, holding their mobile device or tablet in front of the webcam. The Laptop Hugging Method was created.

(Photo: two images of people hugging their laptop, holding mobile devices in front of their built-in webcam. This is for real the moment of invention.)
(Photo: a tweet from one of the folks in the photo above noting that I’m asking them to hug their macbook.)

And to my surprise (and probably the surprise of others) this method is still occasionally relevant today. (RIP Field Guide App…)

(Photo: an ad for a screen sharing app that references “No more laptop hugging” as a marketing point.)

One of the reasons I think it endures as a scrappy little research method is because you can see hand gestures, where people tap, and how they scroll. Yes, you lose their facial expressions, but there are almost always trade offs in remote research (still!). Another reason I believe it endures is it’s surprisingly easy to describe and people tend to get into position pretty fast, with no tech set up. It’s more unusual than awkward, but it’s been successful nearly every time I’ve employed the method. It’s also inexpensive.

It’s been really fun over the years to see the Laptop Hugging Method randomly mentioned in conference talks and to see articles written about how big companies like Facebook and Google use it.

There have even been videos made to show folks how to set up the method!

The updates I love the most are when smaller organizations use the method to make the world better.

A group at NC State University used the Laptop Hugging Method to conduct sessions on eMammal Lite which “contains over 5,000 photos of wildlife from research projects around the world taken with a camera trap — a remotely activated camera. Since no one was around when these photos were taken, researchers ask for folks’ help identifying what activated the camera. Each of these photos helps scientists and conservationists document wildlife that may otherwise go unseen.”

And yes, I am still asking people to hug laptops to this day. I recently used the Laptop Hugging Method to run a design critique on mobile interactions on Healthcare.gov, bringing laptop hugging into world of civic tech.

(Photo: shows a person’s hands resting on a desk, holding in iPad in front of their laptop’s built in webcam.)

Further solidifying the continuing need for hugs, The Laptop Hugging Method was also included in the 2nd edition of the book Just Enough Research by Erika Hall.

I do hope that one day technology catches up with all of our remote research needs and we can kiss laptop hugging goodbye. But for now, let’s embrace the methods we’ve got and keep learning from our users.