Atlab: set up your own user research lab (quickly and easily!)

Atlab is Atlassian’s user research lab. Here we conduct interviews and usability tests with customers and non-customers. This creates empathy for our users, and arms our design team with insights to make our products more usable and useful. We have Atlabs set up in each of our main offices around the globe.

Don’t let the word “lab” scare you! It’s very simple and inexpensive to set up your own user research space. Here we have created an easy step-by-step guide so you can create your own, and begin gathering your own design insights!

  1. Find a space.

Forget one-way mirrors — all you need is a conference room large enough for 2 or 3 people. The room should be located somewhere quiet, where you won’t be disturbed by other co-workers.

If possible, we highly recommend using a second conference room as an observation room. This is where your colleagues can “camp out” throughout the day, watch live research sessions, takes notes and discuss.

2. Secure the equipment.

At the bare minimum you’ll need a computer with a front-facing camera. To record the sessions, you can use video conferencing software.

If you’re testing prototypes or conducting usability testing, make sure your recording software has screen-recording capabilities, so you can capture exactly what customers are looking at, clicking, and exploring. We often use Lookback for this.

To enhance the recording quality, we’ll usually add a separate webcam and external microphone. An external monitor, keyboard, and mouse will mimic a desktop environment for participants, and give them a larger screen to use during research. If we’re testing on mobile devices or doing tactile activities, we’ll utilize a document camera to get close-up shots.

If your team is observing in a room nearby, set up a TV or large monitor to stream video from the research room. Use the videoconferencing software to dial in and virtually connect the rooms.

3. Figure out participant logistics.

Now that you’ve come up with a plan, it’s time to find your research participants.

Determine what type of participants you need. Do you need current customers? Non-customers? What industry are they in, what experience level should they have? Try and have at least 3 screening factors. This will ensure your research results are tight and targeted.

For example, in a recent study we conducted, we spoke with users new to JIRA, who have used the product less than 3 months, in the software industry. Similarly, if your company creates a fitness tracking app, perhaps you might target runners aged 25–45, who have used your app for 6 months or more.

Next, decide how you’ll find your participants. You have lots of options here — don’t be afraid to get creative! Use existing customer lists, reach out to meet-up groups, former colleagues — just don’t use co-workers or friends that are familiar with your project (even vaguely). As a last resort, you can use Craigslist, just make sure you screen participants thoroughly (more details on that process here).

Then, decide on your incentive amount and purchase them. We give each of our participants a gift card of at least $50, usually $100. If you have little to no budget, offering company swag is another option. You‘ll be surprised how many customers are happy to give feedback, all you need to do is ask!

4. Book participants.

Before you begin, decide on a day for the testing. It should be at least a week away, and the research space you found (back in Step 1) should be free all day.

Next, reach out to your contacts. In your email, make sure to include:

  • An engaging subject line
  • A brief description of what the study is for (but not too much — you don’t want participants to “study” for the session)
  • When and where the sessions are taking place, and how long each session is
  • How much participants will be compensated (what your incentive is)
  • A link to self sign-up for a specific time (we use YouCanBook.me)

Make it clear that this is an email for research purposes, not sales. Email about 3x the amount of participants you hope to speak with (for example, if you hope to speak with 10 users, email 30 to begin with). If your users are fairly active on social media, you can also post your self sign-up link on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Continue to monitor your responses, and send out more invitation emails as needed. Make sure you send out a reminder to participants a day or two before their session. Reiterate all the important information: your office’s address, parking information, and a phone number in case their car breaks down.

5. Prep your discussion guide.

Now it’s time to decide what you want to test and how. Atlab is great for projects in all stages. There are lots of great resources out there about how to select a research method. At a high level, you can:

  • Research before you design: conduct interviews, or lo-fi exploratory exercises like using notecards for card sorting, sticky notes for journey mapping, dots for dot-voting
  • Research after you design (but before you build): test paper prototypes or very low-fidelity designs
  • Research after you build (but before you ship): conduct usability testing with high-fidelity clickable prototypes or early builds

Decide what makes the most sense for your project, and create a discussion guide around it. This article from IDEO has some great tips for how to structure your guide.

In one room, the user research is run. In a nearby “observation room,” colleagues watch and take notes.

6. Prep the room, and run your research!

The day before, it’s time to prep. Set up your computer, cameras and microphones, print out your discussion guides, and load up your prototypes. Grab a colleague and do a dry run for practice.

Set up your observation room and encourage observers to manually take notes with Sharpies and sticky notes. If you’re testing designs, we recommend printing out the major screens for observers to reference easily. You can tape these on a whiteboard.

Now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: time to speak with participants. Take a deep breath and start your interviews. Some helpful things we’ve learned along the way:

  • Some small talk goes a long way. Treat the participant as a guest (not a job interviewee). Offer them something to drink, and make them feel comfortable — so they’re all warmed up when you’re ready to begin.
  • The first interview’s always the roughest. You’re still getting into the swing of things, don’t sweat it!
  • Research rarely goes as planned. Perhaps a major assumption you had was wrong, or maybe your prototype breaks! We’ve all been there — just re-strategize the best you can.
  • Some participants might not show up. Expect a few folks to get stuck in traffic or not show up at all. It helps if you slightly over-recruit to make up for this.
  • Don’t be afraid to re-order and revise your discussion guide. It’s very possible that a participant leads you to a question you didn’t think of, or you don’t need as much time for a section as you expected. Each session is yours to learn from, so take advantage of it!

7. Analyze your findings.

If you set up an observer room, take a few minutes after the final interview for everyone to discuss what they heard. What was surprising? What validated assumptions? Were there any big problem areas? Talk it through and write the major themes on a whiteboard. Remind everyone these are just initial findings — don’t start making major product changes yet!

Once you’re back at your desk, read through your notes (and re-watch recordings if you have time). Look for the major themes. Some you’ll already know, some might be subtle and only become apparent in hindsight. Gather supporting evidence to back these themes up. This could be in the form of notes, quotes, and video clips.

8. Document and communicate your findings to your team.

What did you learn, and what implications does this have for your product? Make sure you provide clear recommendations for your team. Don’t make anyone guess. This can be in whatever fidelity works for you: from a Keynote presentation to a simple bulleted list on Confluence. Just make sure you take the time to document them — otherwise you won’t easily be able to refer back to them in the months to come.

Conclusion

Now you’ve set up your user research space and completed your first in-person research project. Congratulations! You’ll quickly start to see how every aspect of your product can be impacted by qualitative user feedback.


We would love to hear your stories about research, what worked or didn’t work for you. Do drop us a line at research@atlassian.com

P.S. If you truly don’t have enough qualified participants in your city, remote research conducted over video conferencing is always an option.

Special thanks to Lin Zagorski for our illustrations.