Build your own usability lab on a budget

A usability lab has always been at the top of our wish list as UX designers, but there were two major factors that made it difficult to achieve: 1) it would cost a fortune, and 2) it would require tremendous effort from the IT department. So we've been doing some research to build our own lab and tried a few options. In this post, we'll show you how to create your own usability lab using equipment lying around in your office. It’s not that difficult to build one and it doesn't have to be super expensive. In terms of budget, all we needed to purchase was a little smart phone stand to hold a camera (we used an iPhone) and a few software licenses (Reflector, Silverback, etc).

Here’s an overview of the whole setup we used for a recent project. We designed a website and a mobile application for a customer, and needed to test both web and mobile prototypes. These two test devices — an iPhone and a laptop — are connected to the main control laptop in the observation room. Device wise, we used what we already had in the office, such as a wall-mounted TV with Mac Mini, a couple of laptops, external monitors, and Wi-Fi connection.

I'll go into detail for each part later in this article; (A) Test room recording, (B) Mobile prototype test, (C) Desktop prototype test, and (D) Communication between interview moderator and observer.

Overview of the whole setup.

Devices / Software overview

• A wall-mounted TV + Mac Mini / Google Hangouts — This setup captures an overview of everything that happens in the Test Room.

Test device 1: A laptop for testing the web prototype with the Invision project set up. Silverback is used to capture the users’ interaction and zoomed-in facial expressions.

Test device 2: A smartphone to test the mobile prototype. We used an Invision prototype for this as well.

• Device cam: We wanted to capture the user’s interaction with the mobile prototype, so we paired the iPhone camera with a small, extendable device stand.

• The hub laptop + external monitor(s): The test devices and the camera are mirrored to the main hub laptop. The stream is then distributed throughout the external monitors in the observation room, using the Reflector AirPlay receiver.

When conducting user interviews, we recommend having at least two observers from your team. This is also a great opportunity to invite clients to the observation room so they can get direct feedback from their users. With this in mind, you'll need to make sure your space is large enough for 4–5 people to sit comfortably.

• Sticky notes and sharpies: Sticky notes and sharpies are the best tools for designers. Although relatively cheap and easily accessible, they are still very powerful tools. Sticky notes allow us to treat each idea as an individual unit of thought, which makes it easy to add, remove, or group into different categories. When you use a sharpie, everyone can read what has been written from a distance, which is especially helpful when you work collaboratively at the wall.

A. Room observation / record

All our meeting rooms are equipped with a wall-mounted TV with a Mac mini. A webcam and microphone are mounted to the top of the TV to make it easy to have video conferences whenever needed. This also doubles as a “hidden camera” to record the user interviews as they’re being conducted. The TV screen is always turned off so the participants don’t feel overwhelmed by the idea of being recorded (don’t worry, we get their consent before every session).

There are a few ways of recording your Hangouts sessions, but we used Debut this time for an easy and inexpensive solution. You can also record this with Hangouts On Air, but one problem was the delay in the audio and video feed (the audio/video is processed in real time on the YouTube server). If neither of these options work for you, you could also try Skype or iMessage as an alternative.

B. Mobile prototype / record

The mobile prototype is mirrored to the main hub through Wi-Fi connection and the Reflector, and distributed to one of the bigger extension monitors for multiple observers to view. Reflector lets you records whatever is mirrored, too.

We wanted to see not only what was happening on the prototype screens but also what users were doing with their hands. So we needed a camera that could record the user’s gestures. As mentioned earlier, we had a nice little device stand to hold the iPhone while it was used as a camera. We airplayed this video feed on to the observer’s laptop.

When working on other projects on different platforms, such as Android or Windows Phone, there are similar mirroring apps that you can find like Mobizen or Project My Phone. These are just some of the tools we’ve worked with, so feel free to explore other third party options.

C. Desktop prototype / record

Next, let’s talk about Silverback. This tool allows you to organize and run a usability test. It also allows you to record the participant’s facial expressions and the interactions on the test screens (specifically the mouse cursor movement). These are also mirrored to the observing room through Airplay/Reflector. This can also be used to test your mobile products on a desktop computer.

D. “This is Ground Control to Major Tom”: Text messaging

When we need to talk to the moderator during the test, an in-ear monitor might look cool, but all you really need is simple text messaging. We found that the interviews tend to run smoother when the moderator is the only person in the room with the participant. With ground control as support, text messaging is a great way to communicate to the moderator without interfering with the test.

Record everything! But never go back to your recordings.

The 20 test sessions we had collected from our latest project gave us a massive amount of data to analyze within a single team. The trick to staying organized? We record on sticky notes. All the tests are videotaped, but our goal is to avoid having to re-watch all the videos. Having said that, we really want to download in our brains as much as possible during each session and analyze on the spot. We write down whatever the user says and does focusing on key metrics such as emotional reactions and behavior inconsistency, and place the stickies on the wall throughout the session.

Here are some photos of our usability lab setup.

Left: Big picture and audio from the testing room. Right: The device the user’s using.
Test device: iPhone 6+ and camera stand
iPhone becomes such a great connected camera solution.
Test device: Nexus 5 Android phone mirrored with Mobizen.