Streamlining Usability Testing by Avoiding the Lab

by Jared M. Spool

The usability lab, with its fancy cameras, one-way mirrors, and comfortable observation suites, is often considered a can’t-do-without necessity for conducting serious usability tests. Even those who feel it’s not required will jump at the chance to use a lab when available. However, while studying successful projects over the years, we’ve found that usability testing can often be more effective when the team eliminates the lab from the process.

The most successful teams conduct usability tests to help them make informed design decisions. You can tell a testing project has succeeded when the designers have the necessary information to resolve the pending choices they face. Anything slowing down or obfuscating this information gets in the way of the design process.

We’ve found that putting users in front of the team turns out to be the top priority of the seasoned usability professional. In a successful testing process, they optimize everything to ensure that team members have direct access to the users.

Conference Rooms as Makeshift Labs

One hurdle in getting users in front of the team is distance. Most of the time, usability labs are not conveniently located near the team’s workplace. The lost time to get back and forth to the lab makes it a chore and can be hard to justify.

A conference room near the team offers tremendous advantages. With the travel time reduced, the team is more likely to pop in to watch a test. Whereas traveling to and from an offsite lab for a one-hour test can take up an entire afternoon, in a conference room, it just occupies an hour of time.

Setup Is Simple

Using a conference room, the setup for testing is straightforward. In a small room, the user sits at the table with the observers. The facilitator usually sits besides them, focused on whatever the user is looking at.

These days, we’ll use a data projector to throw the screen image onto a nearby wall for the observers to follow along. We use TechSmith’s Camtasia or Morae products to make the session recording simple. (With a paper prototype test, we’ll just use a consumer-grade digital camera.)

Size Doesn’t Matter

How big a room do you need for a test? Big enough to hold all the observers, the facilitator, and the user.

Recently, at a client’s site, we tested each user in front of 25 observers, using a training classroom located on a floor near the development team. The user and facilitator both wore microphones plugged into a small speaker system, so everyone could hear the conversation.

The largest test we ever conducted was in front of 420 observers at a conference of usability professionals. You would think the users would be petrified, but because of excellent briefing and wonderful facilitation, they quickly became immersed in the task, forgetting about the throngs watching everything they did.

In fact, we’ve found that well-behaved observers in the room aren’t any more intimidating than glass mirrors and cameras, which can be scary in their own right. We plan the test protocol carefully, so we know when the observers will have time to interact with the user. Before the session, we instruct the observers to keep their questions until the designated Q&A periods. This works very well at helping the users focus on the test activities, practically forgetting about everyone watching them.

Testing Is For the Observers

The informality of the conference room brings better concentration to the test observers. Because the observers are in the same room with the user, they focus more on the activities of the test. In contrast, when observers sit behind a lab’s one-way mirror, conversation, cell phones, blackberries, or their laptops often distract them. They exhibit symptoms of attention-deficit disorders.

We can streamline testing when observers are present and paying attention. It relieves the facilitator from producing detailed notes, sharing a blow-by-blow of what happened. The observers get the necessary information in real time, often ready to make changes as soon as the session ends.

Labs Have the Advantage of Dedicated Space

In some organizations, having a dedicated lab sends a message that the organization thinks usability is important, especially in growing businesses where real estate is as a premium. (After all, space is the final frontier!)

However, this can be a disadvantage if people feel they can’t test without the lab and it becomes a bottleneck. We’ve seen many organizations where testing gains popularity and the lab’s unavailability becomes the primary excuse not to conduct tests.

Lab-Less Testing is in Fashion

More and more, we’re seeing clients conducting ad-hoc testing in any space they find. In our own work, we’re doing the same, rarely taking advantage of labs when they are easily available, just because we don’t need the distractions. As a result, we’ve seen our testing become far more effective at the getting the teams the information they need.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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