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Usability Labs

Designing a Usability Lab Lab Vendors Logging SoftwareEquipmentComments

Related Topics
Usability Rental Labs and Participant Recruiting
User Statistics and Profiles

Designing a Usability Lab

Dumas, J. and Redish, J. A Practical Guide to Usability Testing. Ablex: Norwood, NJ, 1993.

Rubin, J. Handbook of Usability Testing: How to Plan, Design, and Conduct Effective Tests. Wiley: New York, NY, 1994.

Ameritech's usability laboratory: from prototype to final design by Arnold M. Lund  How to build a human factors lab

Lotus Usability lab online tour -  Includes great information on designing usability labs. (Click on the link for the virtual lab tour.)

Tips for Planning Your Usability Lab - Includes suggestions for physical layout and room setup

Usability Testing Methods and Tools - part of the Guide to Usability for Software Engineers from University of Maryland

Tours of 32 usability labs - A photo gallery from Noldus, with lists of the equipment installed in each.

Lab  Vendors


Logging Software

Noldus, L. Software Tools for Collection and Analysis of Observational Data. Presented at HCI International 99


  • Usability Logger (freeware version) from Ovo Studios 
  • Data Logger - Developed in Excel by Todd Zazelenchuk. Customizable with a lot of automated calculations and charts.
  • uLog Lite ( from Noldus Information Technology

Commercial Products



Cameras and Camera Tracks

Volume 13 of  Behaviour and Information Technology (Nos. 1 & 2, 1994), Jakob Nielsen, Editor. Blatt, Jacobsen, and Miller's article describes their lab as equipped with "camera tracks" containing ceiling mounted cameras "for quick and easy positioning of ceiling mounted cameras." p. 88).

Digital Video Systems

Eye Tracking and Face-Reading Systems

Scan Convertors
Comparative Overview and Information - from LJ Video
Buyers Guide - from Communications Specialties

  • TView Gold scan converter from Focus Enhancements
  • AVerKey300, by AVerMedia (Works up to 1024X768, with low fidelity, plug and play)
  • ScanDo and ScanDo Ultra by Communications Specialties (Works well for higher resolutions)
  • Sony Model DSC 1024G. (Does a nice job on 1024 x 768)
  • Black Box Scan Pro. (Only goes to 800x600, works with all video cards, Mac and PC, quite old and cost $1400.)
  • HyperConverter 1024 made by PC Video Conversion from FocusInfo
  • CGC-4000 Color Graphics Converter, 9700XL Video Scan Converter and 9400JR Video Scan Converter from Folsom Research



Low cost usability testing by Bob Hurst. Describes a very simple set-up that can capture the participant and screen with a single camera.

Equipment to Consider in Building a Portable Lab

  • Laptop computer (could also connect lab to respondentís computer)
  • Screen-recording software
  • Video camera (digital or high-8)
  • Tripod (for camera)
  • Monitor
  • Keyboard
  • Microphone (to capture user comments)
  • Tape recorder (to capture sound away from computer)
  • Portable printer
  • Lots of cable (to connect computer to viewing room)
  • Small TV (to set up in viewing room)
  • Double VCR (for copying tapes)
  • Video mixer (for creating split screen of computer and user)
  • Carrying cases for all equipment

Guidelines for Designing a Usability Lab
Chauncey Wilson

  1. Sound proofing is an important design consideration.  Make sure that all "holes" between rooms are properly sound-proofed (including the ceiling).
  2. Make sure that you have adjustable lighting in the observation room so you can dim the lights when a participant is in the testing room.
  3. You might want to include a second piece of glass angled to prevent a "drum effect" and to insure that noises don't propogate easily through the mirror. 
  4. Make sure that you can easily run new cables between the two rooms. 
  5. Purchase scan converters at the highest resolution that your users will be working on.
  6. If your company is international, consider buying one recorder that can record in both PAL and NTSC. That way you can record a tape and send it overseas without the need to send it out. 
  7. Make sure that your lab is accessible by wheelchair.
  8. Consider locating your lab near a waiting area or lounge so participants have a place to wait in comfort.
  9. Consider a white noise generator for the participant side of the lab if you have a really quiet room.  I worked in a lab once that was so quiet you could easily hear the motors on the cameras. A $50 white noise generator or small air cleaner (I've used both) can be used for a little (not a lot of) background noise.
  10. I visited a lab once where the team had originally placed a camera directly over the user's head so they could see the keyboard and paper documentation. There were strong complaints that the overhead camera was a bit voyeuristic and intrusive. The camera was mounted behind the user at an angle and the complaints ceased.
  11. Consider curtains or blinds for the mirror. Participants expect a mirror, but it might be distracting when you are using the room for other activities.  Also, a few pieces of reasonable artwork (not corporate advertising posters!!) make the room a little less intimidating.
  12. Provide enough outlets in the observation room for observers who may want to plug in their laptops to take notes.
  13. Have some nice signs on the doors to the lab that indicate a test is in progress.   Make the sign assertive so people aren't tempted to walk in during a test.
  14. You might consider running a video feed to a conference room nearby if you expect to have large groups of observers and your lab is small.

Additional Guidelines
Jean Schultz

  1. Blinds work well over the mirrors - you can have them down but not closed. You can still see well and it takes away the "mirror" look.
  2. If possible, locate the usability lab convenient to restrooms. 
  3. Signs on the lab doors - we used magnetic signs so it was easy to put them in place when a test was being run.
  4. If possible, have a door between the observation room and the lab - in one lab, we had several observation rooms and had to go down a hall and through several sets of doors.   That's inconvenient if you're dealing with flaking software !
  5. If you have more than one observation room, make sure you can run cables between them - you never know!

The Politics of Usability Labs
Arnie Lund, U S WEST Advanced Technologies

Once you get a lab set up, here are a few suggestions for how to keep it

1)  Make sure the lab is busy, and/or looks busy.  Consider using the space for prototyping in there, or partnering with market research for focus group work.   Avoid having the place look like storage room. The best, of course, is to actually use it.  Consult "best practice" metrics for how much floor space makes sense for how many usability people.

2)  Document and publicize activity in the lab.  Assuming the lab is being used well, periodically keep management informed about all the people being tested, total hours, etc.

3)  Turn the lab into an asset and not just a cost.  Get it on the itinerary of tours coming through.  Convince marketing that their customers will be more impressed with the products if they see the role of human factors testing.  Call the corporate newspaper and get them to do a story or two about testing in the lab.  Set up the situation where there is an obvious cost to people outside the usability group (ideally important people) if the lab is taken away.

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