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How to create a cheap make-shift user testing lab

In other news, I’ve left Spotify and joined a non-profit startup called 29k to head up their Product. We’re a small team and the product is in the discovery phase of development right now, so one of the first things I’ve had the pleasure of working on is to create a prototype and start testing it with real users. However, we don’t have a fancy test lab…

At Spotify, I was accustomed to working with full-time User Researchers that work with agencies to source participants and we had an office with it’s own user testing lab, you know, the kind you see on TV with a one-way mirror. Everything is setup for us as Product Managers – just be clear about what you want to learn / test and the rest happens magically! How convenient.

Well now that I’m in a 7 person team, we had to take matters into our own hands 🙂 We had to build our own test lab. Because I’m working at Norrsken House (a co-working space for social good initiatives), I thought it might be helpful to teach others how to do it too.

Before you read on, if you plan to live stream your user testing, make sure to apply for live streaming at Youtube, as it takes 24 hours to be enabled.

How to build your own user testing lab

IMG_0396 2You will need:

  • A room big enough to fit 2 people & your equipment
  • A Webcam (2 preferably) – we bought the Logitech C922 Pro Stream
  • A Microphone – we bought the BLUE Snowball iCE
  • A tripod (or selfie stick, we used Benro BK10)
  • A laptop/PC powerful enough to stream video
  • A test device (or your own if you’re willing to part with it for the day)
  • A nice big comfy chair for the participant and a less-comfy one for you 😉
  • (optional) USB cable extenders
  • (optional) Bluetooth headphones – if your app has sound

Room Setup

With the room setup you want to achieve 2 things: A comfortable participant and an optimal arrangement of your recording tools.

1. A comfortable participant

A big comfy chair
A big comfy chair 🙂

Why does this matter? Because any attention away from your testing will prevent the user from deeply engaging in your questions and in the prototype. Here are some tips:

  • Turn off or remove any electronic devices that could distract them (TVs, flashing lights, etc)
  • Get the most comfortable chair you can find – we used a very wide chair with pillows
  • Take notice of the room temperature – does it need to be changed? We had to provide a blanket as it was a bit cold.
  • Have drinks and snacks available in the room and offer them when you walk in together – you don’t want a hungry user!
  • You & your prototype should be the most interesting thing in sight to the user. (e.g. don’t have them facing pedestrian traffic outside)
  • As best you can, hide the recording equipment as much as possible, without it seeming weird. (at least not in constant sight)
  • Explain to your participant how the recording will be used and why, you don’t want them sitting there wondering about it all throughout the test.

2. Optimal arrangement of your recording tools

Ideally you want your recording equipment out of constant view, but preferably positioned so that you can see the facial & body expressions on the user. Also, although not mandatory (it really depends on what you’re testing), I’d advise having a second webcam focused on the user’s hands / phone. This can be done either with another tripod / cam, or even better with a make-shift user testing camera / sled. Buying one outright is quite expensive (e.g. MrTappy) or you can just make your own.

Lab Computer Setup

First off, make sure you have a decent computer, preferably one with a decent graphics card. I used my Macbook Pro (3,5 GHz Intel Core i7, 16BG RAM, Intel Iris Plus Graphics 650 1536 MB) and the laptop struggled, but it got the job done. I think the graphics card was likely the bottleneck. This computer is going to not only record your session, but also live stream it so your fellow colleagues can watch and take notes.

For live streaming, we thought of using Twitch, but they don’t allow private streams (we didn’t want our stream to be public), so we used Youtube instead as they allow you to make your stream ‘unlisted’, meaning only folks with the link will see it. To display iPhone / Android screen interactions, we used Reflector 3. We had some issues with the connection dropping out & lagging, but we weren’t sure if it was our wifi network, the laptop failing under the strain of the streaming/recording or just flakiness of AirPlay. If I were to do this again, I’d perhaps use Quicktime and a lightning cable for more responsive / real-time footage.

  1. Create a Google account (or use an existing one), then head to and apply to be able to stream – this takes 24 hours!
  2. Download & install any appropriate software for your Webcam & Microphone.
  3. Download Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) and install it. If it asks, optimise for live streaming.
  4. Purchase & download Reflector 3 and test it out by connecting to your laptop / PC over AirPlay / Cast. (alternatively, you can use Quicktime / cable or whatever Android uses to record your screen)
  5. Connect your test phone to Reflector by connecting to Wifi and using AirPlay mirroring to your computer. (or equivalent for Google Cast / Android) Reflector will ask you to enter a code.
  6. Note: Using Reflector will channel sound to your laptop, meaning your participant won’t hear what they are doing if your app uses sound. We got around this by connecting a pair of bluetooth headphones to the computer, so the sound was channeled from Phone –> Computer –> Bluetooth Headphones. This ensures that the stream won’t hear the sound but the participant will. Plus it’s more natural for the user.

Setting up OBS

  1. Go to your Youtube Live Dashboard, scroll to the bottom of the page and copy your “Stream name/key” (click “Reveal”) Screenshot 2018-11-27 at 15.58.30
  2. Open up OBS and select Settings -> “Stream”. Set “Service” to “YouTube / YouTube Gaming” and then paste your Stream name/key into “Stream Key”. Click OK
  3. Optional: For high quality videos, I set “Recording Quality” to “Indistinguishable Quality”
  4. Click the + button in the “Sources” section. This is where you’ll add your webcam feed(s) and reflector.
  5. For your webcam(s), select “Video Capture Device”, give it a name appropriate to the device you’re adding, click OK, then select the webcam device from the “Device” drop down. Click OK and resize it to suit how you’d like the stream to look. Wash, rinse and repeat for the other webcam if you have 2.
  6. For Reflector, select “Window Capture Device”, give it a name, then select the Reflector window from the drop-down menu of all the active applications running on your computer. It should say something like “[Reflector 3] <name of your phone>”. Click OK.
  7. Now that your sources are setup, you’re ready to stream & record! I recommend streaming AND recording, even though Youtube will save a copy of the live stream to your Youtube account which can be downloaded later.
  8. Run a test! This is so important, start the stream & recording and play around with your test device, make sure Reflector is working, the stream is working and your colleagues can see it and that your computer doesn’t fold under the strain of the effort needed to run all of this and stream at the same time.

Finally, whilst I won’t go in to how to conduct user testing in general, I will mention that it is super important to do a dry run on a team member (or friend) before user testing begins to iron out all the technical kinks before you do the real thing. You don’t want to be fumbling around with tech stuff when your participant is sitting there waiting to get started 😉

So that’s pretty much it! There’s loads of blog articles on the interwebs about how to run a successful user test session, but few on how to setup the equipment and conditions necessary to conduct one. I hope this helps!