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The pros and cons of a usability lab

The “lab” itself implies some kind of high-tech science experiment. It sounds formal, expensive, time consuming, and out of reach. But you don’t need a lab, and usability testing is actually often better when it’s not conducted in a lab.


Advantages of Testing in Lab:
1. Usability labs provide the best environment for people to observe and listen, either through one-way mirrors or through video cameras fed to large screens.
2. More people come to observe usability testing when it’s conducted in a lab. Testing becomes more of an “event”. The novelty of it, the comfort of the observation room, the free food, and the chance to get out of the office are all powerful temptations to get people to attend.
3. When more people come to observe testing, you can have debriefing sessions and discussions at various points during the day.
4. Labs allow you to have the most high-tech setup, with eyetracking, mobile usability lab test equipment, multiple cameras, audio recording, etc.


Disadvantages of Testing in Lab:
1. Usability labs with the one way mirror, the cameras, and the observers can be intimidating and make participants feel uncomfortable. This can affect their behavior. Knowing that the designers and project team are observing can lead to the effect of participants telling you what they think you want to hear.
2. It’s harder to get people to participate in a usability test when they have to come to a lab. It’s easier to get them to participate when you can go to them or test them remotely. The best participants are often the ones that don’t have time to come to a usability lab.
3. Because people have to travel to the lab in person, your participants are limited to those in the immediate area.
4. Usability labs are expensive. Lab space and equipment cost a lot of money, making usability testing more expensive.


Alternatives to a Usability Lab

When you can’t meet with the participants in person, you can test them remotely by connecting with the participant through a phone call and a web conferencing application. The participant shares his or her screen so you can see them navigate through the interface.

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