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Usability Labs: Portable Versus Fixed

We are often asked if you need a usability lab to conduct usability testing. The answer is no. You can do testing in either a formal or informal setting. The most important thing is that you do the testing. Another common question is the value of portable usability labs versus fixed. This article explains the benefits of both.

Usability Lab Facilities: What's Involved?

The facilities used to do so vary greatly in capabilities, flexibility, and cost-from a hand-held video camcorder to elaborate usability labs containing the latest recording technologies. Typical audio-video equipment found in usability labs includes the following:

  • One or more video cameras to capture views of participant behavior (e.g., facial expressions, hands, movements, posture)
  • A scan converter to capture (to video) the computer screen with which the participant is interacting
  • A video mixer to combine these video sources into a split-screen or picture-in-picture image
  • One or more microphones to capture the participant's voice and the test administrator's voice
  • An audio mixer to combine these audio inputs or an intercom to allow an interchange between the test participant and the test administrator or other observers
  • A video recorder to store the output of the video mixer and the participant and test administrator audio
  • One or more video monitors to display these video sources
  • One or more speakers to present the audio interchange to observers, both in real-time and upon playback

Computer equipment can include the computer system with which the test participant interacts and a separate computer for use by the test administrator or other observer in logging observational data.

Portable Labs

The aforementioned capabilities are now available in portable units that can be readily shipped and set up quickly at remote facilities. There are various packaging approaches for these portable units, but all are intended to integrate the audio-video components to an extent that minimizes set-up time and maximizes durability. Interconnections among the basic audio-video components are "hardwired," leaving the lab user to connect the equipment that resides in the vicinity of the test participant with the equipment that can reside some distance away (e.g., in an adjacent room), and the components are mounted in the shipping case itself or in a structure that fits in the shipping case. Portable labs usually include one or more small video monitors, but may have outputs that can feed larger monitors if they are available in the test environment. With the exception of thus sometimes having to follow the action on relatively small displays, portable labs have advanced to the point that there are few other compromises in functionality entailed in their use.

Fixed Labs

Fixed labs, i.e., those with stationary equipment, often include the following additional capabilities:

  • Video cameras mounted on the walls or ceiling, sometimes with pan-tilt-zoom controls in order to follow participant movements
  • Adjacent rooms for the test participant and test administrator or observers, with a viewing portal equipped with one-way glass
  • Large video monitors or projectors to accommodate groups of observers
  • An auxiliary computer monitor for observers that mirrors the computer monitor being viewed by the participant
  • Additional video recorders to allow concurrent recordings in real-time or copying tapes upon playback
  • Video editing equipment to support the production of "highlights" tapes
  • Auxiliary keyboard and mouse to allow control of the participant's computer from the adjacent room

Benefits of Using a Fixed vs. a Portable Lab

The benefits of a fixed lab include the following:

  • A fixed usability lab has a separate room for notetakers and observers. That allows you to have more people at a usability test than you can have when everyone is in the same room. Having room for observers is important because seeing a usability test is such an eye-opening experience that it often serves as a catalyst for changing attitudes about users and about the importance of usability.
  • It is easier to do a formal usability test in a fixed usability lab. A formal usability test is one in which you have the participant working alone and you are taking quantitative data, such as time to complete a task, as well as qualitative notes.
  • Even if you are doing informal usability testing (where a usability specialist sits with the participant and you focus on qualitative notes), you may want to tape record the session. Fixed labs have recording equipment already set up. Fixed labs usually also have someone with the technical knowledge to set up and maintain the recording equipment.
  • A usability lab can be a powerful statement. Even doing a test in one (not just building one of your own) can be a highly visible reminder of the importance of testing for usability. Sometimes, seeing a usability lab with its space, rooms, equipment, etc. is what makes a manager or executive realize that usability is a serious endeavor.

The benefits of a portable lab include:

  • It may be more difficult to schedule time in a fixed usability lab than to find a conference or hotel room in which to set up a portable lab.
  • It usually costs more to rent a full-scale fixed usability lab than to rent a portable lab.
  • Some usability specialists prefer to conduct usability testing in a more natural environment. They consider the fixed usability lab to be too artificial an environment.
  • Some usability specialists prefer to always use informal usability testing methods, where the test administrator sits with the user and where the test team concentrates on qualitative rather than quantitative data. You can hold an informal usability test in a usability laboratory, but you don't need the formal setting.
  • The fixed lab may not give you the flexibility you need in terms of where to hold the usability tests.


You should be doing usability testing even if you do not have a fixed laboratory or access to one. Do not let anyone say, "We can't do usability testing because we do not have a usability lab." Just do it! Do it in any space you can find.