Depending on circumstances, testing facilities can range from a simple office setting or a hotel room to a full-blown usability testing lab. You do not have to have a full usability testing lab in order to conduct usability testing. If office space is at a premium, the office of one of the usability team members can be used for testing. There may not be a one-way mirror, special equipment, or videotaping. There may be only a few chairs, a desk, and a computer. However, skilled staff members can still successfully create and run the tests. Similarly, it is quite acceptable to use a conference room to run tests; however, it is critical that the room be reasonably quiet and free of visual and auditory interruptions. For this reason, it is best never to use participants' workspaces for testing. You can observe them there, but workspaces are not good places to run tests.
There are a number of reasons for having a formal and dedicated usability testing facility. One reason is that designating a space for testing shows a commitment to testing within the organization. It is nice to have a room or perhaps a suite with that label, but this will not have value so much in supporting the work as in making a political statement. Of course, the facility becomes an albatross if it is not regularly used. Unfortunately, some labs left unused later become storage spaces.
There is a real value to having a quality testing environment. While the results of running tests in storage closets can still be quite good, it is best to have a testing environment that makes the participants and the facilitator feel comfortable and important. If you can make the test a relaxed experience, you will get more accurate and complete results. At the same time, facilities that feel imposing and overly scientific should be avoidedyou do not want the evaluation environment to feel too formal. That's why usability engineers usually call people participants instead of subjects; no one likes to feel like a lab rat!
Facilitating a test is a very demanding activity. It takes focus, and it's difficult, if not impossible, for one person to keep the test process running, observe the nuances of the results, and record data. There is no additional energy or time left to greet participants, provide the initial forms, and give them compensation once the testing is complete. Therefore, it is very useful to have additional staff available to handle these functions. Professional testing facilities have support staff.
In some cases, you will need a facility that is geographically separated from your offices. You might decide to do testing in a number of cities intermittently, or you might even need to complete testing in these different cities quite often. In this scenario, it makes sense to have a relationship with a testing facility in each location. These testing facilities are generally set up for marketing studies, but they work well for usability testing. It is also possible to use a conference room in a hotel, but the testing facilities provide such valuable amenities as a greeter, a one-way mirror, built-in sound and video, and usually a more comfortable atmosphere.
Whether you obtain a contract with a professional testing facility or choose to build your own testing space, there are a few advantages associated with obtaining a professional testing facility versus using a simple conference room. Figures 8-1 and 8-2 show the appearance of a typical professional testing facility. Your facility may have a one-way mirror. Most people can tell when you have a one-way mirror, so if your facility has one in place, you should be straight forward about it. With a proper briefing, the mirror works very well. Developers, business owners, and marketing and usability staff can come and observe without disturbing the test. They can discuss what they see and send in their questions to the test facilitator. In place of a one-way mirror you can also use video feeds to adjacent rooms to allow others to observe without disturbing the test.
Figure 8-1. Observer's Side of a Professional Testing Facility Using a One-Way Mirror (see Plate 1)Photo courtesy of The Bureau of Labor Statistics
Figure 8-2. User's Side of a Professional Testing Facility Using a One-Way Mirror (see Plate 2)Photo courtesy of The Bureau of Labor Statistics