GV Library Design

How we built a research lab for mobile app testing in just a few hours

Photo by Milan Boers

OK, you’re ready to run a user study. You’ve learned how to recruit participants, write an interview guide, interview people, and summarize results. But there’s just one problem: you don’t have access to a research lab. Don’t worry! Read on to learn how Pocket built a lightweight research lab for mobile app testing in their office. —John Zeratsky


Last month at Pocket we ran three design sprints in a row, with help from Google Ventures. Three sprints means three user studies — we brought in 4–6 real people each Friday for three weeks.

This was our first time conducting user research in the office, so we only had a couple days to put together an A/V setup for user testing. Here’s how we hacked together a professional user research lab for mobile app testing with a few simple tools.

The prototype

We were testing prototypes of an iPhone app we built in Keynote. We copied the prototypes onto an iPad mini and ran them in Keynote for iOS.

The prototypes were designed in portrait mode, but Keynote for iOS only shows presentations in landscape mode. This was a happy accident — it turns out an iPhone-sized prototype fits quite nicely on a landscape-mode iPad mini. It’s a bit less realistic than a handheld iPhone, but there’s an upside: The iPad mini remains stationary on the table, making life easier for the researcher and observers.

iPhone prototype on iPad mini

The lab

We set up our research “lab” in a quiet conference room with a table and two chairs. (And yes, we gave the participant the slightly taller chair.)

participant and researcher in lab

Here’s the equipment we used:

  • iPad mini for running the prototypes
  • USB document camera for capturing the iPad screen (we used the Ipevo Ziggi for $94)
  • USB webcam for capturing the participant’s face — clipped to the top of a desk lamp so it was at the proper height (we used the Microsoft LifeCam HD-6000 for $35)
  • MacBook Air for displaying video from the document camera and webcam, streaming to the observation room, and recording the session

It was important that observers could see the device screen and the participant’s face, so we connected both cameras to the MacBook Air and opened the video feeds side-by-side. We opened the document camera feed in a simple viewer app included with the Ziggi, and routed the webcam video through Photo Booth (part of Mac OS X).

document camera and webcam side by side on MacBook Air screen

The observation room

We set up a second conference room as our observation room, where members of the sprint team and the rest of the company could watch the user interviews.

To stream video from the lab, we used AirPlay Mirroring on the MacBook Air to stream the desktop (which included both camera feeds; see above) to an Apple TV, which was connected to a large monitor in the observation room.

On a local network, AirPlay Mirroring provides very high-quality video. If we had observers outside the office, we could run Google Hangouts on the MacBook Air and share our screen to anyone connected.

Just before starting our first interviews, we discovered that AirPlay Mirroring does not include audio. We substituted two standard office speakerphones, calling the lab from the observation room (and muting the observation room so the participant couldn’t hear anyone on the other end).

Here’s the equipment we used:

  • Apple TV for streaming the MacBook Air’s desktop
  • Large monitor for showing Apple TV output in the observation room
  • Two standard office speakerphones

Easy, high-quality, and affordable

We were very happy with this lightweight setup: it was easy to assemble, provided high-quality video and audio, and didn’t cost much. (We already had the computer, monitor, iPad, and telephones in the office.) It was particularly valuable seeing the device screen and participant’s face side-by-side.

We’re always looking for ways to improve convenience or quality, so let us know if you’ve discovered other good tricks for user testing. And if you try this setup in your office, please tell us how it goes!