Mobile Usability testing : practical tips

The session about Mobile Usability testing by Belen Barros Pena, a senior interaction designer from the UK, was particularly interesting because it was not only based on theory : she gave us very practical tips on how to conduct and record mobile usability testing.

The b-i UX team attended the 6th Euro IA Summit which took place in Paris last weekend. This event gathers a large number of experts from the information architecture and user experience community in Europe. Design and usability issues regarding mobile devices were the hot topic this year, and we would like to share some of the smart recommendations we took away from the event.

The session about Mobile Usability testing by Belen Barros Pena, a senior interaction designer from the UK, was particularly interesting because it was not only based on theory : she gave us very practical tips on how to conduct and record mobile usability testing.

She addressed the following questions and issues:

  • Do we test mobile phone applications and websites in the lab or in the field - meaning the actual user environment?
  • It’s very easy to record screen and the facial expressions of the user when testing a website or application on a desktop. But for mobile app tests, it’s much more challenging. So how do we record mobile screens, fingers and user facial expressions when using a mobile device?

device used by Nielsen Norma group

Well, Belen’s answer to the first question is rather clear: testing the mobile phone in the field is more complex and time-consuming. It’s difficult to record what’s happening on the screen when users move in their natural environment. When testing a particular application, working in a lab makes it easier to catch what happens on the screen and the user's actions/reactions. Field testing also requires double the time of lab testing.

The answer to the 2nd question is that for recording the mobile screen and the user, the best solution is to build your own system:

  • It’s cheaper: the manufactured lab solutions are very expensive.
  • It’s lighter and allows the user freedom with movements: the ready-made labs appear to be too heavy for the user during the test session. Alternatively, users have to use their mobile sitting at a table and must keep it within the camera range.
  • It’s easy to fix: should the home-made solution break down, it is easier to fix as you built it, and are familiar with the components.

I took some pictures of the device made by Belen for recording mobile screens during user test sessions. The photos below show Julia and Nicolas (UX consultants at b-i) trying it out with their own phones:

The device is very light and allowed Julia and Nicolas to use their mobile very easily, even with the camera which is used for recording the screen. The phone support can be adapted to different sizes and styles of phones.

The material used for recording the mobile screen and the user’s face is the following:

  • A few pieces of Meccano for the mobile support, and to allow for the fixation of a camera.
  • Blu Tack (or Patafix in French) on the sides of the support to steady and protect the phone.
  • A USB camera at the end of a very flexible tube pointed at the screen (This version can be found on the internet: it’s a Hue USB HD webcam)
  • A jubilee clip to fix the camera onto the Meccano support
  • A second USB webcam pointed at the user's face
  • A USB male to female extension cable
  • A Windows computer
  • The software CamStudio, a free screen recording software : plugged into the 2 cameras, it displays and records the mobile screen + the user’s face on a single PC

Follow this link to see a video that shows how to build the device:

The total price of the materiel : around 143 EUR!

At the end of the session, I talked with Belen about the relevant use of lab testing. In my opinion, and I believe she agrees with me, user testing in a lab is relevant for assessing usability of one specific mobile app. To identify when, why and in what context users use such an application,  contextual inquiry or ethnographic study is more appropriate.

For example, for one client (a large French mobile operator) who wanted to know how their mobile customers (from 3 different target profiles) use their services, I conducted the following test protocol:

  • Diaries: filled in by the target users over one week. Each day, on a particular topic, the users had to write what they did with their mobile: when, why, what they think about it and also include a picture of the situation. There was a different topic for each day.
  • Individual interviews: based on the content of the diaries and the user pictures: the objective was to obtain insight into the users’ needs. The pictures were printed and displayed on the wall of the room where the interviews were conducted. It’s a very good way to remind the user of the context and help them to verbalise their thoughts. 
  • Shadowing: I chose 5 users from the panel who were very representative of the target and followed them over a day. It allows for observation of the users in real life, and for the discovery of needs or constraints that lab testing might not reveal.

In conclusion, I beleive that the decision to do a test in the lab or in the field depends on the customer’s goals and constraints.

In any case, we are ready to make our own device for conducting mobile usability test :-)

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About the author

Laetitia Giannettini
Laetitia Giannettini