Monday Dec 10, 2007

Sun's usability test labs in Menlo Park

Back in August, Jiri Mzourek told us about the building of Sun's usability test labs in Prague, Czech Republic. In October, Kristin Travis told us what it was like to have her engineering team view her usability tests remotely. And in November, I posted an interview with Kim Arrowood, who manages Sun's usability test labs in Menlo Park, California. Now in this post, Kim takes us for a virtual tour of the labs in Menlo Park.

Kim Arrowood has worked in xDesign for over a year managing Sun's usability test labs in the U.S. Before coming to xDesign, she worked at Sun for 6 years in market development engineering as a program manager. Kim is working to improve the visibility of the usability labs in the U.S.


Jen: So Kim, tell me about the usability labs in Menlo Park.

Kim: The labs have both digital and analog recording; we use Camtasia for digital recording, and DVDs for analog recording. We recently installed all new equipment in two of our three labs in Menlo Park, so the labs are really state of the art. We primarily use two of the three labs in Menlo Park and the third lab is used as a staging area for tours and other demo setups. One lab is set up like an office environment, with desks, chairs, and computer equipment. We typically use that for one-on-one (facilitator:participant) usability testing.

The other lab that we use a lot of the time, called the "playspace", is set up in a more creative and casual way. There is a table in the middle with chairs around it, couches, and it's decorated in a more artistic way. It's been built to look more like a design studio than a typical usability lab. For example, it has lamps off to the sides, instead of being lit from the ceiling, and we have toys scattered around the room. We only have one computer set up in the room, and it's off to the side.

Jen: So how do you use the playspace?

Kim: It's great for focus groups, and we record webinars (training) in there. It also has a ceiling-mounted camera that looks down on the table, so we can use it for testing consumer devices or for capturing drawings. Once a week, the playspace is used to host a "design cafe" for teams to strategize and brainstorm, or for people to review their current designs and get feedback on what they are working on.

All of our labs in Menlo Park have an attached control room, separated from the lab by a half-wall and a two-way mirror, but they vary in the lab size and the number or observers they can accommodate in the control room. The playspace can accommodate up to 20 observers, and the other labs can handle up to 10 observers. Each lab also has the ability to support remote observers, for people who can't observe a study in person. This is very useful when part of a team in somewhere else and they can see everything that is going on in our labs.

Jen: So what else should we know about the labs in Menlo Park?

Kim: We've given tours to several different organizations internal and external to Sun. We were part of the CHI 2007 lab tours, and we just gave a tour to the SEED mentoring participants.

Jen: When you give tours, what's the feedback like?

Kim: They think that the control rooms look like a newscast. And the most common question is, "How do you get anything done in the play space?" I tell them that it facilitates creative thinking and communication.


Jen McGinn is an interaction designer in xDesign who is working to improve the user experience with software installation and registration. She has an MS in Human Factors in Information Design and works out of Sun's campus in Massachusetts.

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