How to simulate context of use in-lab

By Nicole Harlow

The context of use is an important consideration when carrying out usability testing in the lab.

But it’s not always possible or cost-effective to carry out user testing in the field in a real-life environment. The next best thing is to simulate the use setting within a lab taking into account the contextual and physical factors.  

Why is context of use important?

In real life users are exposed to environmental and physical distractions such as walking or talking in a public space.

When asking users a hypothetical question, or one where they need to think back and remember how they once felt in a particular situation, their answers are often inaccurate and slightly optimistic.

Attitudes and recollections can often conflict with real life feelings, experiences and behaviours. Many a time we have witnessed respondents struggle to use a website, but then reflect positively on how easy it was to use at the end of the interview.

Simulating context of use: Top tips

If you have a product or service where context of use directly impacts on the user experience, consider these top tips when simulating context of use in the lab:

  1. Let users experience the whole experience – Don’t force users down one single path. Instead allow users to explore the entirety of a system or site, even if parts are less developed
  2. Consider physical factors – think about the physical set up e.g. the height, distance, angle and physical restrictions of the device/interface that will be used
  3. Consider sensory factors which may distract the user from the task at hand and think about which of these can be brought into the lab
  4. Consider factors which may normally enhance an experience – for example offer drinks and snacks when testing something designed to be used by a group of friends on a Friday night

Examples of in-lab set ups

We recently worked with a major transport operator to design a new interface for their ticketing system. Noise, lighting and signage were all important context of use factors. But crucially time was one of the most important factors to consider. If you’ve ever been stuck in a queue trying to buy a ticket in a hurry you know how pressured that growing queue makes you feel.

To re-create this pressure we asked users to complete individual tasks at the kiosk, whilst being timed and closely watched by a moderator. Respondents weren’t allowed to receive any help and were moved swiftly onto the next task if they took too long.

In another project, we looked at a mobile contactless payment system for supermarkets, where auditory feedback was fundamental to using the system. We set up a supermarket style environment within the lab, ensuring the system was placed at a realistic height and distance from the user. Users were able to interact with the system freely and background noise was played to simulate the real life environment.

Lab testing does have its limitations which an experienced moderator will account for, and report on, in their findings. But you can also think about environmental factors in the lab setting which bring elements of the users’ context into the research lab.

What do you think?