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Design Research

How to know if you should build an internal UX lab

18th July 2018

So, you’re doing more and more user research.

You’re taking a user-centric approach to everything you do. Brilliant news. But you don’t have the capabilities in-house to conduct this research. What do you do?

You could hire an external agency and use their facilities to conduct the research for you, or you could look at building your own in-house facilities. This blog addresses the pros and cons of each approach.

Do we even need a lab at all?

In theory, usability research can be done anywhere with a device (e.g. laptop or smartphone), a method of recording video and audio, a moderator and a notepad. But having a lab allows for a level of control and consistency across research sessions. 

If you are conducting regular research, it may make financial sense to save on the costs of outsourcing and become self-sufficient. The point where you reach critical mass is going to be very different depending on the type and number of projects you run.

External vs. internal labs 

Two key benefits of external labs are independence and experience. External labs are intentionally neutral environments. The composition of research environments has a considerable influence on participants and their attitude and actions so keeping the space free of branding is really important. This is difficult to do in an in-house lab as your brand is likely to be present both outside and inside the facility. 

External labs are also often the right choice because they do a lot of the hard work for you. Not only are they purpose-built spaces, kitted out with lots of tech and software, they also have additional support teams across aspects such as participant recruitment, scheduling, and tech support. Often, trained moderators and lab-managers are also on hand to plan and conduct research if you don’t have that experience internally. 

Additionally, external labs commonly have central locations, enabling participants ease of access. The last thing you want is to have people turning up to a research session frustrated and flustered because they couldn’t find your office.   

Building and running your own, internal research lab is a costly investment, but if it makes sense against your company goals, the value and convenience that comes with having your own dedicated space is huge.

One of the biggest challenges faced by project teams comes with trying to gain momentum with senior stakeholders. Getting these people engaged is arguably critical to successful project delivery. Labs often provide viewing facilities for clients and project stakeholders, but getting them out of the office to view any sessions can be a struggle. Having in-house labs makes it easier to involve stakeholders in the process. The value this brings to project outcomes and subsequent customer experience is priceless.

Despite common misconceptions, in-house labs don’t have to be at your offices; they can be at a completely separate location. You also don’t need 5 rooms, each tailored to different types of research, if you create a flexible space you can adapt to many scenarios. 

Asking yourself some of the following questions should help you start determining whether an internal or external lab is the right course of action for you:

If you do decide to create your own lab we highly recommend speaking to expert researchers. We’ve put together some of our key insights which we distilled from helping some of our clients build their internal labs. We discuss space, layout, equipment and other considerations here: What does a good research lab look like?

A point to note before proceeding is that no matter how well you design a lab, it cannot replace doing research in context (a.k.a. ethnographic research). Conducting research in a realistic environment helps to build a bigger picture of the factors and influences on a customer experience which can’t be replicated in a lab. Other methodologies including quantitative methods should also be drawn upon. In-lab usability testing is important but not the only thing you should be using to gather insight and inform design decisions.                  


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