Minimal user research kit

Title
Minimal user research kit
Published
Apr 14, 2019
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When putting together a kit for conducting research keeping things simple is my top priority. Each tool in the kit needs to serve a specific purpose to justify carrying it between sessions. In the end, all you really need is a good dictaphone. But of course research sessions aren’t always as simple as having a conversation, to document other activities, such as interactions with prototypes and paper exercises, a few addition bits of hardware and software are helpful. Here’s what I use and why.

Hardware

Audio

In the past I’ve used both my phone and laptop for recording. I prefer to have a separate device for recording audio. I use my phone for photos and my laptop is used for various other tasks. Laptops also suffer from a poor directional microphone and if note-taking at any point voices tend to get overshadowed by the clacking of the keyboard.

The Sony ICD-UX560 is the best dictaphone I’ve found at a reasonable price point. It’s light, reliable, and holds 40 hours of high quality audio. The battery is charged via USB and lasts for days. When doing home-based sessions I’ll tend to have a little tour of the participant’s home, it helps to have a small device like this that you can carry around. To see why, try maintaining a conversation with a participant as you walk through their home holding a condenser microphone in one hand and a laptop in the other.

Good quality audio is the most valuable output from any session. It’s worth investing in a dedicated device just for this.

Video

I like to keep things simple with video. I use this Logitech webcam primarily for picture-in-picture recording when a participant is interacting with a digital prototype. When positioned above a monitor this camera is great. If positioned to record a wider scene it struggles to get the right focus. It is possible to manually adjust the focus but it requires proprietary software, I tried to do it once and gave up.

In my experience I’ve found that video recordings of the participant rarely get used after the session. An exception of this is when interrogating particular interactions with prototypes. If you want video footage of participants to play back to stakeholders then it’s worth investing in a decent video camera—webcams won’t cut it. I’ve used GoPros in the past to record sessions. I don’t recommend them because the file sizes are massive and their software cuts up the video file into smaller files automatically. It’s just not easy to scan through the session and pick out clips. Using a GoPro will also require lots of accessories such as spare batteries, a proprietary battery charger, a mount, a tripod, and an SD card converter. Yuck.

Photography

iPhone SE (Arguably, the last great iPhone IMHO)
iPhone SE (Arguably, the last great iPhone IMHO)

For most research situations any modern, digital camera will do. It’s not about beautiful, artistic photography, it’s about documenting for future understanding. For that reason, my iPhone SE is more than sufficient. I document each session by photographing key moments and getting a photo of the participant’s face for better recall during synthesis. If you’re using your personal phone during sessions always remember to put it on flight mode.

When conducting field research you’ll be taking many more photographs than if you were in a lab. In this case, it’s worth investing in a camera that has an expandable memory, performs well in low light situations and has good meta data controls to make file management easier.

Test devices

The devices you need for your research sessions will obviously depend on what you’re testing. When I’m testing desktop prototypes and websites I have a monitor and a USB keyboard and mouse for participants to use. Not everyone is comfortable using laptops and in most cases participants aren’t familiar with Mac trackpads, so a mouse is a necessity. They should all be wired—connecting via Bluetooth is just anther thing to worry about when setting up. If I’m unable to get a PC for tests then I remember to switch the scrolling on my mac so that down is up again.

If I’m testing mobile prototypes I try to have both an Android and an iOS device to hand. I ask the participant which they are most familiar with and use that one. I suggest purchasing specific testing devices so that notifications from your group chat don’t interfere with the session.

Software

Note-taking

Notion
Notion pictured here with the draft for this very article, how meta.

The best software for taking notes is the one you’re most used to. I prefer an interface that is free from clutter and software that doesn’t require an internet connection. I use Notion to transcribe recordings after sessions, it handles markdown so I can format the text quickly if needed. iA writer is good also.

If I’m acting as note-taker during a session then I’ll use Pearnote. The text interface leaves much to be desired but its killer feature is recording audio whilst typing notes. It’s great because if I haven’t quite caught something during the session then I can quickly locate the correct position in the audio by navigating the text document.

Recording

OBS
OBS. Looks very technical, but it’s worth getting to know it.

Open Broadcaster Software, or OBS for short, is great for doing multiple views and picture in picture. It’s more reliable than Quicktime, which has crashed on me a few times. It gives you lots of control over the output settings of the video. It’s worth spending a bit of time with it before sessions to get the right settings for you. It can get a bit technical if you’re not familiar with video jargon but there’s plenty of YouTube tutorials to help you figure it out.

Depending on the session, I’ll create multiple scenes and switch between them at the appropriate point. I’ll have a title card scene, a face scene, a couple of picture in picture scenes where a browser window or phone screen is recorded alongside the webcam view of the participant’s face.

That’s it. A few simple but powerful pieces of hardware and software that see me through all kinds of research scenarios.