Choosing a research facility for your project

When leading a user experience research project, I work closely with various vendors, such as design agencies, legal advisors, travel agencies, and recruiters to ensure my interviews go smoothly.  When I'm not interviewing participants in their own environment such as their home or office (also called a contextual inquiry), I work with user research facilities. 

These facilities are physical locations where users and stakeholders are invited to participate in various user research activities, such as formative evaluations, usability tests, focus groups, and other activities relevant to understanding how people use products and services. In short, these are places optimized for interviewing and observing people while researchers watch and listen. No two user research facilities have the same services or qualities.  However, all of the facilities I use consist of at least one interview room and a separate private room for observing interviews these interviews.

A researcher can easily find thousands of these facilities by visiting websites such as quirks.com and greenbook.org. And once I've identified the city of the interviews, I review my options for nearby facilities. More specifically, I consider 4 topics before making my choice:

  1. Physical Environment
  2. Staff
  3. Supplies
  4. Technology

Over the course of several emails or conversations with the facility director, I will typically know which venue will best meet expectations. Below are some of the questions I ask when choosing which research facility I will use.


Physical Environment

I expect the research facility to be free of obstacles and stresses that may interfere with my team's focus on the participants. Additionally, I don't want the environment to interfere with or distract the research participants. In a well-designed, well-organized environment, everyone feels physically and mentally comfortable. Before each study, I consider a few environment questions:

 

How findable and accessible is the facility?

  • Is the location easy to find at night? 

  • Can the facility easily be accessed with public transportation? Are there simple enough ways for participants to travel to the facility?

  • Are there wheelchair ramps and rails for patients with unique needs?

  • Is safe, inexpensive parking readily available near the facility?

 

How will people physically feel inside the facility?

  • Is the climate reliably controlled and easily changed in both the observation room and the interview rooms?
  • Is the lighting controllable and pleasant for people who may 8-12 hours at a time in a room?
  • Is the interior design of the observation room and the interview room aesthetically minimal but pleasant and accommodating for extended stays?
     

 

Will people have the amenities they want and expect?

  • How is the quality of mobile phone reception in the facility?
  • Is the ambient noise from the outside as muffled as possible (especially noises from public transportation or other buildings)?
     

Can interview observers feel comfortable?

  • Can the walls be used for posting notes or capturing observations?
  • Is there enough room between each observer that people can relax comfortably?
  • Are the chair comfortable and soundless if people move in them?
  • Are hygiene amenities, such as well-stocked washrooms, accommodating to long work days?
  • Is the sound-proofing between rooms good enough that observers don’t worry about the volume of their voice?
  • Is the quality of the one-way mirror good enough that participants won’t notice the observers if someone turns on a device’s screen or desk lamp?
     

How are the nearby dining options?

  • Nearby dining helps researchers quickly relieve stress and refuel. Are there dining options near the facility with wait times that won’t interfere with schedules?
  • Are there local food delivery services that offer cuisine that would not overpower an observation room with its smell?
     

Is the neighborhood safe?

  • Is facility safe to visit in the evening?
  • How does the facility insure the safety of its participants?
  • Does the facility provide areas for storing and locking personal items (for researchers and participants)? 

Staff

I clarify my needs and expectations from staff members before arriving, and they often communicate which needs they can and cannot accomodate. After a few conversations over email, we feel more comfortable and prepared to work together. During these conversations, I ask a few questions:

 

How proactive and responsive are the staff members?

  • Who can be a single point of contact for questions or requests during the study? (At least a week before researchers begin their work, does a staff member introduce himself or herself as a single point of contact for support matters?)
  • Will the staff be able to discreetly keep researchers up to date with changes in interview schedules (such as cancellations and no-shows)?
  • Have staff members indicated how they will respond to researcher needs at the speed required for the project?
  • Are all of the staff members aware of how and when to interrupt which researchers and for which situations?
     

 

What is the staff’s relationship with recruiters and sub-suppliers?

  • Does the single point-of-contact have emergency plans for rescheduling?
  • Does the facility manager have clear quality expectations from any recruiter they work with?
  • Do staff members reduce as much of the administrative work from the researcher as possible?
     

 

Are the practicalities of conducting business simple?

  • Researchers need time to focus on participants, not the details of conducting business. Does the staff know how to itemize receipts to accommodate the researcher’s paperwork needs?
  • Do all staff members know which consent forms and documents the researcher requires?
     

 

How does the staff consistently improve itself?

  • Does the staff proactively seek feedback from researchers before and after programs? After a program, how do staff members learn about how their service could be improved? 
  • Can staff members provide testimonials  from other research customers?

Supplies

When supplies are organized and ready, I can begin my work the second I enter the facility. When they arent, I lose time preparing the work environment. Before I arrive, I ask the staff to confirm certain materials a available, and I write positive feedback to teams who help me feel that they've considered my work needs.

 

Which note-taking materials are available?

  • Does the facility provide high-quality sticky notes in a variety of colors and sizes? (I personally do not like off-brand notes as their adhesive isn't as reliable)

  • Is the facility stocked with various writing utensils? (Different sizes and colors of pens, pencils, etc) Is the quality of these utensils good enough to not frustrate individuals who may be taking notes for 8-12 hours a day?

  • Are tear sheets and wall-friendly painter's tapes available for posting bigger ideas?

  • Is the wall painted in a way to secure affixed notes and posters?

  • Does the facility have a relationship with a local office supplies store or delivery service to accommodate special material requests?
     

What is the state of the whiteboards?

  • Are the whiteboards periodically cleaned?

  • Are the whiteboard pens different enough from permanent markers that they can be identified in low light? (Early in my career, I ruined a whiteboard when I couldn't differentiate which was which in the dark observation room.)
     

How is food stored in the facility?

  • Is the refrigerator large enough to store leftover food?

  • Is the refrigerator stocked with food that fits the dietary requests of the researchers?

  • Are foods and beverages for good blood sugar available?

 


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Technology

Slow wifi, poor cellphone reception and unresponsive displays are just some of the challenges which distract me from the users. Does the facility have the technology necessary for accomplishing my user research goals?

 

Is the technology right technology used for each type of research?

  • Does the facility provide focus vision to allow observers behind the glass to focus on specific details?
  • What transcription and/or translation services are available on the fly versus available with a short lead time?
  • If video is being captured, is it saved in a format that is compatible with the security and video editing needs of the researcher?
  • Is the media its shared on in compliance with the researcher’s protocol? (for example, some researchers do not place video content on some cloud-based servers)
     

Is the technology accessible, friendly and fast?

 

Do you have have important details to consider when choosing a facility? Please share the. In the comments below. 

  • Is there a readily accessible photocopier, scanner, and printer?
  • Is it easy to access without requiring extensive setup?
  • Are international power adaptors available?
  • Are extra phone adaptors for popular phones available?
  • Are USB flash drives and SD cards available for file storage on computers and cameras, respectively?