In June 2017, BGL Group moved into amazing new offices in White Collar Factory, right on Silicon Roundabout in London’s Old Street. For those of us who’d spent more than 18 months in an (increasingly squashed) temporary office space nearby, this was an exciting time. On a personal level, my excitement was increased because it also meant that we could start using our new state-of-the-art Usability Lab, that I had been involved in designing.
I have been a passionate advocate of User Centred Design for years. Put simply, this means directly involving customers in your product design and development, by showing everything from early ideas to full products, getting feedback and using that to directly improve the experience. This Usability Testing is a constant iterative process and is an important part of how we build our products. We know if a small sample of customers struggle with the same issue, then it likely indicates a wider problem for us to fix. Equally if something seems to work brilliantly and gets great feedback from a few customers, we can have much more confidence that we’ve got it right and that our millions of customers will feel the same.
Up until now, we’ve been carrying out Usability Testing in random meeting rooms in our London and Peterborough offices, using laptop cameras to record the sessions and stream them live to our product teams. I knew from experience that a Usability Lab could take our research to the next level.
A Usability Lab is a facility that provides a dedicated home for Usability Research. One or more specially recruited participants from the public will be invited to interact with, and give feedback on, a design or product. In another room, observers working on the project will watch and take notes. The power of having a whole product team sat watching customers using (or struggling to use!) their product is immense, and often eye-opening for everyone involved.
I’ve been lucky to work with companies in the past that had their own Usability Lab. With the new London office, I saw an opportunity for BGL Group to do the same. In November 2015 I heard that a team was starting to plan the layout of the new office. I arranged a meeting with one of the team and asked that we include creating a Usability Lab as part of the new office.
After a bit of explanation and begging on my part, I’m pleased to say that the team were enthusiastic and wanted to make it happen. I worked closely with them to define the requirements of the lab. When the first floorplans for the new office came out, I was thrilled to see space for the new lab was on the plans and it was going to become a reality.
Over the next few months, I was asked to help plan in more detail what the new lab should look like, including what equipment we would need and even the colour of the paint on the walls.
As the project neared completion, myself and a colleague from our UX team donned hi-vis jackets and hard hats to see the Usability Lab being built. It was great to see it start to come to life.
Now we’re moved in we’re using the new lab in earnest. We’ve had a few teething issues, but we’ve now got everything working and are regularly testing with customers in the new lab.
Here’s the finished results, with some colleagues that I dragged into the lab to show how it works.
The Usability Lab consists of two rooms, with one-way glass and soundproofing in-between.
We have a series of cameras and microphones in the participant room, where we invite customers. We take the sound and vision as well as live images of the product being tested and stream it all to the viewing room next door.
The viewing room has blackout blinds to make the one-way glass work, and allows up to 8 colleagues to watch Usability Testing happening (we reckon we could squeeze in 10, but it would be cosy!). We can stream everything that is happening to our offices in Peterborough and elsewhere, so colleagues that can’t watch from the lab still benefit from the research. We know that having the entire context of the room and conversation happening next door really focuses the attention of everyone watching, so we’re encouraging as many people to watch live in the viewing room as possible.
Here’s an example where we can test the comparethemarket.com site with an individual customer:
The room is also big enough for us to host small focus groups to discuss a specific topic.
Our new Usability Lab is a fantastic reflection of BGL Group investing heavily in ensuring that we’re putting customers at the heart of what we do, by including them every step of the way as we build our products.
By the end of July we’ll have had just under 40 customers visit the lab and test our products. Not bad for the first couple of months, but it’s just the start. More importantly, we’ve seen the viewing side of the room filled with employees from different teams, all keen to see customer reactions to the products they have already built or about to build. We’ve now hired a dedicated Usability Researcher so we can test more products more often.
For me, the new Usability Lab and the relentless focus on building useful and usable products for customers is just another reason why this is a Great Place to Work. I’m proud of the small part I played it making this happen and want to thank the whole team involved.