Quick & dirty (and almost free) iPad user testing

Usability testing can be a complicated and expensive business but it certainly needn’t be.

Going the full hog involves securing the services of a professional agency and renting a testing suite with two-way mirrors. Even if you do it yourself you can end up spending significant money on comprehensive software and video cameras for recording sessions. But sometimes, much can be achieved by going back to basics and using free or inexpensive software and a few simple techniques.

What we might want to achieve is video and audio of a test session held in any room of the office, streamed live to multiple people around the business, and with a recording of this kept for reference. Doing this for a desktop site or app is relatively easy, but more of a challenge when testing a tablet or mobile device. Assuming you’re testing on an iOS device, the following is a straightforward way of achieving this for next to nothing.

Firstly, you’ll need a Mac or PC to do the main work, usually for us a laptop in a spare corner of an office somewhere. If at all possible, this will benefit from being wired into an ethernet socket rather than relying on Wi-Fi. This will often be overkill, but a dropped signal in the middle of a test is a huge pain if people are watching the stream live, and you don’t want to interrupt a test session. And if your office Wi-Fi is anything like ours, it might be fairly reliable but not completely reliable, especially if your guerrilla session is taking place in the far reaches of a spare and unexplored office in the basement. If you have access to a wired connection, take advantage of it.

Reflector app

Secondly, you’ll need to mirror the screen of the iDevice onto the laptop. This is actually pretty easy now that Apple has opened AirPlay to third party developers, and there are a couple of good apps that take advantage of this. The two I’ve tried are Reflector ($12.99, free trial limited to 10 minutes) and Avatron’s Air Server ($14.99, 7-day free trial).

Avatron logo

Both are available for Mac and PC, though AirServer is a bit more mature on Mac than PC, and both are cheap.

Either is a worthwhile addition to your mobile development software arsenal anyway as it can be useful to beam an app onto your monitor when showing a group of people gathered around your desk. You might not get the ability to map the user’s touch points as on more expensive software, but they’re good enough for many situations.

Both offer a few different features, and both work well, but I slightly favour AirServer for its ability to serve up higher resolution streams that can show a better quality image on screen.

Another quick tip here to try and minimise any risk of a lost signal… all these AirPlay apps rely on Wi-Fi and so, firstly, do remember that both laptop and iDevice need to be connected to the same network. Much frantic head-scratching can ensue if you forget that you’ve connected them to separate networks. But better still, set the laptop up to create its own local network and then connect the mobile device to that – again, you’re removing any reliance on the strength and vagaries of your Wi-Fi signal and, assuming the laptop is using a wired connection, you should have a rock-solid connection throughout the test session.

Create network settings

Create network settings

I’ve no idea how you do this on a PC, but on a Mac you just need to go into your Network system prefs, select Wi-Fi (switch it on first if you weren’t using it) and then select Create Network under the Network Name pulldown. Choose a name and a channel, add a password if you like and then find that network in your iOS Wi-Fi settings.

Once the two devices are sharing a network, just fire up AirServer (or Reflector) on the host laptop and then it’s a simple matter of enabling AirPlay streaming. This is the same process as you might use to stream to an AppleTV; double-tap the Home button to bring up the app history bar, and swipe all the way to the left until you get the music controls. You should now find the AirPlay icon appear. Tap on this and choose your named local network and then, hopefully, the magic should happen and you should be able to see the device screen mirrored onto the laptop.

From here, you could conduct your test and record the video from the laptop, but the next stage for us is streaming live to various other people who need to view the session. Again, there are two very cheap options; Google Hangouts or Skype. Both allow screen sharing over video, although Skype is limited to one-to-one sharing unless you plump for Skype Premium (£6.89 a month, £41.26 a year). We’ve also found that Skype can be a little sensitive and seems to much prefer if everyone’s using the latest v6 release, so try and encourage everyone to do an update before the test if you go the Skype route.

Before the test session starts, initiate a group call with everyone and share your screen. You’ll want audio as well, coming from the laptop, so make sure it’s near the test subject to pick up your voices. You can also take advantage of any built-in webcams pointed carefully at the subject so that video of them is transmitted alongside the mirrored iPhone/iPad.

If you want to record the session, there are a variety of screen capture apps, but one that many people ignore is the free one included on every Mac – Quicktime Player. It’s not always had this feature, but does now allow video and audio capture so either the host laptop, or any of the people logging into the stream, can record the session.

So there you have it. A full test session with recorded video, audio and mirrored device screen beamed around the office (or indeed, world) and recorded for reference, all for as little as $12.99. There’s no excuse not to do regular testing of your new iOS app.

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