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The influence of laboratory set-up in usability tests: effects on user performance, subjective ratings and physiological measures

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This article examines the influences of situational factors on user behaviour in usability tests. Sixty participants carried out two tasks on a computer-simulated prototype of a mobile phone. Employing a 3 × 2 mixed experimental design, laboratory set-up was varied as a between-subjects variable (presence of facilitator and two non-interactive observers, presence of facilitator or no person present) while task difficulty was manipulated as a within-subjects variable (low vs. high). Performance data, subjective measures and physiological parameters (e.g. heart rate variability) were taken. The results showed that the presence of non-interactive observers during a usability test led to a physiological stress response, decreased performance on some measures and affected the emotional state of test participants. The presence of a facilitator (i.e. a participating observer) also influenced the emotional state of the test participant. Practitioners involved in usability testing need to be aware of undue influences of observers, in particular, if the observers are non-interactive. The findings presented in this paper have implications for the practice of usability testing. They indicated a considerable influence of observers on test participants (physiology and emotions) and on the outcomes of usability tests (performance measures). This should be considered when selecting the set-up of a usability testing procedure.
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Keywords: heart rate variability; laboratory set-up; social facilitation; usability laboratory; usability test

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Psychology, University of Fribourg, Switzerland

Publication date: November 1, 2009

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