The mobile UX lab

When great ideas go sideways

The mobile UX lab that could, but totally shouldn’t


I Needed more data from my users. The kind I could only get from observation. So I Put together a mobile UX lab.

It was perfect. I’d thought of everything, everything except the most fundamental needs of my user.

There was a wide angle camera that would capture the user in their workspace. It exposed artifacts like the number of screens used and size. Like cheat sheets pinned to the cubicle wall, or if their neighbor had a tendency to hum show tunes. Did they work on a dimly or brightly lit room? How often were they interrupted by people walking by? So much goodness for determining the level of contextual noise.

There was a camera squarely trained on the users face. No micro expression would be allowed to escape scrutiny. Every turn of the lip would be captured, time code recorded and mapped to the users journey.

The screen? Please. Got it.

I even had a lavalier mic clipped to their chest with the gain bumped way up, so every remote observer could here even the softest of utterances held under one’s breath. All of this was being fed thru a digital switcher that recorded all 3 video angles and sound thru a single screen complete with realtime notes taken in a chat client. It was a thing of beauty.

But we couldn’t use it. Not for the product I was designing for.

Here’s the thing. My users were Security Operation Center analysts. The people that watch over and sift thru billions of packets of data to make certain their organizations networks are secure from the black hats, bots, and other bad actors. These white hats plied their skills at some of the most highly visible and targeted institutions in commerce and government. Their job was to reduce visibility from the outside in. And here I was asking to record their screens…

It just couldn’t work. But this didn’t change the fact that we needed user behavior to inform our design decisions. We had to get creative.

I put my feelers out. I started asking questions inside our organization. I sought out advice from the research team, the dev-ops team, sales, anyone who was familiar with my project. As serendipity would have it, there was a new sales initiative that had just launched. It was a lab that would enable sales engineers to spin up virtual appliances in the cloud. I reached out to the engineers responsible for the project and told them my scenario.

“How hard would it be to spin up a cloud version of this product so our users could manipulate data that we provide? I just need to observe their behavior with our product.”

“Easy. Just get an image and I’ll show you how to spin one up.”


One of our sales engineers was able to prove the viability of this new method just a few days later at a tradeshow. We didn’t get to see the user in their own environment, but we had access to them solving problems, with our system, while demonstrating their experiences with the product, and commenting as they went along. We could observe their behavior without compromising their organizations security. I’ll take that as a win.