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I've tried a couple of times to perform usability studies at an industry-specific trade show, and it's been largely awkward. In my experience, people are milling around and love to chat, but don't have the patience to sit down for a 15-30 minute usability study. Scheduling people ahead of time and having them actually show up is a logistical challenge. Not to mention the difficulty in finding a private, quiet place to actually conduct a study.

So, when manning a trade show booth, what's the most effective way to conduct user research? Setup a kiosk for unmanned usability studies? Some quick interviews? Do I just need to try harder at making legit usability studies work? Or are trade shows just a terrible place to conduct research?

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Tell them 5 and take their 15 minutes? ;) and perhaps make those 5 minutes the most interesting ones so that they lose track of time! :) –  Mohit Feb 12 '13 at 17:16

6 Answers 6

up vote 6 down vote accepted

A method which worked for one of my colleagues the last time was to show a brief demo of the product you are showcasing while talking about the benefits it offers. After doing that, he would causally mention that they would love some additional inputs on what users are really looking for and if the person would be interested in walking through a quick usability exercise which would certainly give them additional inputs on how to improve the product. Though some people did refuse and walk away, more often then not people were willing to spend a few minutes with a usability test and give valuable inputs. The key things to note are :

  1. Pique their interest and let them know what you are doing. Just expecting them spend time walking through an usability study might not yield much interest
  2. Clearly explain how much time you need (Please try to keep it short. I know you are trying to hold a 15-30 minutes usability study but most people will not have that much time but people were willing to spend 5-10 minutes. Please also avoid the temptation to exceed the limit unless the user is willing)

I also recommend reading through this article User Testing in the Wild: Joe’s First Computer Encounter which gives some interesting insights into how to approach a person for usability testing.

I also recommend looking at this article Extremely Rapid Usability Testing which gives the pros and cons of doing usability testing in trade shows

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The "Extremely Rapid Usability Testing" article is an amazing resource, thanks! (and the rest of your answer is good too!) –  Mark D Feb 12 '13 at 18:05

Trade shows aren't a terrible way to conduct research, they're just not the right method for all research. If you want to do research at a trade show, you have to structure your research goals and your research such that it works in the environment. I see that someone else has already linked to "Extremely Rapid Usability Testing", so I'll offer some additional thoughts as someone who has done trade show research before. You can do trade show research that yields you actionable data, so long as you keep in mind the constraints of the trade show.

  1. Interview-only, based on interest from the attendee. Make sure that the others who are there in the booth with you know that you can answer questions about (whatever) and that you're also there to collect information about (whatever) so that they can steer attendees who are interested in (whatever) to you. You'll learn a lot by hearing their questions about it (both high-level questions and in-depth ones), as well as by conducting your own interview about your specific area of interest. You do have some problem of selection bias here, but then you've already got inherent selection bias by dint of the fact that you're at a trade show.

  2. Observation-only. With an unmanned kiosk that shows off (whatever), what do people do with it? Where do they start? What do they try to accomplish? What are they looking for? Do they try a specific workflow (creating a new object, setting up something, etc)? This also suffers from selection bias, and you don't have any control over what they do so the feedback that you gather is likely to be more directional than actionable (that is, you'll learn where you should do research in a more traditional setting, rather than actually being able to make design decisions based on it).

  3. Observation of a task. Ask attendees if they will complete this specific task while you're watching in the booth (something pretty short, the worst-case scenario should take no more than 10 minutes) and get a $5 gift card in exchange for their time. This addresses the point about not being able to get specific feedback, but also potentially causes headaches in managing the study, and there is the material cost of the gift cards.

  4. Collect contact details for later. This is reasonably close to #1, with the explicit goal that you won't do a huge amount of interview there (although I usually have a couple of questions at the ready, just in case), but rather that you'll follow up with them later. This can either be you handing them your business card and asking them to email you, or getting their business card from them and following up with them after the show. (A variant on the latter is having your own badge scanner for collecting contact data, but you need to be careful about having two different groups of people in the same trade show booth scanning badges.)

If you do collect data in a booth at a trade show, make sure that whoever is running that booth at your company knows that you're doing it and is comfortable with you doing it. Remember that your company has goals for your booth being there, and if whoever runs the booth thinks that your research goals are not in line with the booth goals, you will need to come up with a different method for conducting your research at the trade show. That's one of the reasons that I listed observation-only as a research option, since you could get permission to attend the trade show but have the restriction placed on you that you cannot have any research interaction with trade-show attendees.

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You could make the contacts at the trade show and then arrange to do a call when it is more convenient. Perhaps an initial 5 minute survey so you get some background information on your target which isn't too onerous for them to complete and related to the topic you are trying to investigate.

I've not done trade show research, but tried to accost people in public places and at their work place and generally it's better to introduce yourself and the topic under investigation and then ask them if they would be happy to talk to you - if not at the time you speak to them, but at another convenient time.

So you could arrange to meet them, but if you get their number a telephone interview could work well if it is planned properly and quite focussed. Participants often see these as lower committment than face-to-face because they can be anywhere when they talk to you.

Well planned and facilitated they can be a good second-best to face-to-face and might ensure you get some data rather than no data.

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Yes, just using it as a method of gaining contacts is a great idea. –  Mark D Feb 12 '13 at 18:06

I agree, it is a difficult situation, but on the other side having loads of distraction provokes behaviour that can uncover issues a lot easier.

We did it twice on trade shows and camouflaged our usability test as a raffle promotion: People were asked to register on our brand new website for a chance to win a prize. Obviously, we did not tape them while doing that but got really good feedback on how effective and user-friendly our registration funnel works.

We managed to witness dozens of users during a day and we had the chance to talk a little longer to some of them afterwards.

So I would encourage you to take any opportunity for doing a usability test, no matter what the circumstances are. The outcome will probably always be >0. :-)

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This reminds me of how I would conduct surveys. When I incentivized the person taking the survey, they took their time and I got quality data.

Perhaps adding an incentive will entice your potential audience to give their time to you.

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You can use elements of gamification and/or stimulation at show. Of course it depends on the product you want to test. But small reward or some kind of lottery can stimulate people to participate, especially if it can give them some rest - comfortable seat, glass of mineral water, etc - since trade show is hard work for many.

Also you can schedule some booth event (single or regular) so people can schedule their appearance at your booth and take part in it, maybe with elements of competition or collaboration.

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