The accepted practice for professional usability practitioners has been since the beginning of time to record sessions on video. It is something that we tend to do automatically.

There aren’t many obstacles to recording sessions these days. It really only takes a web camera and some relatively inexpensive recording software on the testing PC. (Of course, this assumes that you’re testing software or web sites that run on desktop or laptop computers.)

Recording is inexpensive
The software is pretty easy to use and it doesn’t cause issues with response times or otherwise fool with the user’s experience of using the software or website you’re testing. You get nice, bright colors, picture-in-picture, and you can capture it all digitally. For example, there’s Morae, by TechSmith. (In the interest of full disclosure: I own a license, and I have upgraded to the new version). With Morae, you can capture all sorts of nerdy bits. It’s a good tool.

Even if you decide to use a regular video camera rather than a web cam, or multiple cameras, that technology is cheaper and more accessible all the time. Storage media also is very inexpensive.


But should you record sessions?

Karl Fast on Boxes and Arrows (from August 2002) has a whole treatise on recording usability test sessions: http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/recording_screen_activity_during_usability_testing. He called it “crucial.” I say Not.

Know why you’re recording
You may want the video recordings for reviewing, or sharing with a research partner. You may want your boss to sit down and watch the recorded sessions as evidence. Most practitioners will say that they use video recordings as backup to notes. You could go back and review the recordings.

Most usability tests have fairly few participants. Say you’re doing a study with 5 to 8 participants. If your notes from so few sessions don’t help you analyze the data, you should work on making better data collection tools for yourself or make it a practice to write notes about what happened immediately following each session. Reviewing recordings is making work for yourself.

But do you actually review the recordings? Rarely. And do people who could not attend the sessions review the recordings later? Again, rarely.

Know how you’re storing recordings and control access to protect the privacy of participants
And let’s consider participant privacy and confidentiality. Digital recordings are easier than ever to manage and archive. However, the longer the recordings hang around your company, the more likely it is that they will a) get lost, b) fall into the wrong hands, or c) be misused in some way. A client once asked me if her company could review a tape of a participant because he was coming in for a job interview. I said absolutely not.

You ask participants to sign a recording waiver that sets out specific purposes of the recording. Someone has to make sure that the waiver is respected. That person is the usability specialist who recorded the session to begin with.

Manage recordings carefully
The form that you ask study participants to sign asking for their permission to record, you should also state in plain language

  • How the recording will be used
  • Who will use the recording
  • How long you (or your company) will store the recording
  • How the recording will be destroyed

But get it approved by your legal department, of course.

There are some good reasons to record sessions on video. There are a lot of good reasons not to. Should you?

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