Building a Device Lab
Copyright © 2015 Destiny Montague & Lara Hogan

The devices in your lab will need to connect to a network so that your lab’s users can test their work. As mentioned in the first chapter, it’s unlikely that you’ll need cell service or a data plan for your devices; you should be able to just use Wi-Fi (unless you’re testing something like performance on cellular networks). Surprisingly, there are still a few potential pitfalls when setting up and connecting to Wi-Fi networks for testing, especially if your lab’s users are testing work on their development or staging environments. Read on for troubleshooting network issues and standardizing your network for ease of testing.

Unlocking devices

Some used devices, if not registered with a carrier, will arrive unlocked. But you may still have a blocker to testing on Wi-Fi: regardless of whether your device is unlocked, you may discover that you can’t get past the activation screen to the Wi-Fi settings without a SIM card. We had this occur a handful of times when we’d purchase used devices. But don’t worry – this is a challenge you can overcome!

You will likely have success searching online for the right way to bypass those activation screens. For example, on some Android devices, if you tap the screen in all four corners in a particular order, you’re able to bypass activation and connect to Wi-Fi. We won’t cover all the ways that you may need to try unlocking your devices, as they are really diverse across models, but Googling should help you find the best solution.

Setting up Wi-Fi

When setting up a Wi-Fi network, you can certainly just have devices connect to the same old network that everybody else uses in your workplace. However, we encourage you to consider creating a new, secured network that only your labs’ devices can access. A private network will allow you to supply or limit access to different things on your network depending upon your device lab’s needs, like development environments or a staging environment.

Additionally, it’s easier to troubleshoot network issues when you have a separate network.

A customized network setup for your office and device lab could look something like this:

  Guest Network Device Lab Network Internal (Employee) Network
Basic Web
Testing and staging environments  
Internal sites, like Wikis and other Staff resources    
Example customized network setup for your office and device lab.

Originally, we planned on restricting access to our staging and testing environments only to devices that could connect to our VPN. However, we bumped into a major issue: some devices have a difficult time connecting to a VPN, and other devices (like the Firefox OS phone) don’t have any VPN app or option for us to use. By creating a private network, you can circumvent the VPN limitations that those operating systems have.

Wi-Fi performance issues

After connecting devices to the private Wi-Fi network, we noticed an array of performance issues with some devices, such as:

We learned that all of these symptoms stemmed from interference, or noise caused by having a large number of devices in close proximity, all using the same wireless signal.

The 2.4 ghz band is very common and many devices use this band, such as your wireless mouse or keyboard. Even appliances like a microwave oven or garage door opener operate on this band, so you can imagine how crowded it might become. Interference can be caused by many devices using the same band in close proximity. Naturally, in a typical office environment filled with lots of employees using lots of peripherals, you’re going to encounter these same issues.

One study documented in an Intel Whitepaper found that USB 3.0 devices (such as an external hard drive) can cause noticeable degradation in wireless performance for other devices sharing the band. For example, a wireless mouse being used with a laptop that has a USB 3.0 device attached experienced lag and loss of smoothness.

So how can you solve for this issue? You would think with all these symptoms that maybe you’d want to boost the signal strength of the Wi-Fi. But in Etsy’s office, the opposite turned out to be true. When we attempted to boost the signal strength, the Wi-Fi signal was too strong and ended up causing an overlap, which resulted in additional interference.

Unfortunately, there’s no great single solution to this problem. Every office layout is different, but there are some things you can try to abate these Wi-Fi network symptoms:

Hopefully you’ll be able to find a good balance of Wi-Fi signal strength, device lab location, and channels so that your device lab users will be able to continually test on the devices without issue.

Now that you have the devices, power, and network set up in your lab, it’s time to focus on the most important piece: the usability of the lab. While it’s true that you can just have a pile of devices and cables and call it a device lab, it’s going to be really tough for users to dig through the devices to find what they’re looking for, make sure it’s charged, and easily test their work. You’ll also find that without solid organization and maintenance of the lab, lots of unfortunate things may occur: cables may be borrowed long-term, people may not return devices properly, devices can be messed with to the point of unusability, and more. In the next chapter, we’ll focus on improving the usability of your lab, not just for ease of testing, but to reduce your headaches in the long term.

Chapter Summary

Usability tips