The DC Device Lab: How a Global Movement Is Encouraging Growth in DC Tech

February 26, 2014

9:00 am

From the outside, it doesn’t look like a much – a glass-enclosed room filled with tech gadgets in the corner of Canvas Co/work, a co-working space in DC’s Dupont Circle neighborhood. Considering the placid atmosphere at this chic, exposed-brick, Brooklyn-meets-Apple-store shared work space, the room more likely resembles a museum exhibit rather than any lab to which you’ve been previously exposed. However, unlike any museum exhibit, the DC Device Lab encourages all visitors to interact closely with its tech artifacts. And while seemingly insignificant, these interactions with the devices is where the true value of the DC Device Lab can be found, and from which the opportunity for the advancement of the DC tech scene can be uncovered.

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The DC Device Lab is located inside Dupont’s Canvas Co/Work.

The DC Device Lab opened its doors last October, and despite its small size is actually the third largest device lab in the country (the largest is located in Silicon Valley). The Lab is aimed at providing web and mobile developers with the opportunity to test out their sites and apps on an entire collection of devices, to ensure that their software works precisely like it should on different operating systems. Currently, the Lab has a stock of 32 devices (a variety of phones, tablets, and computers), and charges developers $5 an hour to conduct their product testing. Prior to availability of the Device Lab, developers would have had to venture out to the Dulles, VA-based Fishbowl Labs in order to conduct similar testing on a wide selection of devices.

“Device labs are absolutely essential for user testing,” said Mariesa Dale, the cofounder and director of the DC Device Lab. “Issues dealing with A/B testing and accessibility can be worked on simply by giving developers access to these labs.”

When developers create a new site or app, oftentimes they only have access to the devices that they or their company already own(s) on which to test their products. Typically, developers will test their products on their readily available devices, and make fixes at later times when users report issues on their devices. This is obviously a huge problem, for two reasons: 1) there are literally hundreds of devices currently being used by people around the world and 2) it’s easier to solve issues during production as opposed to after the product has already launched. In order for developers to ensure that their app or site is functioning in the way(s) they intend, they have to try to testing on as many devices as possible to account for the differences in operating systems, displays types, screen sizes, etc. I mean, if you’re a startup, you’re obviously going to want to make sure that your app or site works for as many people as possible – every additional user adds significant value and validation for your idea/product.

Most importantly, though, it’s important for developers to understand how users interact with each device itself, in order to design products in ways that truly work towards improving the user experience. For Dale, this is the direction in which she hopes to see the DC Device Lab moving. “We want to have people to actually use these devices out in the streets, and see how they are using them. From there, developers can produce or make changes accordingly to adjust for actual user behavior. It’s essentially about quality assurance and perfecting the user experience.”

This recognition of value for product testing is spreading to developers across the globe. Although the first and only comprehensive device lab in DC, the DC Device Lab is one of over 100 labs located across 24 countries – all of which are part of the Open Device Lab (ODL) movement. Beginning with 8 device labs across a handful of European countries in 2011, the grassroots community movement continues to spread to more communities as they discover the economic benefit of having ODLs.

“If we talk about everyone from the planet, digital development and testing is super important, and people need to realize how important it truly is,'” said Andre “Jay” Meissner, the man in charge of spearheading this ODL movement.

According to Meissner, “from an economical and ecological perspective, it makes a lot of sense for people to care about Open Device Labs.” On a per-person or per-company basis, it makes zero financial sense for them to have to constantly purchase devices on which to test their products. On a much larger, community-scale, having an open device lab not only supports local developers in product testing, but also encourages continued growth in a region’s technology sector.

Simply, the economic advantages outweigh any costs incurred from setting up an Open Device Lab are incomparable:

1) communities can crowdsource devices, thereby spreading the cost of having to buy the devices across multiple parties;
2) use of the lab can (and should) cost little to no money to have developers come in and actually test their products;
3) developers end up producing higher quality products  (having undergone more testing) that can potentially outperform competition in their particular markets; and
4) such success can encourage more people to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities in tech (helloooo, starup growth!).

“In DC, it’s totally impressive that the mayor [himself] has come out to support [the DC Device Lab],” said Meissner. “One thing that local government can do is to help promote [ODLs] and lobby to have them in their cities.”

And DC has certainly recognized the effects that such an initiative can have in the region, with Mayor Vincent Gray’s administration having provided a $4,000 grant to the DC Device Lab. Dale, who operates her own design and branding services out of Canvas, came up with the idea for the device lab when she was working on a site for a client and wanted to do conduct some testing. “Coming from Seattle, I knew that open mobile device labs existed, and I figured that DC would already have one,” said Dale. From there, she worked with Meisnner and LabUp!, the nonprofit aimed at helping people set up Open Device Labs in their cities, to execute a plan for the device lab in the District. She received positive feedback and support from Canvas founder Marty Ringlein, who ended up building the space for her free of charge, after similarly realizing the potential the lab could have for the DC tech community. In addition to the DC government, Dale has received funding from Rock Creek Strategic Marketing and the Washington D.C. Economic Partnership.

BVG3hKYCcAA0YLs.jpg_largeMeissner emphasized that setting up an ODL is worth the benefits that it can provide to a community’s tech sector. While it’s impossible to isolate the economic impact of the DC Device Lab on the DC tech ecosystem since its launch, Dale has certainly been busy with trying to expand the lab’s library of devices. On top of new devices expected to arrive from Samsung and Microsoft, the Device Lab is getting ready to launch a competitive crowdfunding campaign with The Salt Mines, an ODL located in Ohio. More importantly, the lab has recently been utilized by organizations like National Geographic and the Rad Campaign, as well as major startups like Contactually. Currently, the Lab is working with accessibility experts in the Federal government on initiatives to encourage product accessibility in the design and development community.

Learn more about Open Device Labs; vote for them as “Game Changer of the Year” in this year’s Net Awards. 

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Ronald Barba was the previous managing editor of Tech.Co. His primary story interests include industry trends, consumer-facing apps/products, the startup lifestyle, business ethics, diversity in tech, and what-is-this-bullsh*t things. Aside from writing about startups and entrepreneurship, Ronald is interested in 'Doctor Who', Murakami, 'The Mindy Project', and fried chicken. He is currently based in New York because he mistakenly studied philosophy in college and is now a "writer". Tweet @RonaldPBarba.

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