Researching Usability

Posts Tagged ‘conference

Below I have provided some insights and experiences from the presentations I attended on the first day of the UPA conference.

Bayerischer Hof Hotel

Bayerischer Hof Hotel, Munich - location of UPA2010

Opening Keynote: Technology in Cultural Practice by Rachel Hinman

In the keynote, Rachel shares her thoughts on the challenges and opportunities the current cultural watershed will present to our industry as well as the metamorphosis our field must undergo in order to create great experience across different cultures.

Opening keynote presentation

Opening Keynote presentation by Rachel Hinman

In the opening presentation Rachel recounted her experiences collecting data from countries such as Uganda and India and how her findings impact how we design for different cultures. One of the most interesting points she made was the discovery that people in Uganda don’t have a word for information. People there correlate the term information as meaning news which is the type of information they would be most interested in receiving through their phone. The key message from her presentation was that we the design of technology for cultures other than our own should begin from their point of view. We should not impose our own cultural norms on them. For example, the metaphor of books and libraries is alien to Indians who do not see this icon in their culture on a daily basis. Conducting research similar to that of Rachel’s will help to design culturally appropriate metaphors which can be applied and understood.

Using Stories Effectively in User Experience Design by Whitney Quesenbery and Kevin Brooks

Stories are an effective way to collect, analyze and share qualitative information from user research, spark design imagination and help us create usable products. Come learn the basics of storytelling and leave having crafted a story that addresses a design problem. You’ve probably been telling stories all along – come learn ways to do it more effectively.

This was a great presentation to kick off the conference. Whitney and Kevin were very engaging and talked passionately about the subject. There was lots of hands-on contribution from the audience with a couple of short tasks to undertake with you neighbour (which also provided a great way to meet someone new at the same time). The overriding message from this presentation was the importance of listening; asking a question such as ‘tell me about that‘ and then just SHUT UP and listen! I found this lesson particularly important  as I know it’s a weakness of mine. I often have to stop myself from jumping in when a participant (or anyone) is talking, even if just to empathise or agree with them. The exercise in listening to your neighbour speak for a minute without saying a word was very difficult. It’s true that being a good listener is one of the most important lessons you can learn as a usability professional.

Learning to listen and when to speak are key to obtaining the ‘juicy’ information from someone. Often those small throw-away comments are not noticed by the storyteller but if you know how to identify a fragment that can grow into a story you often reveal information which illuminates the data you have collected. Juicy information often surprises and contradicts common beliefs and is always clear, simple and most of all, compelling.

Usability professionals will often tell you that a participant feels the need to please in an interview or test and will often say things such as ‘yes that was easy to use’ even when you clearly saw them struggling. Whitney and Kevin recognise this common problem and provide a strategy to overcome it. Allow participants to feel that they have fulfilled their duty to the interviewer and then provide space at the end of the interview for final comments. Simply asking “Anything you might want to tell us about ...” allows participants to reveal their true feelings.

So once you have collected some stories how to you implement them to your work? Whitney and Kevin suggest that stories add richness to personas (descriptions of user segments) and provide more than just data. For example, when communicating a persona’s needs and goals you can create a story around the data to give them a more realistic feel. Stories in personas can provide perspective, generate imagery which suggests emotional connections and give the persona a voice through the language used.

Stories can also be used to create scenarios for usability testing. Often tasks force the participant to do something they might not ordinarily do. If you can create a scenario and ask the participants to ‘finish the story‘ it’s often easier for them to imagine themselves in the situation and realistically attempt the task. My favourite example came from an audience member who stated the problems she’d had when asking women to try to record a football game using a prototype UI (the prototype did not allow for any other task). The women would be very unlikely to record such a thing in normal circumstances and so struggled to attempt the task. When the facilitator changed the scenario by adding a story, the women were much happier to attempt the task: ‘Your boyfriend is out and has asked you to record the football for him, can you do this?

You can also collect stories during usability tests. The opening interview is often an opportunity to collect stories and use them to set up a task. It allows you to evaluate your tasks and check they match the stories and it also allows you to generate a new task from the story.

There was so much to learn during the presentation, often things which might seem obvious but are very often overlooked were discussed. Whitney and Kevin have recently published a book on the same subject which I have just bought as a direct result of attending their presentation. On first glance it looks full of insightful techniques and tips to incorporate storytelling more consciously to your research. I look forward to reading it!

Express Usability by Sarah Weise and Linna Manomaitis

For those with a strong foundation in usability. Learn to improve your website or application and educate your clients in as little as a week. Take away express approaches to traditional analysis and presentation techniques, and immediately apply them to your own projects.

This was the first of three short 30 minute presentations that took place in the afternoon. A good idea in theory but often there was just not enough time to go into sufficient detail on specific subjects. In this presentation Sarah presented a technique to apply to limited projects and ensure you get the best out of the time and resources available. The ‘fixed price menu’ style of ‘data gathering activity’ (appetizers), ‘analysis activity’ (mains) and ‘deliverable styles’ (desserts) were used in various combinations on projects they had undertaken. The list of client needs were useful for identifying what they client is looking to get from the project while the methods available to use ranged from heuristic evaluation, usability testing to focus groups and interviews. The unique approach to project management was quite fun and clearly effective, however I was expecting more information on how methods had been adapted to be used in an ‘express’ way. Perhaps the limited time prohibited this but I’m guessing it would have suited general practitioners more than experienced practitioners.

Agile UX: The Good, The Bad and the Potentially Ugly by Thyra Rauch

Agile development and UCD/UX processes can exist in harmony, even after a rocky start. This case study describes what I did as part of an Agile team. I will discuss our methods, share our success factors, things that were originally roadblocks, and concerns about future issues.

Thyra presented her own experiences of working within an Agile User Centred Design (UCD) framework very concisely and maximised her time by sticking closely to her presentation while also covering the basics of Agile and allowing sufficient time for questions/discussions at the end. Useful diagrams illustrated the different iterations involved in Agile UCD and the roles the designers, developers and user experience team play at various stages. She explained how Cycle 0 is used to plan and gather customer data, create profiles and recruit participants (with a parallel track for developers), Cycle 1 tests the mock-ups which is done iteratively in Cycle 2 etc. She points out that Agile includes a waterfall system while also iterating such processes frequently in a short space of time (every few weeks). Cycle 2 etc. is used to test three things: previous designs (now coded), current iteration of the design in a prototype and future ideas as paper mock-ups all within one session.

She points out that good communication is essential to Agile UCD. Regular weekly meetings with UX team, management, designers, developers etc and daily 15 minute scrums discussing the project status and issues both ensure the success of user centred design as it the provide a process everyone can follow while also allowing everyone on the team to be on the same page. Thyra discourages having a team on more than one project at a time to prevent the work becoming diluted. She also warns of the dangers of conducting Agile UCD with teams distributed globally as this makes it significantly harder to hold regular meetings when the time difference prohibits this.

Evaluating Touch Gesture Usability by Kevin Arthur

Multi-finger gestures on touchscreens and touchpads are becoming increasingly popular, but they don’t always work well for users. I’ll discuss the challenges of obtaining reliable measures of gesture usability and will present techniques for testing gestures, with examples from tests that evaluated multi-finger pinch, rotate, and swipe gestures on touchpads.

Another interesting presentation which provided a method for evaluating the usability of touch gestures in technology.  Some of the interesting take-aways from this presentation included questions worth posing when evaluating touch gestures: do users understand them and are the satisfying to use? A finding from Kevin’s research revealed that although the gestures perhaps looked intuitive, many users found them difficult to master. The slides from this presentation including an outline of the test framework and questionnaires used are available online.

Design for Happiness by Pieter Desmet

The ability to design products with a positive emotional impact is of great importance to the design research community and of practical relevance to the discipline of design. Emotion is a primary quality of human existence, and all of our relationships – those with inanimate objects as well as those with people – are enriched with and influenced by emotions. Not only do emotions have a considerable influence on purchase decisions, post-purchase satisfaction, and product attachment, but also on the general happiness of the people who own and use them. The emotions that we experience daily, including those we experience in response to the designed objects that surround us, have been shown to be main determinants of our general well-being. In his lecture, Desmet discusses the role of product design in emotional experiences, and proposes some opportunities to develop design strategies to conceptualise products that contribute to the happiness of their users.

Slide from Designing for Happiness presentation

Slide from 'Designing for Happiness' presentation

This presentation was always going to be interesting as it deals with such an elusive subject to measure and it lived up to expectations. Emotional design is very elusive and often the designer must trust their instincts. Although not easy to design for, all products develop emotions which means they are too important to ignore. Emotions can make products successful or make them fail therefore emotion must be part of the design process.

Pieter referred to ‘sleeping demons’ as concerns inherent within users which designers do not want to wake. Often designers spend too long concentrating on solving problems or removing negative emotions from a design. This bias in appraisal theory means the focus is often narrowed. New theories are being developed which focus on the positive emotion. Broaden and Build Theory deals with thought action patterns which broadens the design focus to discover and build on personal resources to help people flourish and be happy.

The 40% theory  states that happiness originates from three areas: 50% temperament or genes you are born with, 10% depends on circumstances and 40% originates from conscious thought.  This suggests that learning to be more happy is learning how to think differently e.g. positive thinking. So where does design fit into design? Pieter succinctly stated that ‘you cannot make a sail trip without a sail boat‘. Products affect our happiness as sources, as resources to be used in obtaining goals and as sources of meaning: design for rich experiences (savour), design for engagement (find or identify and attain goals) or impact of positive emotions on human product interactions (fascination). This reiterates his point on the importance of designing for happiness as much as designing to solve problems and remove negative emotions.

He also points out that it is possible to enjoy things which incite fear e.g. horror films, sports, rollercoasters etc. We can enjoy negative emotions as long as conditions such as a barriers are placed between the user and the ‘danger’. This should therefore also be taken into consideration in designing for happiness.

Overall a very insightful first day and one which set my expectations high for day 2! If you attended UPA 2010 and have your own experiences of day 1, perhaps you attended different presentations, please feel free to leave a comment below.


You might notice that I’ve put a link to my Mendeley profile in the right-hand column of the blog recently. I finally got round to taking a closer look at it after hearing good things about it back in September. I’ve created a public folder for the ux2 project which I want to use to keep track of papers relevant to the project. For those who do not know what I’m talking about Mendeley is a network which allows researchers to create a bibliographic database (there is also a video presentation on YouTube). So far it seems to be a good way of organising papers because they are tagged and categorised for you. Recommendations aren’t available yet but I can see it being very useful and a good way to find new material.

I did run into a couple usability issues when trying to find other members and build my network. Firstly, if you want to check your email for contacts it is not possible to do so with your University email address (which is likely to be a common problem for academics). Currently you can only search Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, AOL and GMX. Secondly, the search system within ‘Find People’ was not as intuitive to use as I was hoping. Turns out the search form  searches your contacts by default. I did not realise this at first for a couple reasons:

  1. The search is very responsive and immediately starts searching your contacts as you type letters by highlighting where the letters appear in all of your contacts. Responsiveness is not necessarily a bad thing but I wrongly assumed that this meant it was only searching my contacts and started to think that I had to go elsewhere to search the whole system.
  2. Secondly, I did not read the message which appeared once I submitted my search and as a result, drew the wrong conclusions again (see image). I did what users often do and that is to scan the words quickly. The first part I read was ‘None of your contacts match this search term’ which only helped to reinforce my conclusion that this search form only searched my existing contacts. I therefore did not bother to continue reading the second line which said ‘Click Search to include all Mendeley users in the results’. The word ‘Search’ was linked making it a different colour and as a result it stood out from the rest of the text. Again I only read ‘Click Search’ and quickly dismissed it because I felt that I had already completed this action when I selected Search this first time. I spent quite a while looking around the rest of the site to find out how to search all members and eventually came to the conclusion that it wasn’t possible yet. To the credit of Mendeley, I tweeted my difficulties on Twitter and got a quick response. This showed how proactive they are at fixing problems. It wasn’t until I asked a colleague for help that I finally realised that the message asks users to click Search a second time to search all members. I think that it would be more intuitive for users if it did this by default. In addition it should give users the ability to choose whether they want to search all users or just their contacts, otherwise it is likely to be confusing. If something requires instructions to be used correctly it often means that it is not intuitive!

Anyway, I still believe that Mendeley has the potential to be a useful tool for researchers and I will continue to use it. Please feel free to connect with me if you also have an account.

COI Usability Toolkit

This week COI announced that they had developed a usability toolkit aimed at public sector websites (although anyone can access it). The toolkit provides good-practice guides on a variety of topics including search form design and search results design. After briefly looking at some of the guides they are effective in communicating the main points in a clear and concise manner with annotated illustrations to help time-poor users get a good understanding very quickly. There is also a section where you can test your knowledge and this helps to reinforce user’s learning. It is predominantly aimed at those with limited or no  previous knowledge of usability and avoids using any techy words or code.

To use the toolkit visit


Infomaki is an open-source, lightweight usability testing tool developed by The New York Public Library’s Digital Experience Group which I came across this week. It is based on the ideas of fivesecondtest, a tool which I have come across in the past. Based on the same premise, it asks users to answer one question. The questions can either be multiple choice or a design question asking users to state where they would click on a page to complete a specified task. You can also make comparisons between two designs and test the user’s recall of features. The beauty of the concept is that it does not require a lot of the users time. Answering one question can take only a few seconds and this has been shown to be attractive to users as the response to the survey was very high. So much so that the developers found that 90% of users wanted to answer more than one question – behaviour which is difficult to elicit through traditional market research methods.

Evidence suggests that tools like this are extremely successful in gathering a large volume of quantitative data which can help to back up one-to-one usability test data. The developers also plan to incorporate features that collect demographic data. This will add even more value to the tool as it will help in the construction of user persona’s.

Tools such as Infomaki are particularly useful to those working in digital libraries without a dedicated user research team. Open source means it is free and it can be set up by anyone interested in gathering data about their digital library.

There is more information on the software available in addition to the article on Code4Lib by Michael Lascarides which can be found here:

Usability Week, Berlin

My UX2 colleague, Boon returned for Nielsen Norman Group Usability Week in Berlin with lots of knowledge to share. One of the many things that came out of his time there was the idea of user persona creation for digital libraries. After a couple leads we were pointed to the work by Max Planck Digital Library and the persona’s they created. If anyone else knows of other work that has been conducted in persona creation for digital libraries please let us know, thanks.

UX2.0 will be attending Nielsen Norman’s Usability Week in Edinburgh next week and Berlin in November. Both events provide a variety of one-day tutorials which are very relevant to the project.  The tutorials taking place next week which I will be attending include Information Architecture 1 and 2 and Fundamental Guidelines of Web Usability. Some of the information will likely  reaffirm my existing knowledge on the subjects but it is hoped that some new insights will also be gained. There will also be a great opportunity to meet other professionals working in the field. Most importantly, the learning from these tutorials will greatly help to inform the evaluation currently taking place on existing digital libraries (see previous post). Highlights of the event will be available next week.

If you are attending  please let me know, it would be lovely to meet up at some point during the three days that I’m there. bookmarks

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