Researching Usability

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Findings from day 2 of the UPA 2010 conference are detailed in the second part of my UPA blog.

Ethnography 101: Usability in Plein Air by Paul Bryan

Studying users in their natural environment is key to designing innovative, break-through web sites rather than incrementally improving existing designs. This session gives attendees a powerful tool for understanding their customers’ needs. Using the research process presented, attendees will plan research to support design of a mobile e-commerce application.

As our AquabrowserUX project contemplates an ethnographic study, this presentation seemed vital to better understanding the methods involved. Paul Bryan provided a very interesting insight into running such studies, explaining when to use ethnography and a typical project structure. The audience also got the chance to plan an ethnographic study using a hypothetical project.

Some basic information that I gathered from the talk is listed below:

What is ethnography?

  • It takes place in the field
  • It is observation
  • It uses interviews to clarify observations
  • It pays attention to context and artifacts
  • and it utilises a coding system for field notes to help with analysis

Some examples of ethnographic studies include:

  • 10 page diary study with 1 page completed by a participant each day
  • In home study using observation, interviews and photo montages created by participants to provide perspectives on subjects
  • Department store observation including video capture

Ethnography should be used to bring insight into a set of behaviours and answer the research question in the most economical way. It should also be used to:

  • Identify fundamental experience factors
  • Innovate the mundane
  • Operationalize key concepts
  • Discover the unspeakable, things which participants aren’t able to articulate themselves
  • Understand cultural variations

A proposed structure of an ethnographic project would be as follows:

  1. Determine research questions or focus
  2. Determine location and context
  3. Determine data capture method (this is dependent on question 1)
  4. Design data capture instruments
  5. Recruit
  6. Obtain access to the field
  7. Set up tools and materials
  8. Conduct research, including note taking
  9. Reduce data to essential values
  10. Code the data
  11. Report findings and recommendations, including a highlights video where possible
  12. Determine follow-up research

As I suspected, ethnography is not for the faint hearted (or light pocketed) because it clearly takes a lot fo time and people-power to conduct a thorough ethnographic study. It seems that as a result, only large companies (or possibly academic institutes) get the chance to do it which is a shame because it is such an informative method. For example, all video footage recorded must be examined minute by minute and transcribed. My favourite quote of the session was in response to a question over the right number of participants required for a study. Naturally this depends heavily on the nature of the project. Paul summed it up by comparing it to love: “When you know you just know”. Such a commonly asked question in user research is often a difficult one to answer exactly so I liked this honest answer.

When analysing the data collected Paul suggested a few techniques. Using the transcribed footage, go through it to develop themes (typically 5-10). In the example of a clothes shopping study this may be fit, value, appeal, style, appropriateness etc. Creating a table of quotes and mapping them to coded themes helps to validate the them. He also recommended that you focus on behaviours in ethnography, capture cases at opposite end of the user spectrum, and always look for unseen behaviours.

Designing Communities as Decision-Making Experiences by Tharon Howard and Wendy R. Howard

What can you do when designing an online community to maximize user experience? This presentation, based on two decades of managing successful online communities, will teach participants how to design sustainable online communities that attract and retain a devoted membership by providing them with “contexts for effective decision-making.”

This topic was interesting on a more personal level because it dealt with themes from my MSc dissertation on online customer communities. Tharon has recently published a book on the subject call ‘Design to Thrive’ which sounds really interesting. He and Wendy co-presented their knowledge of online communities detailing why you would create one, the difference between a community and a social network and the different types of users in a community. Their culinary acronym ‘RIBS’ (Renumeration, Influence, Belonging and Significance) provided a heuristic framework with which to follow in creating a successful community.

They pointed out that the main difference between a social network and a community is the shared purpose among members. Normally a community is developed around a theme or subject whereas social networks are created as a platform for individuals to broadcast information of interest to them and not necessarily on one topic. An online community is a useful resource when you want to build one-to-one relationships, share information quickly and easily and create a seed-bed where collective action can grow. I think this is true but that developments in social networks such as groups and categorised information means that social networking sites are beginning to provide communities within their systems.

Back to the RIBS acronym, Tharon talked about renumeration as the first heuristic for community creators. A mantra which he provided is a follows:

The most important renumeration community managers have to offer is the experience of socially constructing meaning about topics and events users wish to understand.

It is important to reward members for giving back to the community as this will reward those members, it will also ensure the continuation of the community through active participation; “It’s a two-way street“. Such rewards can include features that are ‘unlocked’ by active members and mentoring for new members (noobs). Tharon also states that influence in a community is often overlooked by managers. Members need to feel the potential for them to influence the direction of the community to continue to be an active participant. Providing exit surveys, an advisory council, a ‘report a problem’ link and rigorously enforcing published policies will help to ensure influence is incorporated into an online community.

Belonging is apparently often overlooked as well. By including shared icons, symbols or rituals  to represent a community allows members to bond through these common values and goals. Including a story of origin, an initiation ritual, levelling up ceremony, and symbols of rank all provide the sense of belonging which is important to a community member.

Significance is the building and maintenance of a community brand for those in the community. It’s a common characteristic of people to want to be part of an exclusive group. The exclusivity seems to increase the desire to join in many cases. By celebrating your community ‘celebrities’ and listing (often well-known) members in a visitor centre section of the community you can allude to its exclusivity. By making it invite only also helps to increase the significance of the community.

Touchdown! Remote Usability Testing in the Enhancement of Online Fantasy Gaming by Ania Rodriguez and Kerin Smollen

This session presents a case study on how ESPN/Disney with the assistance of Key Lime Interactive improved the user experience and increased registrations of their online fantasy football and baseball gaming through the effective use of moderated and automated remote usability studies.

This topic was the first of another series of short (this time 40 minute) presentations. As before, the time limitation often impacted on the detail within each talk. Understandably, speakers struggled to get through everything within the time allocated and either had to rush through slides or had to cut short questions at the end. Unfortunately this happened in the talk by Ania Rodriguez and Kerin Smollen. Although an interesting case of how ESPN (Smollen) have collaborated with Key Lime Interactive (Rodriguez) to conduct remote testing, it was not the type of remote testing I was hoping to learn more about. I already have some experience running an unmoderated test was more interested to hear detail on moderated remote testing. However, I was encouraged to hear that UserZoom came out favourably as the software of choice to run this remote study. I have been interested in using this software for a while and will hopefully get the chance to use it at some point in the future.

Multiple Facilitators in One Study: How to Establish Consistency by Laurie Kantner and Lori Anschuetz

In best practice for user research, a single researcher facilitates all study sessions to minimize variation. For larger studies, assigning one facilitator may miss an opportunity, such as catching select participants or delivering timely results. This presentation provides guidelines, with case study examples, for establishing consistency in multiple-facilitator studies.

Another short presentation which gave advice on how to ensure that consistency is achieved when several facilitators work on a project. It may not seem like rocket science but the best method used to capture information was a spreadsheet with various codes for observations. This document is shared and updated by each facilitator to ensure everything is accurately captured. It’s not a perfect system and often learning lessons and selecting facilitators carefully will help to reduce issues later but it seemed to work well in this case. Where most usability professionals would balk the idea of multiple facilitators which is often considered bad practice, it is too often a necessity in time constrained projects which may even be spread out around the world. Indeed Lauri and Lori suggest that multiple facilitators can bring benefits which includes more than one perspective, as the old proverb goes – ‘two heads are better than one‘!

Creating Richer Personas – Making the Mobile, International and Forward Thinking by Anthony Sampanes, Michele Snyder, Brent White and Lynn Rampoldi-Hnilo

Personas are a great way to get development teams in sync with a new space and their users. This presentation discusses solutions to extending personas to include novel types of information such as mobile behavior, cultural differences, and ways to promote forward thinking.

Examples of personas from presentation

Examples of personas from presentation

This 40 minute presentation provided lots of information that was useful to me (and the projects) and that presented new ways of working with personas. However, with additional time it would have been great to go over the data collection methods in more detail as this is something we are currently undertaking in AquabrowserUX.

Traditionally personas are limited to desktop users. However, this is changing as doing things on the move is now possible with the aid of smartphones. The presenters indicated that they found little literature on cross cultural or mobile personas which was a shock. The internationalization of business and development of smartphones is not new so I am surprised that more practitioners have not been striving to capture these elements in their own personas.

The team stated that they observed people to understand how they use smartphones to do new things, key tasks conducted, tools used, context and culture. Shadowing people over a day, surveying them and on the spot surveys, image diaries and interviews with industry people were all used to capture data. The outcome they discovered  was that mobile users are different in so many ways to other users they should therefore be considered uniquely. Consequently personas were created that focused on the mobile user, not what they did elsewhere (other personas were used for that purpose). The final personas included a variety of information and importantly, images as well.  Sections included ‘About Me’, ‘Work’, ‘Mobile Life’ and ‘My Day’.

In addition to mobile life, cultural differences were integrated throughout the persona. To incorporate a forward-thinking section called ‘Mobile Future’ researchers asked participants what they would want their phone to do in the future that it can’t currently do. This provided an opportunity for the personas to grow and not become outdated too quickly.

I hope the slides are available soon because I would love to read the personas in more detail. Outdated personas has always been a problem and was even discussed by delegates over lunch the day before. It is great to see how one organisation has tried to tackle this issue.

Usability of e-Government Web Forms from Around the World by Miriam Gerver

Government agencies worldwide are turning from paper forms to the Internet as a way for citizens to provide the government with information, a transition which has led to both successes and challenges. This presentation will highlight best practices for e-government web forms based on usability research in different countries.

Unfortunately technical issues impacted to some extend on the final presentation of the day. Fortunately the presenter had the foresight to prepare handouts of the slides which came in very handy. The bulk of the presentation was to provide insights into good and bad practices of government web forms around the globe. Some things that characterise government forms are the legal issues which require certain information to be included. For example a ‘Burden Statement’ must be provided according to US law. A Burden Statement includes information on the expected time to complete the form. Although this information is useful and should be on the page, it’s implementation in the form is not always ideal as other delegates pointed out. Position and labelling means that users may never find this information and consequently be aware that it exists.

I was impressed that some forms are designed with a background colour which matches the paper version as this helps to maintain consistency and avoid confusion. An issue raised in working with paper copies and digital forms is the potential problem of people using both simultaneously or copying work from a paper copy to the online version. By greying out irrelevant questions instead of hiding them, users can follow along with corresponding questions, avoiding potential confusion. I was also surprised to hear that some government forms allow you to submit the form with errors. If the form is important it makes sense that users are encouraged to submit it in any circumstances. However, users are also encouraged to fix errors before submitting the form where possible.

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.


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