Posts about usability
Thursday, August 7th, 2008
A few years ago I read an article that changed the way I do usability testing. In the June 2004 Gotoreport Erik Burns introduced café usability testing: recruiting and running usability tests with participants in local cafés. This was a revelation to me. Even though I was using ‘discount’ methods and didn’t maintain a formal lab, Erik’s method of selecting participants in situ offered the opportunity to streamline the whole recruitment process. I could evaluate designs more quickly and economically, and pass the savings on to colleagues and clients. I ran my first café usability session in 2005 and I’ve been hooked ever since.
If café usability’s new to you and it sounds like a useful technique, then here are a few tips to get you started and hopefully avoid some of the common pitfalls.
You can run café usability sessions anywhere. You don’t need to restrict yourself to cafés. Conferences, trade shows, events, museums, canteens, showrooms, student unions, user groups; wherever you think you’ll find people who match your target audience.
The bigger your recruitment sign, the better. In café evaluations you’re recruiting participants on the spot. If you’re on your own, your main tool is usually a sign offering an incentive. A4 desk signs are OK in public spaces where you need something inviting yet unobtrusive, but if you really want people’s attention you can’t beat a big poster. Position yourself next to a wall and stick the poster above your table (provided you’ve got permission, of course). Your sign does all the hard work and you can focus on the evaluations.
Get creative with your incentives. A big poster means you’ll get people’s attention, so now you need to concentrate on how you’re going to entice them to participate: the incentives. There’s less rigmarole for participants in café evaluations than in standard lab tests. You can be more adventurous and, um, budget conscious, in the kinds of incentives that you offer. The original article talked about free beer; I’ve offered chocolate, Gmail accounts, ice lollies, champagne and vouchers as well as the old workhorse hard cash. People tend to respond well to something a bit out of the ordinary, so go wild!
Position yourself where your participants are. This may seem obvious because you’re out in the field already, but your location in the chosen venue can really affect how many people you recruit. If possible try to visit the site beforehand to get a feel for busy times and places. Flexibility is the key; if you’re not seeing enough participants then it may be time to move.
If you’ve got help, recruit people away from your base. Take turns to go around the café/conference/canteen/hall/wherever and ask people if they’ve got a bit of spare time. Print some cards or simple paper leaflets with your company name, where you’re located in the venue and an outline of what you’re doing. Hand these out to people as you go around. At conferences, for example, there are often lulls early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Visiting other vendor’s stands and telling them about your evaluations can provide extra participants during these slow times.
Run your evaluations in public. I’ve seen some correspondence lately suggesting that you recruit people in public areas, but conduct the sessions somewhere private. Informality is the key to this technique. Running your sessions in public keeps it that way. Once you’ve withdrawn to another room you may as well be back in the lab. Nevermind that now you’ve got to manage participants in a separate room as well as maintaining your recruitment setup.
Bring spares of everything. In the lab all your supplies are usually to hand. In the field you’re dependent of what you (and any colleagues) can carry. You’d be surprised how easily simple things like mislaying pens or running out of paper can derail a session. So extra pens and paper are a must, but I’d also bring lots of consent and recording forms, copies of any paper prototypes (parts can easily get lost or damaged) and spare batteries for your laptop. And that’s just for starters. I’m sure there are lots of other things that you can think of for your specific situation.
Listen first, then ask. Café evaluations are conducted away from the lab, so this is a great opportunity to let your users lead and observe their behaviour. Try Mark Hurst’s listening lab approach rather than using pre-defined tasks. Talk to participants to discover what they would normally do on a website or application like yours. Note their answers and then ask them to try some of these tasks with whatever artefacts you’ve got (full site on a laptop, prototypes etc.). If there are specific areas that you want to test, throw in a few exercises of your own, but leave these until you’ve had a chance to see the participant’s usual behaviour.
Allow for more time, but don’t count on it. I usually ask for 20 minutes of people’s time, but the informality of cafe evaluations is infectious. Once participants have started they’ll often give you far longer. Have a few standby tasks or questions ready to make the most of each session. As with all research though, respect for the participants is paramount and that extends to their time. If you’ve asked for 20 minutes then that’s what you should aim for. (You’ll be surprised at how much you can achieve in just that short period.)
The 10th tip? Well that’s up to you. If you’re already running café usability sessions then I’d love to hear your favourite piece of advice. How do you do it? What do you do differently? If you’re just getting started with café evaluations then let me know how you get on. What did I overlook and what would you add? I’m sure that you’ll find the informality and freedom of café usability as stimulating as I do, even without the coffee.
This post originally appeared, in a slightly modified form, as an article in issue 75 of Interfaces, the magazine of the BCS Interaction group.
Wednesday, June 20th, 2007
The paradox of interface design is that when it’s done well you shouldn’t notice it. Good interfaces seem natural because everything you want is to hand. (A principle described as what-you-see-is-what-you-need by software interface heavyweights Constantine & Lockwood.) It means that you can get on with what you’re trying to do rather than worrying about how to do it. When you don’t see what you need breakdowns happen; flow is broken and suddenly the interface is the problem.
Consider this screen from Amazon’s Marketplace service. The idea is to provide feedback on your purchase to help drive their reputation system. And it works well, up to a point. The designers even remind you of the information you need to complete the task in the ‘Questions to consider’ panel, but then don’t provide an interface to all of it! Look at the second question. It’s probably one of the most important things in any transaction: ‘Did the seller accurately describe the items?’. Yet, despite having this information in their database, Amazon expect you to to recall the original description from memory.
This constantly frustrates me because it makes it difficult to give accurate feedback; the cornerstone of any reputation system.
Here’s my revision. Simply adding the original description (by exposing a field in a database) gives me the information I need to properly rate the book purchase.
To know what people need in their software interfaces you have to appreciate how the software is being used; what the people using it are trying to achieve; and the information they need to get that job done. And having made the effort to understand what’s to be done you need to make sure that your application supports it.
Thursday, February 15th, 2007
In 1995 Alan Cooper’s About Face coined the phrase ’stopping the proceedings with idiocy’. He was describing the needless dialog boxes that blight our interactions with computers. About Face 3.0 is due this year so I might send my original copy to Microsoft. Why? Windows Updates.
The good thing is that updates happen more-or-less in the background so I don’t have to be troubled by them. No, the trouble starts once the updates are complete.
Up pops the Automatic Updates dialog box. Windows arrogantly assumes it is more important than the diagram I’m drawing or the document I’m writing. My concentration is broken and now I must choose, not whether I want to restart my computer, but when.
I imagine that only the most ardent security nut is going to want to restart immediately – to save all their work, close all their open applications and wait for several minutes until Windows comes back up. Most people would rather get on with what they’re doing oblivious to the inner workings of the operating system. Presumably Restart Later is Microsoft’s concession to the rest of us. But even this choice is illusory; the dialog being dismissed only to reappear later on. What’s the big hurry? I’ve managed just fine without these changes up ’till now. The fact that they’ve been released shouldn’t override what I’m doing. Why not just wait for the computer to be restarted naturally, at the end of the day or whenever it usually happens? Or, even better, engineer the software so that it doesn’t have to be restarted at all.
The computer is a tool, not an end in itself. It’s good that Microsoft takes security seriously, but not at the expense of my work. Excellent interfaces respect the user. They tiptoe, working in the background, presenting things when they’re needed and very rarely interrupting. They don’t blunder straight in, assume they’re the most important thing on the computer and then wrest control away from you. These kinds of dialog boxes are the idiot in your computer talking. Every one that we can remove means the idiot’s voice gets a little quieter. As interface designers its our job to try and silence him.
Friday, July 21st, 2006
I mentioned Word buginess in my previous post. In celebration of that, my copy has now developed a fear of flying. Don’t believe me? It crashes whenever I type the word describing a person who flies an aeroplane. P I L O < crash >.
Humanising software is a good thing, but I think this bug is taking things a little too far.
Friday, March 10th, 2006
Today my IP phone is annoying me more than usual. Nevermind that every morning I have to log into it (and yes, it’s a different login to my computer’s), or that I have to actively select ‘Login’ even though it’s the only option available, or that I have to tab down from the ‘UserID’ field to enter my password, or that I have to enter yet another password to play my voicemail, or that I have to press ‘1′ every time I want to hear a message (what else would I want to do having just made the 5 key presses required to get into voice mail). No, what’s tipped me over the edge is accidentally clearing my call history.
Returning from lunch I noticed that I’d missed a couple of calls. I selected the ‘Directories’ button to gain access the ‘Directories’ screen, but instead of pressing the ‘Select’ softbutton to view the calls I accidentally brushed its neighbour ‘Clear’. Aaaarghh! Not just the missed calls, but the placed calls and the received calls all gone.
Clear is a destructive function and one that I suspect is used very rarely (except by the super-paranoid). It should be hidden away a few levels down rather than at the top level of the Directories screen. And if it must be shown at this level then it should be separated from the commonly accessed Select button to prevent accidental data loss.
The Missed Calls functionality is great, but the poor selection of commands and buttons pulls it into my consciousness and breaks my flow. It becomes an effort to avoid pressing the wrong button rather than effortlessly performing the right task.
Friday, March 10th, 2006
We’re trying to make this a regular thing so if you’re in the West Midlands area and interested in design, interfaces, websites, digital products and user experience in general then please join us for the UX Birmingham face-to-face. Last time the discussion encompassed train design, CSS layouts, documentary film-making and the new Post Office card payments system so it’s a pretty eclectic evening.
110-114 Wharfside Street
From 6:30 PM on the 16th March.
The Mailbox is a 5 minute walk from New Street station and there’s plenty of parking there if you’re coming by car. Bar Estilo does tapas as well as a sit-down menu so there should be more than crisps and nuts this time (grin).
Look forward to seeing you there.
Friday, February 3rd, 2006
If you’re in the West Midlands area and interested in design, interfaces, websites, digital products and user experience in general then why not join us for the UXBirmingham face-to-face.
St Pauls Gallery
94-108 Northwood Street
From 6:30 PM on the 16th February
Look forward to seeing you there.
Sunday, October 9th, 2005
Watching Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares the other night I was struck by how he practices his own form of user-centred design. For anyone not familiar with the programme, top chef Gordon Ramsay has a week to try and turn around a failing restaurant whilst swearing … a lot.
On arrival the first thing Ramsay does is to evaluate the existing setup. He samples the food and the service and then goes behind the scenes to check the kitchen. Then it’s out into the field to investigate the competition and talk with people in the street and other restaurant goers. With customer data and a guerrilla competitor analysis Gordon produces a vision which unifies the customer experience and drives the transformation of the restaurant, all the time evaluating progress and making changes based on feedback.
Sound familiar? Gordon Ramsay is in the business of creating unique customer experiences and the best experiences need passion and just enough process to succeed (and maybe just the odd swear or two).
Friday, September 30th, 2005
I phoned an old colleague recently to ask his advice about introducing a starkly different design for the website of a fairly conservative organisation. His advice? Redesign based on customer data and communicate the evidence for your choices. The interesting part here is communicating the evidence. It resonated with something I read recently on Austin Govella’s thoughtful blog and an old post by Elizabeth Bacon on the Interaction Design Group list.
Austin points to an interview with Geoff Thull that talks about communicating the value of design:
But if the client doesn’t comprehend the nature of the problem, which is often the case, your elegant explanation of solutions just flies over the client’s head …
whilst Elizabeth draws on her own experiences learnt on an extension course:
Rather than putting forth your value proposition up-front, a powerful way to approach your situation is to make your supes FEEL THE PAIN of their current way of doing things *first*. It’s only when people recognize the *cost* of their behaviors that they tend to embrace change, accept risk, and otherwise look for new solutions.
As designers we often don’t realise the privileged position we’re in. We understand the problem intimately because we’ve built the solution. Take a step back and bring others into that position. Help them to feel the pain so that we’re more likely to succeed in making it better.
Sunday, September 18th, 2005
When I first read about Gotomedia’s café testing I thought it sounded like a simple, fun guerilla method: get a sign to attract participants and a low-fidelity prototype; sit in a café or other public location and run evaluations with the people that approach you. Now I’ve had a chance to use it I can tell you it’s even better than that.
- Setup is minimal. There’s no recruitment phase – you screen in the café and it took less than 5 minutes to prepare the signs to stand on a table and to locate a suitable wireframe from our developments.
- Customers are happy to participate. Everyone that came into the canteen commented on the ‘free beer’ sign and at one point I had people queueing to take part.
- It’s cheap. I was paying £5 per participant (approximately 2 beers).
- It’s quick. The simple protocol and informal setting means you spend less time putting participants at ease and more time running evaluations – I managed 5 people in 2 hours.
And once you’ve finished, you’re in the right place to celebrate with a free beer of your own.