User-Centered Design and Software Engineering Practices with Ian Roberts

Sat down for "Ian's Method" of usability engineering. It's a continuation of the user-centered design series put on by some very smart folks at PNNL. Today would focus on the aspect of measuring the success of a design.

Software is for Humans
It's important people try it because they're going to be stuck with it. Software testers aren't people (a radical position) insofar as they test extremes, which is useful, but not the same.

The most important part of user-centered usability testing is the task being relevant to their work. It must be relevant, specific, and achievable. In most cases, instead of letting them loose on the whole product, you can boil down user testing to specific cases, therefore you may test starting from that specific UI in the context of that specific task.

The first thing is choosing test users. Actual users are the best. Don't use software developers (they think different). Having a representative user means you have a mine of insight no matter the medium of testing.

Capture the User

There's a lot of mediums for capturing the system, from paper to prototypes to products, so start early. Put the user in front of it and record. Use audio recording + note taking or, when available, video. Keep in mind people should give consent, not always in a legally exhaustive sense, when they are recorded.

Ian presented some videos of user testing in action. A piece of paper (instead of a screen) and a pen (instead of a mouse), working verbally with Ian, were enough for a user to engage their sensibilites and biases. The user's sense of what should happen next seemed in no way hindered by the fact it was happening on paper.

Video, plus captured mic audio, was shown next. It contrasted two versions of software that offered the same functionality, but different user experiences. Again, most of the feedback was not in the pixels of the video, but in the user's reaction.

Over time, Ian learned that simplicity in recording is better. While they used to record users with a complex, almost TV News worthy setup, with multiple cameras, a latop, and lots of fancy switches. Now they've migrated further toward simple solutions.

The Future of User Capture

Setting up a projector to show the screen behind the user as they face the camera and use a latop offers a picture-in-picture quality experience, but with only one camera. This was supplanted with a webcam + screen capture technology by Tobii, which offers all of the documentation, plus a calculated visualization of what the user was looking at. It offers extreme granularity of the user experience, down to buttons they have yet to look at.

Ian gave a live demonstration of Tobii in action, including Ian's proctering technique. A volunteer subject navigated college websites while we watched his eye movement visualized in real-time. It was immediately evident that eye tracking allows designers to see exactly how their well-thought out grids and menus organizes the viewer's assimilation of the data. The little red dot flowed over the page in odd directions, sometimes right-to-left and bottom-to-top, illustrating how web pages are not read like book pages.