Monthly Archives: July 2008

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CUIL is a new search engine that’s been getting a lot of press these last few days because it’s different, it’s not Google, and it’s supposed to be a more useful tool. The premise is some ex-Googlers have decided to make a new and improved Search Engine, one that (I’m assuming) has had some consideration about users who need to find stuff, and what is user-friendly for them. In this regard, the user interface is supposed to be different (better?) than Google’s. Ever wondered what David must have felt when he faced up to Goliath? Just ask the team at CUIL!

Have you tried CUIL? How would you measure the overall usability? And how would you compare CUIL’s usability and ease-of-use vs Google’s, or Yahoo’s?

CUIL uses a multi-columnar format to present data, but Google uses a single column format (but with ads along the top, side and bottom. So, if you were to create a usability study to compare ease-of-use for CUIL vs let’s say Google, how would you proceed?

  • Would you measure both the ability to analyze search results, as well as the ability to determine the relevancy of the results?
  • Would you analyze the time it takes to find specific information on each search engine?
  • Would you measure the overall satisfaction of interacting with the search results only, or interacting with search results AND finding the relevant information, or only determining the usability of actually finding the relevant information?

Since the fomatting of the search results of both engines is quite different, would it even be possible to consider evaluating both with a single set of tasks?

What do you think? How would you organize the usability study?

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Are you interested in getting the latest information on the field of usability and user-centered design? There’s a few conferences and seminars around that you might wish to check out. Here’s a list of a few you might want to consider, just in case you decide to get out of your cube (or home-office) to hob-nob with other usability geeks (I’m of course including myself in that geek category):

HFI Putting Research into Practice Courses:

First and foremost, I am an advocate of the HumanFactors International “Putting Research into Practice” courses. They are 2 day courses that review the latest usability and related research, but then provide the “so what” of what it all means to you and your day to day practice of usability.

User Interface Engineering Events:

Usability guru Jared M Spool and his team wows us with usability insights and best practices. Do you read his blog? I do! Anyway, you can hang-out and hob-nob with the UIE team in the flesh and blood, and a host of other usability practitioners, at the UIE annual User Interface Conferences.

Usability Professionals Association Conference:

I’m a member of the UPA, and proud of it, and you may wish to consider joining if you are also interested in usability and user-centered design. But you don’t have to be a member to register and attend their premier conference, the UPA International Conference.

Other Usability Events:

Here’s a few other organizations that have either conferences or seminars you may want to learn more about. By the way this list comes from that excellent resource I mentioned, see how helpful that site is?

Web Manager University Training Program (formerly Usability University Seminar Series)

Society for Technical Communication (STC)

American Society for Information Science & Technology (ASIS&T) Conferences

Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Conferences

Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Groups (ACM SIGs) Events and Conferences

Society for Technical Communication (STC), Washington, DC Chapter, Calendar of Chapter Events

So, now that you’ve got the information don’t be a loner! Get out there and do the social, er, I mean educational scene and learn about the latest and greatest happenings in usability and user-centered design! Remember, feeding your brain with updated usability research makes you a better and more rounded usability practitioner.

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CUA Central, the Hangout for Certified Usability Analysts

CUA CentralI don’t know about you, but I’m not much of a community nut. I don’t hang out at cool Blogger watering holes, I don’t go to cool clubs with a bunch of cool friends, and I seldom join in the cool chatter at any hang-outs like myspace, facebook or twitter. I’m just this kind of quiet usability guy, ya’ know?

So, it was with some interest that I recently ran across a new feature on the humanfactors web site. What new feature? The CUA Central community.

CUA Central is a community for all Certified Usability Analysts where different topics of conversation around the usability profession can take place. An email and password are required, and you must be accepted into the community by providing your CUA number. What’s a CUA number? That’s the number that comes on the certificate you received after successfully completing and passing the Certified Usability Analyst test that Human Factors International administers.

If you’re a CUA, I urge you to join and check it out. By coming together as a community we can not only grow our profession as a whole, but also grow ourselves by learning from other CUAs out there.

Don’t have a CUA certificate? No problem, just enroll in the online certification test, you can find it on the HFI Certified Usability Analyst training web page. Of course, you have to take (and actually pass) the test. I should warn you in advance however, that you might want to take the courses HFI offers if you’re new to usability. The test is about 2.5 hours, and when I took it I needed almost all of that 2.5 hours.

However, the time and energy you spend in learning about usability and user-centered design is in my humble opinion time very well spent, so I urge you to consider the courses and certification test, or if you’ve already received a CUA to join the community.

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Did you know there are useful usability tips, templates and user-centered design information available for FREE at a easy-to-use .gov site? The one that stands out in my mind, and there are a few that stand out, is is a useful place to find easy and helpful information about usability and user centered design. Intended primarily for Government agencies and contractors, it nevertheless has excellent content for anyone interested in usability. has an easy and useful information architecture. Major sections walk you though the usability process with a Step by Step usability guide. Sections include; Plan, Analzye, Design and Test & Refine.

Another way to get to specific content is through the Usability Topics sections, which are:

  • Usability & Government – A section designed to help Government employees or contractors create or optimize government websites.
  • Usability Basics – Provides an overview of usability along with answers to many usability questions.
  • Research-based Guidelines – A treasure-trove of almost 300 pages of PDF guidelines on how to design user-friendly web sites including topics on navigation, content, search and plenty more.
  • Templates & Examples – Free downloadable templates that can be used to manage just about all aspects of usability, usability testing and user-centered design.
  • Usability Methods – A list and definition of various usability and user-centered design methods.

The site also has newsletters, alas the last and only 2008 edition was published in April. There’s an RSS feed, again not used very often at all in the past year or so, and information about meetings and events, which is current.

Advanced usability gurus may not find anything new or different there, but beginner usability practitioners could find it a real help as they begin conducting user-centered design. Even experts should find it refreshing to review the information just to see what’s there and how it’s presented. By the way, for all you who are interested in Search Engine Optimization, you’ll find that the web site itself offers plenty of best practices demonstrated quite well for you too.

Be sure to save in your favorites or bookmarks, I’m betting you’ll find it a handy resource to refer to from time to time. Enjoy!

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Finding Free Usability Participants

Don’t have the budget to find recruits for 1-on-1 usability testing sessions? Trying to find away to obtain usability testing participants quickly? No problem! Just use my handy-dandy method for finding participants. What’s my method? Simple! I use my friends and family as participants, IF they match my required Persona. This technique is fast, cheap or pretty much free, and can in a pinch help you move your 1-on-1 usability testing project along if you need participants fast! This hot tip has saved me countless times when I had to do usability testing on a shoe-string budget. Now don’t get me wrong, if you have the budget necessary you should try to obtain usability test recruits the normal way, by recruiting and carefully evaluating prospects through recruitment firms or customer databases, etc. based on your Persona, but when you can’t, well, go with friends and family.

Friends & Family Testing Participants

We all know usability testing is important if you want to improve a web site, but how do you do usability testing if your (or your client’s) budget is, well, let’s say tight? Is there anyway to do cheap, or even better, free usability testing? The short answer is yes, free usability testing is alive and well and anyone (well, anyone with usability training that is) can do it! It’s one of my standard tricks for getting over that whole “don’t have enough money” hassle. My technique is simple; save money by using friends and family who match the Persona or Personae you’ve already identified.

Three Steps to Free Usability Testing Recruits:

  1. Know the persona or personae you need to test
  2. Find friends & family that match the persona
  3. Elicit and conduct your usability test with your friends & family

A Few Usability Assumptions

Now I need to first mention that I’m assuming quite a bit here, namely that you are, or you are using someone who has been trained in usability testing and user-centered design who can develop and conduct the test. I’m also assuming that you’ve already developed the persona and protocol you’ll be using to conduct the 1-on-1 usability testing sessions. Finally, I’m assuming you have the equipment, place and other logistics covered.

You have Friends & Family, Right?

The reality is most of us who are not total hermits have an extended network of friends and family that can be used for usability testing. Need to find 20-30 year olds that have shopped online for insurance? Well, you probably can find 5 or 6 people you know among your friends and family that fit the bill. Need to find retirees who check their online financial accounts once a week? Again, you probably have 5 or 6 people in your friends and family that qualify. This technique won’t work if you’ve got specialized or internally used applications, but for general public access type web sites or applications this technique works just fine.

Pick Nearby Friends for In-Person Testing

If you are conducting 1-on-1 testing in person, then an additional requirement is that your prospective friends and family live in reasonable driving distance from you. If you are conducting remote testing then that whole geography thing is not an issue.

Recruiting Friends & Family for Usability Testing

When conducting usability testing with friends and family, the same rules apply for recruiting. I usually create a brief email that I send out to my friends and family, letting them know I’m looking for a little help. I usually include a link to whatever tool (for example a qualification survey) I’m using to qualify the person to see if they fit the Persona. Assuming yes, I follow up with more details for scheduling the session with them. If they don’t qualify, I send a follow-up email or message thanking them, but letting them know I can’t use their services for this test, but hopefully will be able to do so in a future test.

Usability Testing is Work, and Don’t Forget It!

The only really tricky thing about using friends and family for usability test participants is to clarify that this is for work, and not a social event, thus it’s important to take it seriously. Now I know I mentioned free usability testing above, and with friends and family it can be free. However, I often find that offering a small honorarium of cash or a gift card, or even buying them lunch sets the tone, and provides the financial incentive that ensures my friends and family take the usability testing seriously. Actually, I find honorariums VERY important to usability testing and will in the near future devote a whole blog just about why they are so critical, and how to do them well and without spending lots of cash.

Test Your Usability Test

Either before or after you’ve scheduled your sessions, you should also do a full
dress-rehearsal and test the test to make sure you’ve taken care of all the logistics. I always test a usability test, I find it the single most useful time I spend in developing and tweaking a usability test protocol. Again, there’s probably a full blog on the whys and hows of putting together a successful test of the test, which I’ll have to write about soon.

Conduct Your Usability Test with Friends & Family

After making whatever adjustments are necessary from the findings of the test of the test, you should now be ready to conduct your usability test with your friends and family. Follow your protocol and just as you do with any other participant; carefully note and follow-up on any verbal or non-verbal cues that arise during the testing. I think you’ll find that by treating your friends and family in your normal, professional manner they will follow your lead and do their best to be helpful and productive testers.

After the Usability Test

Unlike strangers who participate in a usability test then leave, never to be seen again, your friends and family will be seeing you probably quite often after testing is complete. Naturally, they will be curious about the result of the testing. I usually create some Elevator-speak (a brief easy to remember statement) about the testing that provides them enough information to satisfy their curiosity, but not reveal any industry or trade secrets. Something along the line of; “Yes, you really helped me, we were able to identify some ways to improve our application and are busy following up on all our findings now. Thanks again for your help!” By sharing just enough that your friends and family feel they’ve helped and contributed toward your cause, you’ll also find them more willing to participate in other tests in the future.

Go Ahead: Use Your Friends & Family

The shocking thing is, it’s perfectly fine and normal to use your friends and family as usability test participants, as long as they fit the Persona you’ve identified. Other than the social aspect of separating friendship from work, and the need you’ll have to let them know how things went afterward, you’ll find your friends and family are perfectly acceptable usability test participants.

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Hello and welcome to Useful Usability!

This blog about useful usability will be my attempt to provide you with helpful tips, insights and tools you can use when practicing usability. I hope to keep things simple, light and most importantly USEFUL, to provide you with an easy and quick way to gain usability knowledge, or at least flame me if you disagree with something I’ve said!

So who am I and why should you bother reading my posts? Well, I’m a Certified Usability Analyst and have been practicing the dark art / semi-science of usability and user-centered design for over 10 years. I’ve conducted well over 500 usability testing sessions, research studies, redesign projects and other assorted usability-type projects, and I have broken up more fights over what’s the right way to present a burning, spinning logo on the home page than I can remember.

I’ve worked at or for big and small companies; Fortune 100 companies, Fortune 500 companies, and companies who were lucky to be able to afford a copy of Fortune magazine. All of them needed usability help to some degree, but many of them didn’t realize it! So, in the coming days, weeks months and perhaps years I’ll be providing my input, insight and intellectual property to you, hoping that you find value in my attempts to inform and inspire you.

Thank you for reading and please do comment back, a one-sided conversation is after all rather dull!