Monthly Archives: August 2008

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I read an interesting article recently on the UIE web site, “Avoiding Demographics When Recruiting Participants: An Interview with Dana Chisnell.” The article presents a situation like this; what do you do when a client or Company’s internal research group requests that usability participants be gathered based on the demographic data that the client has gathered?

Finding Usability Testing Participants:

Finding usability testing participants is not all that difficult, assuming you know whom to look for. The theory is that you first identify the Persona or Personae that will typically be conducting the critical tasks on the web site, and then based on that find usability test participants that match the Persona. However, there are those in an organization who may try to help out by offering you the clustered demographic groups of users to recruit. They may suggest that “typical” users are age ranges 23-35 years old, work in the financial vertical, etc.

Age Vs. Behavior:

As Dana Chisnell points out in her article, this “help” is actually not all that helpful when recruiting for usability testing. The main reason why is the demographic data does not help you understand the behavior of the typical users. Remember those Personae? They define who the user is based on their behavior, and based on their critical tasks, not on age, gender or location. Also, demographic data does not describe how much domain expertise the typical users have, and doesn’t provide any insight into the typical performance associated with the Persona:

“For example, age is not necessarily an indicator of behavior, performance, or expertise — the attributes that make a difference in the results of a usability results. Just because someone is in her 60s, doesn’t mean that she’s more or less technologically savvy or more or less security conscious than someone in his 30s or 40s. Being 20 doesn’t make you an expert computer user. Being 70 doesn’t mean that you don’t know how to use a computer.

If we wanted to see how different behaviors, performance, and expertise affects how people will use an application, we needed to look to something other than age. Professions by the way won’t help either. The client gave us a law enforcement category, but otherwise it’s unlikely that someone who is a teacher is more likely to be security conscious than someone who is in real estate.”

Demographics: Good for Ads, Not For Usability:

Demographic clustering is helpful when creating advertising or marketing communications that seek to reach a specific target audience, with a specific target message. Recruiting usability participants however has little to do with age, or profession, or even geographic location. Instead, usability testing participants should be recruited based on matching the behaviors, needs relative to specific critical tasks, and a base of knowledge about the topic the user is expected to have.

Find Usability Participants Via Behaviors:

What then should you do if presented with the task of finding usability test participants by demographics? Dana Chisnell’s advice is to change the discussion by asking several questions back to the demographic-loving clients. I won’t steal her thunder, but I will say it comes back to the basics of why are they wanting to do a usability test in the first place, what is testing supposed to find, and what behaviors are supposed to be changed or improved by using the results of the usability test.

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So, today is the day my daughter starts her first day of high school! Now, as a proud papa I’m excited for her, and can’t believe how much time has gone by, seems like only yesterday she was heading off to 1st grade with a pony-tail and ribbons in her hair.

However, as a usability geek I’m noting how the high school handled getting a whole class of hundreds and hundreds of new students into the mix and informed as to where to go, and when, and what the “rules” are for being a good High School Citizen.

There were several introductory meetings, one which was parents only, just to inform the new incoming class’ parents on how things work. Maps were provided, and overviews of what the kids could expect on their first day were communicated. The school also takes advantage of the internet and has large amounts of content available as well. From a usability standpoint the communication was clear, consistent and importantly repeated several times over several weeks.

Later, registration was handled in a user-friendly way by bringing in the freshmen in groups, divided by their last names. Since my daughter was a “T” she went in with one of the later groups. Again, the school communicated how things worked, what classes each student had (by providing handouts of each student’s schedule) and provided maps and books the student would be required to bring on the first day. Again, information was repeated, and the communication was clear and consistent, making it a user-friendly experience.

This organization style and methodology is probably very similiar across the various U.S. high schools, in terms of getting large populations instructed in a usable way. I just noted that the routine at my daughter’s school seemed extremely well organized.

So, there you go, my daughter is staring four years of high school squarely in the face, starting today! And I was rather impressed with how the high school administration made the instruction of parents and students a user-friendly process.
If you have, or had, a child in high school, how did your school do from a usability perspective in providing the freshman information and instruction?

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Are you part of a large organization that has a web site that is owned by multiple business units? If so, then I share your pain. I know from my years of experience at Fortune 100 companies that often corporate websites are “owned” by various business units. Each business unit owner has his or her own agenda for their section of the corporate web site.

Corporate Web Committees: Lots of Talk

It can be very difficult, sometimes seemingly impossible, to get everyone who owns a segment of a corporate web site to agree to wholistic improvements or changes to the web site, often because different business owners have different needs which may or may not be “helped” by the suggested changes. Committees that produce lots of talk but little action, endless meetings and countless emails seem to be the norm, with actual web site changes and improvements (work) being rather rare. And when the work is done, it is usually a fairly large endeavor requiring undue amounts of time and energy from both IT and business resources. Sound familiar? Yes, I feel your pain!

Conflicting Business Needs:

Many times, there are differing opinions about what improvements should be made, where and when. Conflicting points of view caused by conflicting business needs is one of the most common reasons it is difficult to gain consensus. Sometimes however there often additional compounded differences in opinion, caused by differences in basic understanding of whom “typical” users are, and what needs these users have. A further complication is not all business owners actually have expertise or even a basic education on the principles of good web or web-based application design. The good news is there is help for you, dear corporate reader, and it comes from (drum roll), usability!

Usability, a Neutral Point of View:

What many in the corporate world don’t realize is they have a secret weapon available to them, a weapon that cuts through the conflicting points of view held by various business units, and focuses the discussion on Users, not Business needs. By creating simple usability tests that record users as they try to complete basic tasks on your web site, you can bypass the endless business-needs discussion, and focus your owners instead on the needs of the user.

Usability Video, Worth a Million Words:

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video of users failing to perform tasks on your web site is probably worth a million words. I’ve found that a short video with three users struggling on the corporate web site is the single most powerful way to eliminate most “I know my users, and they would NEVER (or ALWAYS) do such and such” comments from business owners who profess they know beyond a shadow of a doubt exactly what their users need and how they operate. It’s amazing how showing typical users failing on a corporate web site to executives will stimulate action. Politically, you have to be careful when, how and to whom you show the video, but assuming you know the layout of the political minefield that is your corporate organization you will at least have the ammo you need with which to stimulate action, and taking action to improve things is after all the purpose of usability.

Three Steps to Making a Usability Video:

There are three simple steps that you need to do in order to get your usability video. First, you must focus your attention on what to record to get ACTION to occur. Second, you must record and edit your video to demonstrate “typical” users conducting “typical” actions. Third, you must package your video with “suggested” next steps to address the situation.

Step 1 – Focus Your Video to Get Action:

Remember that what you are after is a stimulus to action, so by making that your goal it will become easier for you to decide what to focus on when deciding what typical tasks of your web site should be studied and recorded. Don’t try to do too much, just concentrate on what you need to show in order to get your business owners to move. DO make sure you’ve identified your “typical” users, and DO have supportive evidence ready just in case you are challenged by business owners who may claim, “well, your video is all well and good but those are not MY users!” You must be able to validate that you do know the users, and that you found “typical” users with which to create the video. Sidebar: Need help finding users with which to make your video? Just read my blog article, Free Usability Testing Participants to learn how you can most likely find usability participants that match your Personas among your very own friends and family.

Step 2 – Record & Edit Your Usability Session:

I happen to love and use Techsmith’s Morae usability testing software, but if you don’t have it don’t let that stop you. Simply set up a video camera (yes, you can even use your own, or one of your family member’s video cameras) to record the user as he or she tries to complete the typical tasks on your web site. Most computers today come with basic video editing software that will allow you to review and edit your video, to demonstrate what a typical user goes through to try to complete a task on your web site. Your video should NOT be too long, and by that I mean anything over 5 minutes. If your video is much longer than that, you are probably not focusing on the core Action items for your site and perhaps are trying to include too much. And don’t forget the Power of Three, show three users going through a task, and show them failing at the key points in which you believe usability improvements should be made. Remember, the point of this video is to get ACTION from your business owners, not to find and address ALL of the usability issues that need to be addressed on your web site.

Step 3 – Package your Usability Video:

This video has but one goal; to stimulate your enterprise to take ACTION. Therefore, be sure to package your video in such a way that you emphasize two things. First, users are having difficulty and you have videos that explain what the difficulty is and where the difficulty is occuring on the web site. Second, that you have some suggestions for how to improve the situation. Your video will only stimulate action if you provide your audience with next steps for how to address the situation that you’ve found. What you do not want is more discussion. Therefore, your video must be packaged with easy to understand, and simple action items that can be presented to your executives and web site business owners. If you only present the problems, you will only increase the number of discussions. Your point with this video is to gain action by cutting through the discussions and making clear for all to see exactly what the problem is, and what can be done to solve it.

Usability Videos, Your Secret Weapon:

So there you go. My tip for this week is to use the power of a usability video to cut through the endless corporate discussions to get action by showing real users, going through real struggles, in trying to complete tasks on your corporate web site. A video of your users will do two amazing things for you; first, it will focus your various business owners and executives on the issue at hand, and second; it will cut through most if not all of the discussions and provide clear evidence of what the problem is, and what the solutions are.

Good luck with your video, and if you like drop me a line and share me a link to your video, I’d love to see how you do with cutting the discussion and getting things done with your very own usability video.

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Here’s a handy tool I love to use, it’s a government web site devoted to Content, and it’s (believe it or not) full of good content.

If usability is all about delivering an easy and satisfying experience to users, then surely good usability implies the core of the experience, the content, be good too. But let’s face it, useful, easy to use and satisfying content is not all that easy to create. Need some tips on how to create and deploy good content? Well, look no further than the United States government, which has an easy-to-use and satisfying web site devoted to content (with some good bits about usability and technology thrown in as well).

The resource is, and I heartily recommend it for both new and experienced usability practitioners.

In, you’ll find several sections of helpful tips and information, and actually the website itself is a good example of content done well.

Sections include:

  • Requirements & Best Practices: Mostly around information for those having to create or manage Government web sites, but good information on best practices for just about anyone.
  • Usability & Design: One of my favorite sections and full of links to good content on usability issues. Especially of note is the Section 508 content with links to examples of how to create compliant web sites, and best practices for maximizing Accessibility.
  • Improving Your Website: Lots of helpful information and tips on evaluating and measuring websites with an eye toward what information will help you improve yours.
  • Managing Content: Probably the best section in the site and full of lots of tips on how to keep your content user-friendly, helpful and fresh.
  • Management & Governance: A topic not often covered, so a helpful resource for best practices in managing sites, I especially like the policies and procedures section.
  • Resources & Tools: Check out the Training & Workshops section, many workshops are government only, but there’s quite a few listed that anyone can attend.
  • Getting Started: This has a great source of content about knowing your audience and the various types of research that can be conducted to understand who they are and what they need.

I’ve found little gems like this website can come in very handy when trying to identify best practices or otherwise research content topics. I hope you’ll find it helpful from time to time too!

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There’s been a lot of talk recently about Agile development and how usability and user-centered design can play nice together.

Not sure what Agile development is? Think of Agile development as building all pieces of an application at the same time. In manufacturing, this type of development has been conducted since the time that Ford created the assembly line.

You may think Ford’s process was linear, after all, there’s no car at the beginning of the line, and at the end of the line, boom, a car is born. The reality however is that only the assembly of the car happens in a linear fashion on that line. The actual manufacturing of the car parts themselves is all done by various companies in various locations, and then delivered when needed to create the vehicle.

In software development, Agile development means one set of developers may be working on code for say a customer service module, while a different set of interaction designers may be working on the interface for a search tool. Development is done in a non-linear fashion, and only at the end of the process are all the parts connected, and a new application born for the world to see.

Usability testing and user-centered design traditionally have required a more linear process. A design is considered, usability testing is done on the design, and modifications are made before the design is moved into coding, etc. Today however, there are more and more usability teams that have made the leap to Agile design.

There’s an excellent two part article at UIE’s blog on how (and when) to incorporate usability and user-centered design with an Agile development process. I’ve conducted usability testing in an Agile process several times, and struggled a little each time. I did get through it, and learn to both speed things up and cut things down to the basics, but learning by doing is not exactly the best way to go. I wish I had this excellent two part article available, hopefully you’ll find it very insightful too.

You can catch Part 1 of the 12 Best Practices for UX in an Agile Development, or read the original 12 Best Practices Blog created by Jeff Patton of

Have you conducted usability in an Agile environment? If yes, how’d it go? If not, do you feel you know what to do or where to start?