Sunday, May 25, 2008

Target Usability Lab

When we were at the Target usability lab, Pam, who headed the lab, wanted Fred, our classmate, to examine a list of gifts (from the website) for potential purchase for the soon-to-be-married couple. Fred resisted saying the following:

“No pricing? I’m already trying to differentiate pricing. Wow! Is it like jewelry-store pricing? If there’s no price, is it an I-don’t-want-to-know kind of thing?”

Pam replied, “If you’re stuck and can’t move on, I might say something like- I don’t know the answer to that. How do you want the pricing thing to work?”

Instead of ignoring Fred’s concern about the lack of utility in seeing prices, Pam explained how she would investigate the issue further. Conversely, Pam could have redirected Fred to a question regarding the usability of a specific area of the page. Instead, she took time to see what value she could find in Fred’s observation regarding the perceived lack of utility in price posting.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Usability Lab at the University of Minnesota

B-18 Walter Library
117 Pleasant Street SE
Lab Reception Room Phone: (612) 625-4385

Last night (May 14, 2008), I toured the Usability Lab at the University of Minnesota as part of a course I'm taking in my graduate program (Research and Usability class taught by Dr.Tori Sadler). A usability lab is where you go when you want to test your web site or software interface for user friendliness. If you are going to invest thousands of dollars into a web site launch or software distribution, the last thing you want to discover after-the-fact is that no one wants to use your product because it is difficult to use.

One example of how the staff at the usability lab would test your web site would be to select 6 to 10 people to perform specified tasks on the site. The tests would occur similar to the following:

  • The subject would enter a sound-proof room and be seated at a computer that is equipped with eye-tracking capabilities.

  • On the other side of a two-way mirror, staff would observe the participant as he or she interacted with the test interface.

  • The participant would speak what he or she was thinking while maneuvering through the interface.

  • The eye-tracking software allows the staff to monitor what the user is looking at, detecting what he or she reads or examines.

  • Mouse movements, key strokes and vocalizations are recorded for later study.

  • The staff records problems and challenges and successes experienced by participant.

I can think of a lot of software I've used that could benefit from this type of usability testing. For example, searching for topical help when programming in Flash. It's maddening to search for a word that is a key programming phrase and nothing is found. I'm sure you have had similar experiences with some software or web site.

Below is the meeting room where the staff allows companies to watch through the two-way mirror as their product is being tested.

Below a participant (viewed through a two-way mirror) speaks out loud as he attempts to declare a major using a college website being tested. He did not have an easy time figuring it out.

Below is some of the equipment used by the staff to evaluate the participant's actions.

Below, the eye-tracking software is calibrated as the participant looks at locations on the configuration screen.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The eagle that nests around the corner

Last night, we decided to check out an eagle's nest that is around the block from our house. I took my camera, which is just one of those portable Canon PowerShot A650's.

When we arrived, the nest appeared to be empty, but we kept starring at it like we were waiting to witness the Miracle of the Sun or something.

Becky said, "I think I saw something move." I zoomed in with the camera as much as I could. "I don't see anything" I said. "There it is again," said Becky. Suddenly, I saw its head peak up over the edge of the nest.

Apparently, it was time for dinner. It was nearly 8:00 pm, and the sun would set soon. It hopped onto the edge of the nest and looked around for a moment. Becky said, "I'm glad we didn't bring our dogs. Freckles would look like lunch."

With a lurch and whoosh, the eagle took flight. It was enormous, powerful and elegant. I already had my camera to my face or I would have missed the shot. Just like that, it was right over my head. I can't believe I was able to get this shot.

The eagle flew a few hundred yards away and perched above the lake. We kept waiting for it to swoop down and grab a fish, but its patience was much greater than ours. Still, it was fun to get a glimpse of such a majestic bird.