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.

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