Author Archives: LindaK

EDUI2009:Dana Chisnell Shows How to Do Usability Testing “Without the Scary” (Part One)

(Originally published in 2009 and still highly relevant.)

Dana Chisnell presented an all-day session at the EDUI 2009 Conference held in Charlottesville  September 21 & 22, 2009. She founded Usability Works and does usability research, user interface design, and technical communication consulting and development. She is co-author of the Handbook of Usability Testing.  The focus of the workshop was to show how eminently doable user testing can be, if you let go of the idea that you have to do it “by the book.”  Classic, by-the-book user testing can seem intimidating and scary. Instead, Dana spent the day showing how to identify and do the essentials and make it easier to test, and to do it  on an on-going basis. Her approach takes into account that there usually isn’t a lot of time to test. The following is a list of all elements “by the book,” and I’ve noted which ones Dana says are essential:

  • Develop a test plan ESSENTIAL
  • Choose a testing environment–Don’t test in the lab—go to where the users are
  • Find and select participants–ESSENTIAL
  • Prepare test materials
  • Conduct the sessions–ESSENTIAL
  • Debrief with participants and observers–ESSENTIAL–Debrief only with observers
  • Analyze data and observations
  • Create findings and recommendations

User testing works best when you’re early in the design process (that’s where testing using paper prototypes comes in very handy). What you need is someone who will try the design; somewhere to test (preferably where the user typically would use your site, such as at home, the office, or in a dorm room); something to study. Neat and simple. And you’ll learn things about your website interface that you would never have seen on your own.

For example, in conducting user tests of the University of Pennsylvania website,  Dana learned that users were looking for admissions “dates.” But they couldn’t find the information because the University used a different term: “timetable.” User testing provided the context in which they learned about this very simple labelling problem. Your site has to accommodate the way your users think and work, and you can’t be certain about that unless you actually watch them use your site. You must learn whether the user grasps the conceptual design of your site and if not, what the user’s concept is.

 Pointers for moderating user tests

There’s tremendous value in sitting next to someone and watching them do something. Dana recommends saying to the tester things like “tell me what you’re doing–think aloud… tell me what you’re thinking…” When the tester is quiet, be careful about when you ask a question–sometimes they’re quiet because they’re working on a problem, and you may not want to interrupt that process. At the end of the test, review the experience with the tester. Walk through what happened, what happened next. Ask “how did that go? What was confusing or frustrating.” Dana conducted a demonstration, working with an attendee. I found the moderator questions she asked to be very helpful:

  • How would you describe the information you’re looking for?
  • How far do you think you are from getting it?
  • Are you warm or cool?
  • You were hovering there–tell me what you were thinking.
  • What question do you have about the site right now?
  • What do you think the site is about?
  • What one main thing should be improved?

It’s essential for the moderator to talk with the tester and create a situation that feels natural to him or her. As moderator, you should be neutral and objective, but also friendly. Remember that this is not a psychology experiment, it’s a test of user-centered design.

NEXT: What Dana says about design.

Wesch, “Mediated Culture” EDUI Talk, Part Two

(Originally published in 2009 and still highly relevant.)

Twitter’s limit of 140 characters is one way that the medium shapes the message and the conversation. Wesch talked about the ways that digital media affect self-awareness and the construction of identity. Twitter’s “What are you doing?” contributes to “lifecasting” or “mindcasting.” In creating YouTube videos, we have no idea who, exactly, will be watching. We talk to the webcam. And when we look at YouTube videos, we are watching others without staring at them. Context collapses, as we saw in the “Bomb Iran” performance of John McCain, who thought his behavior was perfectly acceptable to the audience he was addressing in person, military veterans. But when the performance, captured digitally, appeared on YouTube, the context changed completely, as did the reception of his act.

I was particularly struck by Wesch’s comment that the anonymity and physical distance inherent in both traditional and digital media have enabled what he calls “hatred as public performance.” We see this on reality TV, in flame wars and vicious comments posted on YouTube, blogs and other places. It’s one outcome of the tide of narcissism that afflicts our culture, combined with a sense of hopelessness and impotence, the behavioral amplification of “whatever.” At the same time, he says that it’s important to have sites where comments can be posted anonymously, as a mechanism for great creativity and as a safeguard for free speech.

In spite of what seems to be a bleak analysis, Wesch is moved by what he sees as real and caring community on YouTube, and the emergence of more civil discourse through crowd ratings of the content of posts on Reddit (Wikipedia notes that “When there are enough votes against a given comment, it will not be displayed by default… Users who submit articles which other users like and subsequently “vote up” receive “karma” points as a reward…”). He’s amused and encouraged by the Free Hugs video that went viral on YouTube (as of this writing, the video has been viewed 50,748,157 times), and the kindness off the responses to a YouTube creator who spoke about her hopelessness.

There’s opportunity and danger in digital media, Wesch says, and we need to see and seize the opportunity or we’ll be washed up thanks to mainstream media. We need to be aware how the machine is using us, so we can guide the future.

Michael Wesch Looks at “Mediated Culture” at EDUI 2009

(Originally published in 2009, moved here 9/2013, and still highly relevant.)

Professor Michael Wesch’s talk at EDUI 2009, “Mediated Culture,” may well have been attendees’ favorite session.

Looking at relationships between individuals, communities, traditional mass media and the state, Wesch showed how blogging, YouTube, Twitter and other social media provide us with a new way of relating to one another, a way that has not been available in television and print.

Wesch builds on his own anthropological research in New Guinea, explaining that the creation of a state book of law changed the way individuals related to one another. When the law book was published, communities began to gather to measure up individuals against the rules and apply punishment accordingly. The book shifted focus from individuals’ relationships to one another to individuals’ relationship to the state. He says that the media are not just tools or means of communications but that they mediate our relationships. When media change, our relationships change.

Drawing on Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Wesch says that our culture is far more the way Aldous Huxley envisioned it, rather than George Orwell. Huxley commented that it wouldn’t be necessary to ban books, because no one would want to read them.

Television became the primary medium for  the conversations of our culture, controlled by a few people and designed for “the masses.”  The conversations are always entertaining, even the serious ones. They’re punctuated by commercials and they create a culture of irrelevance, incoherence and impotence. As Huxley said, we are amusing ourselved to death. At the same time, because so much of the media is aimed at entertaining us, we feel special, flattered, as if shows have been created just for us.

Wesch shows a funny picture of school children demonstrating various states of boredom in the classroom and explores the origins and meanings of the word, “whatever.” He explains that reality TV has shaped the meaning of the word as, “who cares about you–I’ll do whatever I want.” In addition, kids have been told by their parents the world is their oyster. Becoming a contestant on reality TV has become the way to prove that it’s true. And, as all but the shows’ winners discover (and as they head into the world in their twenties), they see that it isn’t true. We see that discovery happening on every episode of American Idol and the other reality shows.

Moving to a discussion of digital media, Wesch comments that it is fundamentally different from anything we’ve seen before. We still use concepts from the past, such as referring to web “pages.” But Tim Berners-Lee said, long ago, that the Web is not supposed to be a glorified television channel.” And thanks to blogging, YouTube and other social media, anybody can create and publish anything for “the masses.” Evolving Web standards for web browsers have helped make that possible. It’s no longer necessary to know HTML and other aspects of digital technology to have visibility online.

(To be continued…)

EDUI 2009 Conference Earns A+

(Originally published in 2009–moved here on 9/29/2013–and still highly relevant.)

The University of Virginia hosted an outstanding usability-focused conference yesterday and today, EDUI 2009. The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia, in partnership with User Interface Engineering, produced the conference, featuring a star-studded roster of presenters (forgive the hyperbole, but this conference was an amazing value for the cost of attendance). Today I’m acting as your amateur reporter, providing a quick summary of the conference. I’ll share info from the sessions in forthcoming posts, in the interest of brevity.

I spent yesterday in an all-day session with Dana Chisnell, an independent usability consultant and user researcher who founded UsabilityWorks. She co-authored the Handbook of Usability Testing: How to Plan, Design, and Conduct Effective Tests. The session was titled Usability Testing Without the Scary. Dana reviewed the entire process of user testing, from developing a test plan to recruiting users, working with stakeholders, summarizing and prioritizing issues, to reporting on results and making recommendations. The day ended with a reception hosted by Intalgent at their new venture/venue, OpenSpace. Wonderful networking, great food and wine, and a very funny improv performance.

Today began with a presentation by Michael Wesch, who teaches Cultural Anthropology and Digital Ethnology at Kansas State University. Dubbed “the explainer” by Wired magazine, Michael Wesch is a cultural anthropologist exploring the impact of new media on society and culture. The EDUI session was titled Mediated Culture, and showed how the media are not just tools or means of communications—they mediate our relationships. When media change our relationships change.

I attended “How Your Design Feels,” presented by Dan Rubin, founder and principal of Webgraph (a design and branding studio), co-founder of Sidebar Creative (a design collective) and Sinelogic (UI and usability consulting) as well as a web standards consultant and speaker.

Jared Spool, founder of User Interface Engineering, the largest usability research organization of its kind in the world, presented the conference keynote address, Cooking Up Gourmet User Experiences on a Fast-Food Budget.

I’ll share details on these sessions starting tomorrow.

Write Web Copy At A 5th-Grade Reading Level

You can write at a 5th grade level without dumbing down your copy. Some of the best and most popular magazines and newspapers are written at grade-school levels to improve comprehension.  For example:

Readers prefer text written at a 5th or 6th grade level

Like leading publications, good web copy has high readability scores.

Continue reading

Breadcrumb Navigation Prevents Confusion

Bread crumb navigation links in the top left corner of web pageClear, easy navigation determines whether visitors stay on your site, and how long they stay. People want to find what they’re looking for quickly and easily–with just one or two clicks. If they get confused, they move on to the next site in Google’s search results list.

Breadcrumb navigation is a great way to make sure visitors to your site always know where they are.

Most visitors who arrive at your site from Google land on a page within your site, rather than on your home page. There are three questions that users usually have when they arrive at your site:

  • Where am I?
  • What’s here?
  • Where can I go from here?

Breadcrumb navigation shows users the architecture of your site and makes it easy for the first-time visitor to get oriented. It helps visitors know where they are no matter what page they’re looking at. Put it on every page of your site, in the upper left corner of the page, beneath the navigation menu.

(Of course the structure of your site has to make sense or it doesn’t matter what you do with navigation links.)

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen endorses breadcrumb navigation

In an article on breadcrumb navigation, usability guru Jakob Nielsen says that breadcrumbs offer many benefits at minimal cost:

  • Breadcrumbs show people their current location relative to higher-level concepts, helping them understand where they are in relation to the rest of the site.
  • Breadcrumbs afford one-click access to higher site levels and thus rescue users who parachute into very specific but inappropriate destinations through search or deep links.
  • Breadcrumbs never cause problems in user testing: people might overlook this small design element, but they never misinterpret breadcrumb trails or have trouble operating them.
  • Breadcrumbs take up very little space on the page.

Wikipedia categorizes breadcrumbs into 3 types:

Path (History)–breadcrumbs are dynamic and show the path the user has taken to arrive at the current page. Because this approach is equivalent to using the browser’s Back and Forward functions, it isn’t widely used.

Location–breadcrumbs are static and show where the page is located in the website hierarchy [this is the category I use and am describing in this post]. The position of the current page is shown as it relates to the home page.

Attribute–Hongkiat Lim explains it this way: these breadcrumbs indicate the attributes or categories ascribed to the current page.

Often seen on e-commerce website, products may not only fall under a category but under certain attributes as well. For example, a car may be categorized as an SUV with attributes of being the color black and released in the year 2010. This blog uses attribute breadcrumb navigation–you can see that this post is preceded by the Website Best Practices category.

Use breadcrumb navigation at the top of every page, in the same position. Use a small font to minimize visual clutter and ensure that they are not the focal point of the page. Hyperlink all but the current page.

If WordPress is your website platform, you can download a plugin that automatically places breadcrumb navigation on your pages. I use Breadcrumb NavXT.


7 Questions to Ask When You’re Ready to Redesign a Website

When it’s time to redesign a website, most people are thinking about the visual design of the site. The look of a site is extremely important. But here’s a question–there are at least a thousand different ways to make a site look (just do a search on website design templates). How do you know what will be best for your site?

The design of your site should reflect

  • Who you are as a company or an organization. How do you see yourself? How does your market see you? Your competitors? The important “influencers” in your sector? How do you want to be seen?
  • Your business strategy.  Are you looking for prospects? New customers? Repeat customers? What, if any, customer service functions do you want your site to provide? Are you looking to raise awareness? Sell or collect donations directly on the site? What’s the average transaction amount you’re looking for? Are you looking for investors, partners, suppliers and other non-customer relationships?
  • A path for creating and sustaining relationships, up-selling and cross-selling customers, connecting with key influencers such as experts in your industry or field, establishing credibility in the eyes of opinion-makers, prospects, potential investors and other important audiences.

Last but not least, your site design must reflect what people are looking for, providing navigation links that make it easy for them to reach that content within one or two clicks.

Base your website redesign on measurable, achievable goals. Here are 7 questions to guide your thinking:

  1. How many leads do you want to generate for your business pipeline?
  2. How many do you want to convert to customers or donors?
  3. How will you use your site to do that?
  4. What are your revenue goals?
  5. What products or services do you want to sell more of?
  6. If you’re driving people to your site via LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or other social media, how many do you want to attract? What conversion rate do you expect?
  7. How will you measure results? By the level of new sales? The number of new subscribers to your blog or newsletter? The number of donations from a particular category of donors? The number of page views that Google Analytics shows? Quantifiable results enable you to track, benchmark and evaluate the return on your investment, so you can adjust your approach when necessary.

To sum it all up…

Set quantifiable website goals. Provide easy navigation, quality content, reader engagement, and make it easy for users to sign up for a newsletter, order products, make donations and interact with you in a variety of ways.

Then measure, evaluate and tweak your strategy as needed.

Here’s a link to a long list of great questions from Seth Godin that can help you map out your website goals.