Usability research

To build real ease-of-use into technology and websites requires observation and understanding of how people use technology and the ways in which they expect to interact with it. This could be as simple as looking over someone's shoulder while they do something, but normally involves qualitative discussion with users about what they are trying to achieve and detailed observation of their behaviour.

For almost all usability studies, it is particularly important to involve the design team as technical considerations directly impact on the solutions that are possible to improve usability.

Examples of usability research include:

Look-and-feel studies

Website studies range from top-level look-and-feel studies focusing on basic design and content schemes for websites to detailed usability and interaction assessment. Look-and-feel studies are often carried out in the early stage of a design to develop the underlying theme and approach of the design and ensuring that the design meets the requirements of the target audience. Most commonly these use focus group and discussion group approaches allowing technical experts to observe and take notes on what users are saying.

Accompanied surfing

Where information is needed about websites at a more detailed level, techniques such as accompanied surfing can be used. In these instances people are set tasks, or even just asked to explore a website, describing what they are looking for and with an observer watching what they are doing and, most importantly, how they do it and the journey they take. At the extremes, these can be combined with eye-tracking devices to analyse where and how people look and take in information about the site.

Fly-on-the-wall observation

For both look-and-feel studies and accompanied surfing, users are in something of an artificial situation. An extension of observation studies is to observe people in their 'natural' situation to see how they actually use technology in a real situation. These are particularly useful for looking at mobile technologies including mobile services and devices. In a similar way to accompanied surfing you can look at user journeys to accomplish a task and the impact of environmental factors on that task (for instance how doing a task on the move differs from doing a task in a sedentary situation).

User diaries

Whilst many of usability techniques rely on observation, it may not be possible to observe someone over a long period where use of a device or technology changes behaviour, rather than just being connected to completing a single task. Examples of technology changing behaviour include the use of texting, the impact of TiVo on television behaviour or the use of PDA devices. The impact of these technologies can only be tested over the longer term and in these situations diary studies can be particularly useful. Alternatively you may use technology placement studies where individuals try two different approaches to the same task and ask them to record their experiences on both.

Tracking studies

A final adjunct to observation studies is the tracking of behaviour electronically, using information such as log files, mouse and keyboard tracks, and application logs. Whilst most observation studies are carried out on a small number qualitative basis, the use of these types of tracking technology allow a fuller quantitative picture of typical behaviours to be build up.

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