Tag Archives: usability

Halloween Interview and Task Observation

Halloween night was the date when I conducted an interview and task observation with a good friend who regularly attends folk events and festivals. (Please note that the interviewee is wearing the microphone.)


I prepared a question sheet for the interview and practised on my teenage son, so as to check the flow of questions, as suggested by Kuniavsky (2003).  I downloaded a free version of Microsoft Expression Encoder 4 in order to record the observation tasks and I practised using this software (again, on my surprisingly obliging son).  I was impressed by the quality of the screen capture and used the headphones and mike pictured above to record the participant’s audio very clearly.  However, I decided not to include the webcam feature as this lagged behind the audio and screen capture.

The data capture sheet had separate boxes for each screen as a reminder of the 4 key questions for each screen.  I felt that this was important to ensure consistency in our approach across  all tasks and all participants.  During my test task observation I became quickly aware that it is almost impossible to take notes whilst talking to a participant and I agree with Kuniavsky (2003) who suggests that this exercise should be conducted by 2 people.

Conducting the interviews and task observations

We encountered a range of issues which I have categorised as follows:

1. Technical Issues

I had to find, download and practise using the software; this initially seemed straight forward but it became difficult to troubleshoot when we encountered problems with Internet connections; firstly with teenage children playing online game during the task observation with Participant 1 and secondly on campus where the Eduroam wireless system failed, forcing us to rely on audio recording for  Participant 3 and 4.  Although I had tested the wireless system on campus at 9.30am, I hadn’t made allowances for the notoriously high demand on the wireless network in the Library between 11am and 2pm.  In the future, I would minimise the chance of this happening by connecting via an ethernet.  Indeed, as I write, I am also wondering why I didn’t video the task observations using my phone…

2. Lack of interviewing experience

Having conducted the interview/task observation with a familiar primary user, I had become aware that the series of questions which we had agreed as a group were very specific to the website and that they were not going to provide as much background information as we might need to understand the lifestyle, interests and motivations behind the behaviours of the interviewees, particularly the primary users – about whom the group had little information.  We needed to ask additional questions but this proved to be difficult as two of the interviewees were line managers for two members of the group!  Although this wasn’t ideal, there were advantages to using senior staff.  Firstly, we were allowed to conduct the interviews during work hours and secondly, we were able to access a suitable venue (a group study room in the Library).  Consequently, given the budget and time restrictions of the project, I feel that we gathered enough information to fulfill our user research objectives.  In a future project, I would include additional questions to enhance our understanding of the primary users.

The second issue that arose due to my lack of interviewing experience was deciding when to interrupt and re-focus the interviewee’s attention to the question/task as opposed to just keeping quiet and listening! This is obviously a skill which needs to be developed over time; recording and listening back to interviews has certainly helped me to analyse my performance.  For example, when observing task 3, I insisted that Participant 1 should try and find the Facebook page from the website, even though she had proposed an alternative route which would have worked in real life.  This is discussed by Krug (2006) who outlines a range of motives for users not choosing a designed route, including the idea that users will revert to previously successful strategies for solving problems, even if they are unorthodox.  The result of my intervention was to force the participant to undertake additional searching which was invalid as it was not what the participant would have done under normal circumstances.

3. Interviewee Issues

There was evidence that interviewees were slightly nervous about the interview/task observations.  Participant 2 arrived late and flustered and seemed less focussed in his approach to the tasks.  I had booked the room for 5 hours to suit participants’ needs.  Unfortunately, the interviews were arranged by another group member with only 15 minute breaks between each participant’s 30 minute slot.  In the future, I would leave longer periods between interviews to accommodate over-runs and to allow time for re-setting equipment.

Participant 3 wanted to give the “right” answers, as shown by the transcript of one of the tasks:   Participant 3 Observation task 1buying a ticket.  We tried to minimise this anxiety by preparing an introduction speech, as discussed by Kuniavsky (2003) which was read to all participants to explain the purpose of the task.  Unfortunately, this participant is an experienced manager who would probably not wish to appear unable to complete a task in front of her junior staff (even if difficulties were due to the website design).  In future, I would therefore avoid any potential conflict of interest by not interviewing my own line manager, unless the person was a key stakeholder to the project.

4. Analysis Issues

The original plan had been for the interviewers to share the transcription process with the other members of the group. Unfortunately, as 2 of the interviews were affected by the technical problems, we thought that it would be very difficult for the rest of the group to transcribe the audio-only recordings of the practical tasks.  Consequently, we have yet to analyse the data.  I am conscious of the fact that transcripts are raw data and that the interviews and task observation results need to be summarised and analysed to obtain the information required to build archetypal personas.  We will try and complete this before next week’s lecture.

What did I learn?

  • Interviewing is difficult; asking searching, open-ended questions without leading a participant or imposing one’s views is a skilled job
  • Researchers need to work in pairs and allow extra time for delays and discussion
  • Researchers should have back-up recording equipment in case there are technical problems
  • Audiovisual recording of the research provides an accurate record intervieweee responses

Was this research useful?

Overall, despite some of the issues outlined above, I can see that this user research has provided us with real information required to map realistic scenarios and journeys for the primary users which had not been available to us from the SurveyMonkey survey. In the future, I would undertake similar research, not only to support the development of personas and user journeys but also to provide an evidence base. Bowles and Box (2011) discuss how this would be particularly important where stakeholders may have conflicting priorities, as it would help focus everyone’s attention on the key requirements.  As with the persona development, I can see how this is going to provide the basis for the design aspect of the website.


Bowles, C. and Box, J. 2011. Undercover user experience : learn how to do great UX work with tiny budgets, no time, and limited support. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

Evans, W. 2012. Customer research & persona development [online]. San Francisco: slideshare. Available at: http://www.slideshare.net/willevans/customer-research-persona-development [Accessed 01 November 2012].

Krug, S. 2006. Don’t make me think! : a common sense approach to web usability. 2nd ed.Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

Kuniavsky, M. 2003. Observing the user experience: a practitioner’s guide to user research. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann


Error 404 with attitude: good UX design?

Our task this week was to undertake a competitor analysis and I decided to focus my reading on the benefits and costs of  such a review.  I began by reading the Withrow (2006) article which discussed the advantages of understanding the business context in which a product and user exist.  However, I was puzzled by the author’s suggestion that user-centred design and information architecture are separate aspects of website design:

“While user-centered design focuses on user needs/tasks, and information architecture focuses on content, these two aspects alone offer an incomplete picture. What is missing is the context: the environment in which the website or web application is used as well as the market in which it exists.”(Withrow, 2006, para. 1)

Consequently, instead of looking at the role of competitive analysis in the project management process, I decided to concentrate on clarifying my understanding of the concept of “usability”.

Usability Models

My initial interpretation of the term “usability” seemed to reflect a similarity with the marketing concept of putting the customer/user at the heart of the business process.  According to this model, the information architecture of the site should be designed so that it can be used intuitively by the user.  I was heartened to see that my interpretation of usability (or user experience/UX) is supported by Brinck et al (2002) and also by Bowles and Box (2011) who discuss its centrality at every stage of the project management process.  Garrett (2003) clarifies the issue for me with his 5 planes model:

The author argues that the user experience community was developed from two separate fields: those who approached the problem from a product (software) development perspective and those who perceived the Web from a publishing and information science perspective.  This duality of approach seems to partly explain the confusing terminology.  For example, the interchangeability of the terms usability, user experience and UX design.   By splitting each plane into a “Web as a software interface” and a “Web as a hypertext system” section, the author proposes a model which takes account of both aspects of user experience. For me, this integrated approach to designing a website is probably the most successful in terms of defining UX.  The model brought to mind a comment made by the lecturer who suggested that a website should be like a duck swimming on water; the duck appears to glide effortlessly whilst invisibly below the surface, its feet are paddling furiously…

Analysing A Website’s Usability

As part of our heuristic usability review we compared the analysis tools proposed by Bowles and Box (2011) and Userfocus (2009).  This quickly revealed that the majority of criteria could be mapped easily from one tool to the other.  However, the “accessibility” criterion was surprisingly not a distinct element of the Userfocus tool.   A team member with experience of managing assistive technology undertook additional research and was able to add key questions on accessibility to the review.  The review was undertaken using a free online tool which focussed on sight-related disabilities.  My experience of working with stroke survivors with aphasia (communication difficulties) has raised my awareness of other forms of disability which can affect access to the Web, including mobility problems, deafness and cognitive impairment.  The Web Accessibility website summarises some of the issues which designers should take account of when creating websites; this is especially important given the need for organisations to uphold the Disability Discrimination Act (1995).  However, given the constraints of this project, I feel that the questions used in our expert review will highlight the need to meet the most common accessibility standards.

Usability and Error Minimisation

My final comment in this post is related to the issue of error minimisation.  It is certainly the case that I don’t see the old-school “Error 404” message as frequently anymore.  Instead, when I do encounter a problem, I am presented with messages tailored to the website and the organisational image.  Longanecker (2012, para 1.) argues that

“the websites and apps we truly love have one thing in common: soul. They’re humanized. They have emotional intelligence designed into the user experience. And this emotional intelligence is crafted through thoughtful interaction design and feedback mechanisms built into the website.”

Hence my unashamed inclusion of the South Park Error 404 message. Although the user does not want to be confronted with an error message, good UX design ensures that the technical failure remains in keeping with the brand identity.


Bowles, C. and Box, J. 2011. Undercover user experience : learn how to do great UX work with tiny budgets, no time, and limited support. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

Brinck, T. et al. 2002. Usability for the Web: designing web sites that work. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann

Garrett, J. J. 2003. The elements of user experience : user-centered design for the web. 2nd ed.Berkeley, CA: New Riders

Great Britain. 1995. Disability discrimination Act 1995 [online]. London:HMSO. Available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1995/50/part/III/crossheading/goods-facilities-and-services [Accessed 17 October 2012].

Longanecker, C. 2012. Give your website soul with emotionally intelligent interactions [online]. Freiburg: Smashing Magazine. Available at: http://uxdesign.smashingmagazine.com/2012/03/28/give-your-website-soul-with-emotionally-intelligent-interactions/ [Accessed 17 October 2012].

Travis, D. 2009. 247 Web usability guidelines [online]. London: Usefocus. Available at: http://www.userfocus.co.uk/resources/guidelines.html [Accessed 17 October 2012].

web-accessibility.org.uk. 2012. Web accessibility: improve the Web for everyone [online]. Available at: http://www.web-accessibility.org.uk/ [Accessed: 17 October 2012].

WebAIM. 2012. Welcome to WAVE [online]. Logan: WebAIM. Available at: http://wave.webaim.org/ [Accessed: 17 October 2012

Withrow, J. 2006. Competitive analysis: understanding the market context [Online]. Available at: http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/competitive_analysis_understanding_the_market_context [Accessed: 17 October 2012