NN/g News

Usability Real Time - Tips From Practicing Professionals

January 19, 2001

By Shuli Gilutz

Bruce Tognazzini
Tog speaks in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO, California, January 19, 2001.  Almost 400 people attended the main event in Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, a lot of them representing the growing interactive design community of the bay area. Many of the attendees interviewed have had quite a lot of experience with usability testing in what seems to be a rapidly developing profession in the San Francisco and bay area companies. We asked them: what tips could they have for other professionals in this field?

Photo of Heather Schlegel, AOL

Heather Schlegel, is a product manager at AOL, but actually spends a lot of her time being a technology evangelist and usability engineer. She originally came from product marketing, and has been intrigued by the way people work on the web. Her first usability studies were on how people interact in a 3D VRML environment on the web. "The 3D never took off, but the whole interaction with a plug-in, and these techniques, were a great learning experience".

Heather came to this seminar to learn new ways to using usability in the design process, actually having users involved in the product development, in an iterative participatory design.

She recommends to other usability professionals--" get everyone involved in the process of the testing." She personally lets the engineers review testing questions, the different parts of the process, and makes sure the whole team agrees on the target audience tested. Another tip is: at the end each usability test-- do a post mortem , did you get the info you needed? Did the people who needed to get this info get it? Do you want to give the developers the answers or the problems? Prepare a brief hand out to the CEO. "Validate the stuff you are already doing."

Heather sees her job as a mediator between the users and the developers: you have to sit back, observe the users and learn from them, and then go and advocate for them with developers and management.

Photo of Hadyn Kernal, Tivo
Hadyn Kernal,

Hadyn Kernal is a Usability testing engineer at Tivo. She runs user tests on the products, web site, and conducts web surveys. She says she gathers research techniques acquired from her previous studies in academia (communication PhD at Stanford and teaching technical writing at MIT) and work experience (film production and phone and mail surveys) to enhance her usability techniques. In her methodology -she went from more qualitative research to a quantitative approach. Although she knows numbers can be abused, she also acknowledges how qualitative observations are not always objective. Her solution and recommendation is to combine-- qualitative and quantitative methodologies--questionnaires and observations . Hadyn explains this method is both more reliable and more convincing, if the two methodologies produce the same information.

"For me a good source of information is always talking to people who do similar things ". Hadyn says that by asking others how they figured things out, and what they have learned from different experiences, she gets most of her new ideas. She recommends going to talks and conferences, like BayCHI, CHI, UPA and of course NN/g. "There's never enough time in the day test everything the way you want to, I always want to make it perfect but it's never going to be, and I have to learn to be more tolerant...I'll never get people to make all the changes I want...I recommend accepting, and learning to be happy with what you can get done , and deciding what the important things are so you can push for them. I know it's hard to do."

Photo of Kuldeep Kelkar, Icon Medialab
Kuldeep Kelkar,
Icon Medialab

We met Kuldeep Kelkar, a Usability engineer at Icon Medialab, at the break of the "advanced usability methods" tutorial. Kuldeep has been part of his company's user centered design process, and although he acknowledges that in reality there are always several customer constraints that influence the process, he is proud to say that usability is usually an integral part of it. Before the design starts he is in charge of collecting data about user requirements and doing initial user research. During the designs he helps with designing rapid prototypes and rapid testing. And finally, at the last stage of the project Kuldeep conducts a more thorough testing session.

Since Icon Medialab is a consulting firm, a very important aspect is convincing the client that usability should be done, and should have influence on the time schedule and budget. "Time to market is their biggest challenge". Sometimes he will try again during the project--give live examples of how difficult the product will be if it is launched right away, and try to buy more time (and budget) for usability testing, and for making the changes.

Kuldeep adds that he's always in the look for new usability techniques that will suit different projects. But in the same time--"education is the biggest problem for this field"--he is always teaching and advocating usability principles. He emphasizes how important it is to help people in the higher management know what you're doing, for example: make pictures and posters to show how it is related to the other parts of the process. An important tip for "teaching" about usability: If it's management the approach is different, and if it's technical the approach is different, keep your audience's perspective in mind !

Dr. Jakob Nielsen
Jakob Nielsen in San Francisco

"People like Jakob Nielsen help, because people have heard of him, so they go to his site and understand--these things can be done". You can speak intelligently to your clients, managers and marketing people.

And some final words of wisdom (and experience):  "... have patience . Nothing will change overnight, it will definitely take time to change."