HCI 530: Usability Issues for Handheld Devices

I just completed my latest DePaul University graduate HCI course: Usability Issues for Handheld Devices. I want to share one of the papers I wrote, a brief survey of automotive telematics and the associated usability issues and related regulatory frameworks. It’s hardly an exhaustive work due to course time constraints and an assignment maximum page limit, so it does not touch on every aspect of telematics or all the possible usability problems in this emerging field of computing. It does, however, point to some interesting topics for more focused future research.

My paper is over here in PDF format.

SUS Calculator

I recently used the System Usability Scale on a graduate school project and wanted an easy tool for calculating scores. Since I hate doing manually anything that will be done repeatedly, I took the time to create a simple SUS calculator in Excel.

The spreadsheet is available for download from Google Docs.

For more on the SUS itself and how it is calculated, take a look at this article on Wikipedia.

HCI 450: Foundations of HCI

I just finished my latest course in DePaul University’s HCI program — Foundations of Human Computer Interaction. This type of course is a must for anyone who is serious about designing product user interfaces, whether you want to do visual design, information architecture, or interaction design.

The course focused on studying basic and applied research into cognitive psychology and using those learnings to craft more usable interfaces. The course provided a solid foundation in the human factors considerations that should be a part of any design effort, including study of the structure and mechanics of the human eye and the limitations and capabilities of short term memory.

The class had three main objectives: learning to read and review research articles, creating interface design guidelines based on original peer-reviewed research, and evaluating interfaces against those guidelines. We used previously published research instead of conducting our own studies because of the limited time available to the class.

The organization of the course was such that each assignment provided a foundation for the next, leading up to an interface evaluation and presentation. I choose to evaluate Mint.com, a popular financial management website. My design guidelines mostly focused on the color and screen location of key navigational elements of a website. A sample of my guidelines and how they were used to evaluate Mint.com can be viewed in PDF format.

Completing assignments required use of the EBSCOhost databases, Google Scholar, and other academic research databases. These can be powerful tools when you need to find solid research to back up design decisions.

Knowing how human factors considerations should be treated during a design project and how to find existing research into those areas are invaluable tools for any user experience professional. A course in these topics would be helpful to anyone doing UI design.

HCI 440: Usability Engineering

Just finished the final session of my usability engineering course at DePaul, a course that provided a lot of insight into the UCD process and the compromises you make on a working project.

Overview: The main focus of the course was to design a mobile phone application over an 11-week period. To simulate some of the pressures and challenges of a real world situation, we had to work in teams and deliver each successive phase of the project (research, requirements, designs, prototypes) weekly. The final deliverables were a presentation of our business case and the market problem we solved along with completed Photoshop mockups of the three primary use cases.

Research: After deciding on the application we wanted to design (an iPhone app for fashion accessories), we conducted market research using a combination of online surveying and interviewing. We surveyed nearly 50 people who matched our intended target demographic and interviewed 10 people during a one-week period. As so often happens, we learned we made incorrect assumptions about what the target user wanted and missed some features they considered important to the application.

Requirements: After completing our research we developed a set of user goals and the necessary supporting functionality based on what we learned about the target consumers. Due to time constraints we had to skip development of traditional use cases and diagrams, and instead utilized a matrix that traced functionality back to user goals. We then developed the requirements to deliver those functions.

Prototype One: This was one of the most interesting and fun parts of the course. Several of our peer teams were developing prototype applications in Flash or HTML for testing on laptops. We chose a different route. Using the iPhone prototyping tool from Teehan+Lax we mocked up our prototype in Photoshop. We then printed the PSDs and glued them to foamcore cutouts to make interacting with the prototype a more tactile experience. While we lost some of the interactivity some our peer groups had, we gained an advantage by having test participants (drawn from the class) actually hold and touch our app. We gained useful insights by watching them respond to color, contrast, and visual cues while actually holding the prototype and viewing it from a realistic distance (though I admit we could not accurately mimic screen brightness and other settings that affect users in the real world). While one of us moderated the tests another played the role of the phone and handed out new screens in response to participants’ actions. In two hours we were able to test five people going through three main use scenarios while capturing our observations on recording forms. We followed each test by asking the participant to respond to five statements about their experience, which we asked them to rate using the Likert scale.

Evaluation: We analyzed the usability issues encountered in several ways. We looked at the frequency of the issue, the impact to the user’s ability to complete a task, and the criticality of the feature of the app where the issue occurred to overall business goals (in our case conversion).

Frequency was recorded as a simple count of the number of times an issue occurred. Impact to task completion was measured as high, medium, and low, with numeric values of 3, 2, and 1 respectively. Criticality also was measured as high, medium, and low, with numeric values of 3, 2, and 1 respectively. Criticality level was set by using the requirements matrix to see how the feature traced backed to user goals.

For example, the failure of two users to see a Buy Now button would be rated as Frequency=2, Impact to Task Completion=High, Criticality=High. This would be calculated as 2 x 3 x 3 = 18. This allowed us to prioritize the issues based on what fixes would have the biggest improvements to the app. In a business project, of course, time and cost would have been other dimensions to consider and some high ranking fixes might have been descoped due to time constraints.

Prototype Two: Based on the Evaluation phase we focused on enhancements to the search interface. Adjustments were made to search results interaction widgets and results list displays. Sorting by price/brand was originally deemed as out of scope but was added based on user feedback. People wanted ways to narrow results quickly, and price and brand seemed most natural to most participants. The refined prototype was part of final deliverable package.

Presentation: Our final presentation was organized around several key areas—user expectations for mobile applications based on the current products available, market need for the product we developed, business opportunities in satisfying those needs, and the iPhone application we designed to realize those opportunities. This exercise allowed us demonstrate that what we designed would be accepted by the market and could be profitable. In addition to our app we developed an affiliate program model that would partner with online fashion retailers to provide revenue to us for referred purchases.

This was a great learning experience because while the primary focus was designing an application following the UCD process it also challenged us to be concerned with satisfying business goals. A useful skill when your design work has to actually float the business.

Note: Screen designs and greater details were not shared because we are considering working with the university’s business school incubator to pursue a commercial application.

Communicating Design

PowerPoint and Keynote are not the first tools a designer thinks of when building a new interactive experience, but let’s face it, at some point you have to sell your design. I meet a lot of designers who think giving presentations is for the sales and marketing teams. But they are kidding themselves if they don’t realize they often are a big part of the sales and marketing effort.

Interaction design is communication – you are communicating functionality and communicating results when users interact with your design. A strong set of communication skills – written, spoken, and multimedia – are necessary to any designer who wants to get their product out of the lab and into the market.

This disconnect became very apparent to me this week in prepping for the final team presentation for my current graduate HCI course. We had finished the product but no one really stepped up to build the presentation. What? We designed a cool mobile app and now no one knows how to sell it? By the time you have reached the end of the product design cycle, you should be intimate with the target users and how your application fills their needs. All that is left is to clearly articulate that.

Working with consultancies large and small I’ve seen the really good IAs jump from Visio to PowerPoint then back into Flash and finally to email to communicate their design. This is especially true early in the process, when final decisions on form and function have not yet been made. Communications is one more set of skills to have under your belt, and mastering it will serve you and your clients well.

More Fun With Paper Prototypes

Testing an iPhone app prototype in class this week was a breeze thanks to some fast paper prototyping. We developed our prototype using the PSD iPhone UI tool available from Teehan+Lax. To give the prototype a bit more of a real feel, we glued color prints to foam core backing to provide a tactile quality not available in pure paper prototypes. While some of our classmates created slick Flash files that could provide fuller interactivity via a web browser, we felt we learned more by giving the test participants something they could hold in their hand. It was fascinating to watch them swipe up and down while telling us how they would scroll through a list of search results in our mobile shopping app. We also learned a lot about what they found confusing when they scanned the mobile “device” and had difficultly with certain parts of the interface. We would have lost that if they were looking at a laptop-based prototype since it sat farther from them than the mobile would in hand. The participants also seemed more engaged by the tactile aspects of touching and holding. After two hours and five tests, we had a lot of insights for the next revision, and all without writing a single line of code.

IT 223: Data Analysis

Grades for winter quarter came back today and I landed an A in Statistics. There is no way to adequately communicate the happy dance I am doing right now. I was the guy who always struggled in math in school, so this is a real personal victory for me. Add to that the fact that I am already using what I learned on my job and this course turned out to be a great experience worth all of the many weekend hours I devoted to it. And the best part is this is my last prerequisite course, meaning I move on to the good stuff now. Next up, Usability Engineering, where we will work in groups throughout the quarter to design and develop a low fidelity prototype of a mobile application. I can’t wait to get started.