Review of Essential User Experience Skills Presented at the 2010 Summit by Will Sansbury, Rachel Peters, and Yina Li

Will Sansbury, Rachel Peters, and Yina Li based their presentation on a workshop they put together for members of the Atlanta chapter of STC. A team of chapter members was interested in redesigning the Atlanta chapter’s website, thus the need for the workshop. The Atlanta chapter website being used at that time was designed in approximately 1994.

The presentation overviews three essential user experience skills: card sorting, heuristic evaluation, and usability testing. Although the main focus of the presentation was how to put these skills into practice designing a website, references were also made to the importance of these same skills for designing user guides and online help as well.

Will Sansbury begins the presentation by defining user-centered design as “an approach to design that grounds the process in information about the people who will use the product.” He presents four phases of user-centered design, which are also common to most technical communication projects. These are analysis, design, evaluation, and deployment. He uses the simple example of going for a haircut to illustrate these phases.

Rachel Peters then explains the basics of card sorting, using the example of trying to find a can of hot dog chili in the grocery store. Her example illustrates the many possibilities for where the product could be located, depending on peoples’ thought processes. She then moves into explaining how a card-sorting activity was used to help name and categorize the topics for the Atlanta chapter website redesign. During Rachel’s portion of the presentation, she steps through card sorting, labeling categories, looking for patterns, and performing qualitative analysis. She emphasizes a point she learned from reading a book on card sorting by Donna Spencer: Don’t get caught up in finding the right answer, but rather focus on finding the most common answer. Rachel ends her presentation by emphasizing that Classification DOES NOT EQUAL Findability, and for findability you need heuristic evaluation.

Before explaining the concept of heuristic evaluation, Will showed an example of the home page for the Atlanta chapter’s website at the time of the project. The presentation attendees shared their perceptions of the site. Will then cited Jakob Nielsen, explaining that Nielsen is considered by many to be the “father of usability.” According to Nielsen, “Heuristic evaluation involves having a small set of evaluators examine the interface and judge its compliance with recognized usability principles.” Will then explores how to determine whose usability principles to recognize, and that leads to guidelines by his expert-of-choice, Lou Rosenfeld who sets out some principles for heuristics in information architecture that easily translate to technical communication. The Rosenfeld heuristics that Will points to for the Atlanta website homepage evaluation are:
• Accommodating repeat users who know what they’re looking for
• Using clear, meaningful labels and headings
• Providing clear calls to action for what to do next

Will also showed two examples of heuristics reporting—a narrative report and a visual report. He referenced Colleen Jones when he cautioned against a common misperception that evaluating content quality means correcting typos and grammar errors. He also warned that focusing only on heuristics evaluation leads to focusing only on the questions you know to ask, and that it’s important to perform usability testing in order to discover issues and actions you may never have thought to ask about.

Yina Li presented the portion of the program focused on usability testing. She began by asking attendees what their perceptions of usability testing are and how they pictured a usability testing environment. She then launched into an explanation of the simplest form of usability testing—one that only requires a user, a facilitator, and a product to test. She emphasized that this is a minimum requirement for getting to the goal of usability testing, which is being able to observe the user and determine his/her motivation for performing the steps he/she takes. The majority of Yina’s portion of the presentation was focused on a role-playing exercise in which a volunteer from the audience was observed as she (the volunteer) attempted to find out how to access the area on the STC Summit website for attending the Awards Banquet. This portion is somewhat ineffective when viewing the presentation video, since we can’t see the actions of the volunteer, although the volunteer does narrate her actions so we get some sense of what she’s doing.
The remainder of the session is spent on questions and follow-up discussion as well as presenting a list of resources on the topics that were discussed. Overall, I felt this was a good introduction/overview to the three user experience skills presented here—card sorting, heuristic evaluation, and usability testing.