Real Time Communications Industry News

TMCNet:  Digital Savant: School of Information professor teaches students the usability religion

[November 28, 2012]

Digital Savant: School of Information professor teaches students the usability religion

Nov 28, 2012 (Austin American-Statesman - McClatchy-Tribune News Service via COMTEX) -- The woman, a test subject, sits at a computer listening to a set of scripted instructions.

"Tell me what you think, not what I want you to think.

"You can leave at any time.

"I'm here to learn about how travelers obtain traffic and road construction information through a website." Conducting the test is a University of Texas masters student in information science, Donna Habersaat. She watches and answers questions as the test subject clicks and scrolls through, a Texas Department of Transportation website for travelers.

In the next room at UT's School of Information eXperience Lab (or IX Lab for short), Habersaat's test partner Tom Reavley is watching the woman's online actions through one-way glass and on a computer monitor that shows what she's doing. He listens in on a set of headphones and checks off items on a list of ways a person might find information on the website. A few minutes later, he says, "She's doing pretty good. She actually got through a lot of things people made mistakes on, but now she's hitting a mistake that nobody else has made so far." Habersaat and Reavley will collect and analyze data from multiple test subjects, turn it into recommendations on how the website might be improved and hand that information over to TxDOT, where Habersaat works. Habersaat suggested the project to her supervisors, turning a class project into a real-world usability study.

Margo Richards, director of TxDOT's travel information division, sat in on some of the testing. The site, which launched in May, is still being improved, and testing like this could help get rid of glitches or problems. "It really needs to be reliable for people to continue to use it," she said. "If we are going to put the effort and time we have into the site, it needs to be user-friendly and accurate." The TxDOT study is just one example of "usability testing," a broad term for a process of improving products based on how people really use them. If you've ever been stymied by a badly designed website, frustrated by a cell phone with Byzantine menus or been faced with setting up a DVD player that came with bad instructions, you've been the victim of bad design.

The guru of usability at UT's School of Information is associate professor Randolph Bias, who as director of the lab has been teaching students how to test for the past 10 years. Before this, he worked at Bell Labs, IBM and BMC Software, as a usability expert.

When he talks to people about usability, he tends to refer to it as a religion (as in, "When did you get the usability religion "). While the methodology of studying whether products are easy to use has been in place for decades, it's only been in the past 15 years that companies have gotten the message, Bias says.

"All this technically and all this information, if human beings can't gain access to it, it's of no value. The last time you went to a website and you tried to do something and you couldn't, that's because it's bad usability. It's not because you're stupid. It's because they didn't design for us, the target audience," Bias said.

If that sounds painfully familiar and if there are proven methods for testing for usability, why do we still deal with so many badly designed products and websites Bias says that many companies still test as an afterthought, just before a product release instead of throughout the design process. Others don't test well or simply refuse to believe they haven't invented the greatest thing since the Post-It. That's why good usability testers are important.

"Usability people are in the business of telling people their baby's ugly," Bias said. "We don't just say, 'Your baby's ugly,' we say, 'here's how we make this baby pretty.' And it's not just about pretty; it's about useful and usable." In the mid '90s, just as usability was starting to get a seat at the tech design table, Bias co-wrote a book, "Cost-Justifying Usability." That book made the argument that companies shouldn't usability test just to make customers happy but to be more profitable. "You do it for business reasons. You'll sell more, you'll have more customers and less customer support. At the same time, you'll get good press," he said.

But how do you teach students to be good product testers In class, Bias uses humor, Skype calls to usability experts like "Don't Make Me Think" author Steve Krug, and even role-playing.

In one October class session, Bias and master's student Simon McCann demonstrated what not to do in a usability test. McCann played a frustrated test subject ("I'm lost") and Bias portrayed an unethical tester who wouldn't let his subject leave and undermined the subject's confidence ("We'll, nobody's ever clicked that. That's not necessarily stupid.") The lesson was that how you test is as important as what you test and the data you get back. Testing, Bias says, must be done ethically and without the tester getting defensive in the face of feedback or going into "Teacher mode," guiding and influencing a test subject. But in the IX lab, students learn by conducting their own tests and turning those observations into suggestions for improvements, often for nonprofits or government agencies that can use the help.

It's clear to see where in the tech world usability can be a problem or an advantage. For the past decade, Apple has made a run in computers, music players and phones with products often considered more intuitive and user-friendly than those of competitors. Meanwhile, Microsoft currently faces a huge crossroads with Windows 8, a new version of its operating system that has been slammed by some usability experts for being confusing to use.

While testing thoroughly and properly doesn't necessarily mean a product or site will be improved _ designers can ignore usability data due to time constraints or cost _ designing without it can be a recipe for disaster.

"It's impossible to have good intuitions about what other people's experiences are until you watch them," Bias said.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE) ___ DIGITAL SAVANT MICRO: HOW DO I MAKE DIGITAL PHOTO ALBUMS A reader seeks a suggestion: "I would like to create digital photo albums that would appear similarly to paper ones with captions and appropriate decoration, but NOT something that is for printing. Rather, it's for keeping digitally." There are a great many options for turning your digital photos into printed books or photo collections. And when it comes to making digital presentations (which can be shared online or via DVDs or flash drives) you've got some choices as well.

Online photo services like Google's Picasa, Shutterfly, Flickr and even Facebook allow you to upload photos and share them privately with a group of family members or friends. You can caption them, but decorating options are limited without editing the actual photos., on the other hand, is one service that allows you to digitally scrapbook online with the option to print later if you like.

And Austin-based Photodex Corp. has software and Web services that allow you to create slide shows with your photos with lots of ways to customize them to your liking. ProShow Gold (free to try, $70 to buy) is for Windows PCs while ProShow Web ( works from any computer or iPhone/ iPad device for $30 a year.

___ Omar L. Gallaga: Read more technology news on Omar L. Gallaga's blog at

___ (c)2012 Austin American-Statesman, Texas Visit Austin American-Statesman, Texas at Distributed by MCT Information Services

[ Back To Real Time Communications's Homepage ]

Featured Videos

GenView Real Time Session Manager Demo

Session-based VoIP and rich media services such as video can place unique demands on the network.


Contact GENBAND about the SPiDRâ„¢ WebRTC Gateway by clicking here.

A videoconference that calls you

On the busiest of days, who has time to stop and search for that bridge information, to have to dial or hope the link works...only to wait for the chairperson to arrive?

Call Grabber Demo

Move calls seamlessly between phones, soft clients and mobile devices at the push of a button.

Hosted Unified Communications

GENBAND's Hosted Unified Communications is a SMART OFFICE™ solution that enables voice over broadband to Business users, providing flexible migration from legacy services, supporting full regulatory features, and offering advanced services.

Featured Whitepapers

Is Your Network Ready for the Internet of Everything?

The telephone industry is undergoing a dramatic transformation that began with the introduction of IP-based data networks in the early 1990s and then with Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) in the late 1990s, and it now includes all forms ofvoice, video, and messaging communications.

Building a Secure and Scalable Multimedia IP Exchange

As fixed and mobile operators increasingly move to IP-based networks, the complexity required to interconnect these networks grows dramatically. Faced with increasing competition from all corners and constant challenge to grow revenues, operators are struggling with the variety and disparities in partner and customer networks.

How Carriers Can Optimize for LTE Roaming

Connectivity between mobile network operators (MNO) in 4G LTE is much more complex than it was in legacy networks.This complexity is primarily due to the change in focus. LTE is not a voice-focused roaming environment, but rather a datacentric environment.

Featured Case Studies

CASE STUDY: Real Time Communications Made Easy Via The Mobile Web

HubRTC offers the world's first WebRTC communication as a service to small and medium businesses, combining browser-based voice, video and messaging over WiFi that works on personal computers and Android smartphones and tablets. Their basic and premium solutions work with existing PBX applications servers, and support rich feature sets including voice mail and visual voice mail, audio and video conferencing, all for a fraction of the cost of old fashioned "phone systems." They have combined their Real Time Communications experts with software, devices and accessories, and cloud platforms to deliver a true office-on-the-run.

CASE STUDY: TW Telecom Accelerates Market Adoption of SIP Trunking Services

tw telecom is one of the top three largest providers of Business Ethernet in the US, connecting approximately 20,000 commercial buildings and third-party data centers to its national fiber network.

CASE STUDY: Embedding Real-Time Communications Into Digital Interactive Publishing Platforms

X-Factor Communications (XFC) is a premium provider of easy-to-use, interactive digital media software and services delivering single point publishing of Mass Notifications, advisories, emergency messages, rich informational content and advertising to any connected device.

Featured Webinars

WebRTC Applications for Service Providers using GENBAND'S SPiDR Gateway

GENBAND's SPiDR WebRTC Gateway provides an intelligent bridge between SIP/IMS based VoIP networks and the open ecosystem of the Internet. WebRTC holds great promise to revolutionize the nature of our daily communications. But what should you, as a service provider, be doing today to take advantage of this movement?

Best Practices in Deploying Hosted IP Telephony

Speaker: Sara Hughes and Mitch Layman

LTE, How Can You Accelerate The Payback? Diameter Signaling Controller

Speaker: Ashish Jain - Director Solutions Marketing