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Archive for September, 2004

Usability testing for findability

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2004

A few days ago I wrote about exploratory information seeking and commented that I thought that the usability community hadn’t really come to grips with it.

I’ve been thinking more about this, and also about the differences between usability testing for informational and for interactive environments.

The ‘standard’ usability testing approach is to provide a set of scenarios to participants and ask them to work through the scenarios. The scenarios are usually in the form of ‘find something’. Even if they are written in a more descriptive form (such as a short story to provide some context), they are about finding information within a site. So, given that participants are told what they should be finding, the usability test is purely testing known-item information seeking. Even if the testing is on a site that has been designed to meet an exploratory need, this style of usability test leads only to testing known item. The very act of writing a scenario and asking someone to work it does this.

The other thing that these type of usability tests focus on is about ‘findability’. The finding of information is seen as the end of the process. Rarely have I heard about a test that explores whether people can understand the content once they have found it, whether they can use it to make good decisions or gain meaning from it.

I found this a bit scary in itself, realising that this type of usability testing is missing a major part of the information gathering journey.

But then I was also thinking about the various usability gurus, where they get their learnings from and how they create their guidelines etc. And I thought about a couple of gurus in particular, who many of you will know, but this is relevant to a reasonably broad group. I realised that most of the information that is published, and the guidelines that are created and the rhetoric that is spouted primarily comes from undertaking usability tests of sites. The same types of usability testing that I mentioned above – give someone a scenario, ask them to work it through.

So this scared me even more. A very, very large proportion of our body of knowledge about how people approach sites, and about how we should design sites, is based on a very narrow activity of looking for known information. And in most cases finding the information is seen as the end result.

Provided that I’m seeing the world as it really is, this has significant implications for our profession and the way that we design information environments. We may have already gone a significant way along the wrong path, where findability is king, where we spend more time on designing navigation than on designing answers and where we may be missing a major part of information seeking.

IA Workshops

Tuesday, September 21st, 2004

And while I’m on the topic of work, there are still a few spaces left on our Introductory IA workshops in Canberra and Sydney in October. This is a great workshop (if I do say so myself) – a nice balance with some theory, lots of hands on exercises and a good set of supporting notes and resources that you can return to later.

We have also just announced the next date for our ‘Latest Thinking in Usability and IA’ seminar, this time in Brisbane on 18 November. The seminar covers faceted browsing, shape of information, personas and my card-based classfication evaluation.

Intranet Roadmap

Tuesday, September 21st, 2004

At work last week, we released an incredibly useful new product: the Intranet Roadmap.

The roadmap contains a comprehensive methodology with an enormous range of activities and techniques that you would use when developing (or redeveloping) an intranet. It includes a wallchart, and a booklet that outlines of all of the activities and techniques. It is intranet focused, but much of it is relevant for websites, so take a look if you are involved in websites as well.

WordPress custom fields

Tuesday, September 7th, 2004

I’ve been playing with Maadbooks again, and noticing the differences between WordPress and Movable Type. I’m not going to do a comparison here as I haven’t kept up with Movable Type, but will tell you about something cool that WordPress has.

A very neat function is the ability to include custom fields. I’m not limited by the fields provided and can create my own. The nice thing about this is that I can create a new field and place it into the template. If it is not populated, it just doesn’t appear. If it is populated, it appears. Just like magic. This is good for all of the things where I want consistency between posts but don’t want to copy and paste code for each post to remember how I did it.

I’m using it for things like ‘who else reviewed this book’, quotes, links to booksellers and will probably use it for related items.

Neat!

PS. It needs the get custom fields plugin to work.

‘Wasting’ time looking for information

Thursday, September 2nd, 2004

I just read yet another statistic about the amount of time that people spend looking for information – this time it was that ´┐ŻManagers spend 17% of their time (6 weeks a year) searching for information´┐Ż with the conclusion that this is a very high cost to business.

So then I thought of what I have been doing for the past 2 hours. I have been sitting in front of my computer looking for information. Non-stop. I haven’t moved, not even to get a drink or chocolate. But not one second of that time has been a waste. Even though I have a good idea of what I want, and haven’t found the definitive answer (well, there isn’t one, so I’m not expecting to) I haven’t wasted any time. On every web page and journal article I’ve learned something interesting, even if it is just that there are far too many interesting things to know.

Now I don’t dispute that there are a lot of times that it takes longer than expected to find out what you need to know. Sometimes it is frustrating and sometimes it is rewarding. But sometimes we should stop and observe what is really happening and realise that we learn a lot during the search for information, much related, some unrelated, to what we need to know. The journey is part of the learning.