A lesson on usability from the IE Lab

Did you know Mizzou has a laboratory on campus devoted to testing the usability of new technology? I had never heard of the Information Experience Laboratory until this week when my Emerging Media class had an opportunity to hear from two of the lab’s employees. Research assistants Ben Richardson and Kenneth Haggerty conduct research for the lab on a variety of topics, and they gave our group a tour and lessons from the lab. They have done research studies for a number of clients, including journalism organizations associated with Mizzou. Several years ago, the lab did research to study the usability of Newsy.  When they first did the usability study, Newsy looked something like this:

A screenshot of the Newsy homepage from 2007 using Wayback Machine

A screenshot from the Newsy homepage on April 18, 2014

The researchers used what is called a “think aloud” technique to evaluate the website. The user navigates the website while talking aloud about what they are doing. Although Newsy did not necessarily use every part of the IE’s usability study at the time, it is interesting to see how far the website has come. I think we can all agree that Newsy, and most websites, are more user-friendly than they were in 2007.

The IE lab seeks to look beyond just the interface of a website to determine usability and user experience. During our time at IE, the researchers explained a couple key points all websites should have:

Usability depends on:

  • Effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction

User experience depends on:

  • Branding, usability, content, functionality and probably social

Questions to consider for a website:

  • Is it useable? Is it useful? Will it be used?

  • Who is the intended audience?

  • Have “fresh eyes” seen the site?

  • Is learnable, memorable, consistent, free of error and satisfying in subject according to web usability consultant Jakob Nielsen’s principles?

  • Is it intuitive?

  • Can users find the information I expect/want them to find?

When the researchers look at a website, they try to set up tests to see if the average person has a positive usability and user experience. They ask clients the top five things they want people to get from the site and test to see if users can find out those five things easily. At IE they use a variety of research methods including: expert review, focus group, task analysis, think aloud, info architecture, info horizons, card sort, paper prototyping, treejack, eye tracking and Morae. During our tour I got to try out the eye tracking technology used in the lab. It was incredible how accurate the eye tracker was. It calibrated in about 20 seconds too. The lab is doing some pretty amazing studies with the technology. They recently used eye tracking and other methods to evaluate the MU Libraries website. They let me try out the usability test given to subjects when they were evaluating the newly designed library site. Here’s a video of me trying it out:

Overall, I learned a lot about usability. I had never considered a website from the usability perspective the IE researchers shared. Websites, particularly news websites, must first be usable and user friendly before an audience can even engage with content. Web design is often an afterthought, but is a very important foundation that determines the success of digital content. I hope to consider all that I learned as I produce digital content in my classes and future career.