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World Usability Day 2006 at Ohio State University

As I threatened I would, I did indeed attend the World Usability Day event at OSU tonight. Hosted by the Department of Industrial, Interior, and Visual Communication Design (and ably kicked off by the Department Chair, Professor Wayne Carlson) the night was organized around two talks, with a panel discussion to sum up. The nominal theme for this years Usability Day was “Making Life Easy” and the speakers at OSU kind of.. honed that topic down a bit, to “Making Life Easy: Simplifying Complexity.”

The first speaker was Bob Hale, a User Researcher at Resource Interactive (an interactive agency here in Columbus.) Bob's presentation was an excellent analysis of some of the browsing and decisioning habits of 'Digital Millennials' (young adults, aged 13 to 22.) You might've thought of these kids as 'Gen Y' previously, but apparently that label grates on them a bit. I can't imagine they'd like being called 'Millenials' any more, though...

Resource has apparently just wound up a months-long endeavor to understand the lifestyles, mindsets and habits of this demographic, and used a variety of research methods in the course of their investigations. Bob shared some video clips of users interacting with (what I assume are Resource clients') commerce sites, using a novel (to me, at least) methodology.

Users were brought into Resource's labs and asked to perform some directed tasks. (Pretty standard fare, right?) But then, a researcher joined them and immediately played back the screen-footage of the tasks they'd just performed (using a Camtasia capture), and asked them to provide a running commentary. This is interesting to me... on the surface, it sounds like a type of 'think aloud' protocol, but -- based on the few short clips that Bob showed, it seems to elicit a different kind of response from test subjects.

Perhaps there's something about that minute-or-ten interval between performing an action and reflecting on it, but I heard a couple of more tentative statements from the users about their actions (“I think what I was doing was...”) I also heard a couple of instances that seemed more honest to me than common in-the-moment think-aloud commentary. One user said “I was getting frustrated here..” while watching a clip of themselves trying to interact with some tricky mouseover-flyout-animation thing.

Now don't get me wrong -- I've certainly heard people voice frustrations during standard think-aloud exercises. And god knows I've heard some frank and honest thoughts spoken aloud, but I wonder if - sometimes - we don't ask too much of our test subjects in Usability Evaluations. Standard 'think aloud' protocol requires our test users to simultaneously perform a task, and justify their actions verbally. And worry about how their being perceived by the evaluator. And act as if the artifice of the test environment (and the tasks they've been assigned) doesn't exist.

I know that the stated intent of think-aloud is not for the user to 'justify' his or her actions, but it seems like human nature to me that subjects will naturally be constructing a narrative for their actions that casts them in a favorable light... “I'm looking for x...” or “I think I'd expect to see y...” A 100% 'honest' think-aloud session would probably include a lot more swearing, and a lot more strange & random shifts in attention. (“I'm distracted by this picture of breasts right now.”)

So I thought Resources spin on think-aloud (do the task first, then go back and talk about it) was compelling: a small, small tweak that possibly alleviates some of that cognitive overhead and anxiety of a usability test session.

Bob went on to talk more about Millenials, including the variety of influences and competition for their attention: advertising, mobile devices, gaming, search, email, social networks, blogs and the like. He demonstrated some 'heat maps' of websites formed by combining Eye-tracking with click-data, and described some very helpful patterns that they've noticed through their research: (I believe that these findings are directed at the Millenial demographic, but they sure seem generally applicable to me)

  • Straight text = Dead Zone. Long, uninterrupted blocks of text meant that the whole got ignored. Some bullet-points and chunking did better. Many bullets did best.
  • Promotions that look incongruent with the rest of the page are often ignored. (Especially if they look like they'd lead offsite.)
  • Millenials process info 3-5x faster than GenX or older. This led to some audience reaction -- mine included -- and some discussion around definitions of 'processing.' Bob clarified that, in this case, processing meant 'observing the available options and making a decision'. It didn't necessarily imply anything about retention or understanding. Basically, GenY scans a hellofalot faster than we do. (I'm sure they drive a hellofalot faster too -- doesn't make them a better insurance risk!)
  • Also interesting was a recurrent pattern in the eye-tracking: gaze was consistently drawn to human faces in page designs (Paging Scott McCloud!).

The second speaker was Chris Murnieks...

This entry will be finished later, at a more civil hour of the day... stay tuned.

Comments (2)

Thanks for the detailed recap! Let me know if you find any other reports from Ohio WUD events - I am collecting them - http://ohioux.org/worldusabilityday2006/

Bob Hale [TypeKey Profile Page]:


Thank you for sharing your blog entry. It's very interesting seeing your interpretation of the presentation. One more point about Think Aloud --- Another reason we use this modified approach (we call it REPLAY Usability) is that we can measure eye tracking without stopping the user's flow from page to page. As you can imagine, a pure Think Aloud protocol does not mix well with eye tracking data collection. The user's head would be moving around and turning to face the moderator all of the time.

Thank you so much for taking the time to write your blog entry and for sharing it!

Bob Hale
Resource Interactive
Columbus, Ohio

P.S. Here's the link to the WUD site about the OSU event,

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