Monday, 3 October 2011

Lessons Learned

There have been several lessons learned around the practicalities of conducting usability and product development. The timing of our project, running across the Summer vacation, meant that representative stakeholders were in short supply and retaining them through the life of the project was also a challenge. This was due to the subject of the project, the qualitative methodology we employed, and its reliance on customers to lead the rapid development phase. Equally, the Summer also presents a challenge to the focus of the project team who were all scheduled to take annual leave at different points. Here we had to ensure that leave periods overlapped a little as possible and that handovers and project meetings through the project phases were detailed, enabling team members to pick up where others left off. Institutional lessons were learnt regarding lead times for equipment and ordering processes for short term projects where quick turnarounds are required.

This project has been an affirmation for the Project Team, if one were needed, of the importance of usability in product development for customer focussed applications. Using a range of usability methodologies was useful in confirming areas to focus on in development rather than relying on a single tool for guidance. Other usability tools such as wire-framing and paper prototyping gave us a very quick way of testing ideas and changes with customers, avoiding the need for lengthy development and programming work. Here we found using Balsamiq software along with some basic Flash ActionScripting helped bring a concept to life for the customers whose feedback we were seeking.

Overall, we strongly feel that it is important to remain focussed on what you had intended to develop. Our qualitative feedback is extremely rich and at times there was an overwhelming temptation to be pulled off at interesting tangents. Those tangents can still be explored and the feedback is equally valid and important but the focus must remain set on the area you have highlighted for initial development.

Having attended the Usability and Learnability workshop, it was encouraging to see the path the UsabilityUK project is taking. The support project would have been a crucial resource for us had it been operational at the time we were pulling our plan together. I have no doubt that future projects will look to UsabilityUK for guidance and support.

In all this, it is encouraging that the customer remains the focus. If we are developing applications for a customer use, surely that customer needs to be a central consideration in its design and function and have a role in design? Usability gives us the tools to place the customer at the heart of development.

How successful has the project been?

Our success measures for the project were qualitative, focussing on the results of usability testing pre and post development and also on the range of usability measures used in the project.

1. A mobile interface is developed for Locate with increased usability over the desktop version when used on a mobile device. This will be measured by comparison of baseline testing with summative testing following rapid development phase.

As has already been mentioned in our previous post, we were unable to develop a production version of LOCATE as part of this project, however were able to generate mock-ups and wireframes that tested developments identified from the baseline testing. Summative feedback and feedback received during development indicated that the relative usability of the planned mobile version had improved over the desktop model.

It was clear that customer expectation on a mobile device was different to that at a desktop. Tablet devices were more ‘forgiving’ in translating the desktop version of LOCATE, however handheld mobiles such as iphones and android phones were clearly where the desktop interface stumbled due to the difference in screen sizes.
From testing, it was obvious that significant work would be required to truly pare down screen real estate in order to deliver to the customer the information they required in an easily readable, interactive display. Large commercial companies, such as Ebay and Amazon, have developed specific OS dependent applications to deal with the conflict of usability vs screen size. It is in commercial database deployments such as these that we can look to for ideas on how to create our own service.

A broader question, which this project does not seek to answer, is whether customers actually do want to view Library catalogue data on their mobile device. Stakeholder feedback during testing appears to confirm that they can indeed see a use for it, but we should ensure that we are being customer-led in developing a service they will ‘need’ to enhance their study and research, and not technology-led in investing resources developing a service either because we can or because we feel we should in order to remain relevant.

2. Case study utilises a range of usability testing methods focussing on practical usage in a rapid development environment. We will report on the appropriateness and relative value of the approaches taken in achieving the end result as development and testing progresses.

Throughout the project we have utilised a number of recognised usability methodologies. This included;

• Personas
• Cognitive walkthrough
• Focus groups
• Paper prototyping
• Wireframing
• Guerilla testing
• Contextual analysis

The blog entries we have created have shown how we used each of these and the results that were obtained. Although we were not using the skills of a recognised usability expert, we were fortunate to be able to draw on the expertise of colleagues in our e-learning team who have a practical knowledge and awareness of this area and have been invaluable in supporting our project as it progressed. Clearly, access to a Usability expert would have been valuable also, had resources been available.

When looking at the methods we used in this project we feel that they were both appropriate and appropriately employed, however it is clear that the availability of a resource such as the one being developed by the Usability Support Project (UsabilityUK) in Strand A would have been valuable to us both at the project definition stage and ongoing through development and testing.

LocateME Project Summary - Recap

What did the LocateME project set out to achieve? Our goal, and related objectives, was two-fold with comments on our achievements set our below;

1. Product Development: To enhance our resource discovery environment (LOCATE) enabling it to operate across a range of devices.

a. Assessing usability of current desktop version of LOCATE
b. Developing a device independent mobile view of LOCATE
c. Evaluation to determine if experience has improved

This was an ambitious goal and we realised at an early stage of development that a full production version of a mobile environment for LOCATE would be beyond the timescale or resources of the project. In order to produce a mobile ‘App’ or device specific web view, significant developer time and skill would need to be input. We focussed instead on creating mock-ups for development purposes with the intention of implementing the improvements across a wider timescale. We were able to carry out live baseline testing on the desktop version of LOCATE across a wide range of devices, however.

This assessment of the current usability of the desktop version of LOCATE has been extremely useful and provided very good qualitative data for us to draw upon in development. Developing a mock-up device independent view was important in testing out development issues extracted from the baseline review. We were also able to activate and explore a live mobile version of Locate that was in the early stages of development. Our summative evaluation with selected stakeholders was of mixed success, with some comments and feedback being outside of the control and design of the interface. In general, the stakeholders we questioned thought that the interface had improved however a working live version would be required to test this further.

2. Usability: To provide a usability case study of benefit to the wider community

Again this was to be achieved by;
a. Trial usability testing approaches applied to mobile device interface development
b. Provide an evaluative case study of approaches used.

This blog and related documents provide evidence of our efforts to achieve this objective. We have utilised a range of recognised usability methods and have evidenced and documented our approach in order to inform the wider community. We believe we have fully achieved the key objectives for this goal.