Objects in Mirror

All eyes on you at the U of M Usability Lab

Posted at 3:58 PM on November 27, 2007 by Julia Schrenkler

Thanks to Michael Skoler, the Executive Director of the Center for Innovation in Journalism @ American Public Media, several of us at MPR were able to visit the U of Minnesota's Usability Lab today. We went to observe test sessions of our own Preserving the American Dream Idea Generator, which means we were probably more wired than the usability volunteers.

If you haven't seen the lab, my shorthand professional description is it's completely tricked out. Their testing station employs a Tobii eye tracker and is well-monitored by various - and not painfully obvious - cameras. As observers we were on the comfortable side of a one-way mirror, able to watch the site tester as well as see monitors which displayed the user's screen, the user, and an overhead cam focused on the keyboard/mouse.

The volunteers were given some tasks, some open time to free-navigate, and plenty of encouragement to "think out loud" & describe what they were seeing. I observed two volunteer sessions, and particularly enjoyed these aspects:

*Watching eye tracking in real time is dizzying. A blue dot with what amounts to a tracer represents where the volunteer's eyes are on the screen. According to Nora Paul, the Director of the Institute for New Media Studies, the system has several options in finding hot spots or can be set so dots actually get bigger the longer the user fixates on a spot. Excellent.
*I found it interesting to see how often the tester's cursor actually trailed the eye movements...and when it didn't. Next time you're navigating a new page, check out your own subconscious eye-hand coordination.
*Thinking out loud is still unacceptable on the bus but is terribly useful in usability testing.

The entire experience was satisfying, as I not only came away with notes (not to mention action items) but it refreshed my interest in the larger topic of usability.

November 2007
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