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December 15, 2003 Program Summary by Adele Sommers

Spotlight on the Cal Poly Center for Usability Design, Testing, and Evaluation

Computers and usabilityIn this informative update about the progress made since last December on a plan to design a Cal Poly Usability Laboratory, Cal Poly faculty members Dr. David Gillette, Dr. Erika Rogers, and Dr. Patricia McQuaid disclosed the latest proposals for greatly expanding the original Usability Lab into a multipurpose meeting and research facility.

The August 2003 planning workshop

Speaker Dr. David GilletteDavid Gillette (right), a professor in the Department of English and a member of our STC chapter, shared with us the highlights of a breakthrough planning session that occurred at Cal Poly's Orfalea College of Business on August 5, 2003. It was at this event that the concept for a “Center for Usability Design, Testing, and Evaluation” was revealed.

Up until that point, most of the discussion surrounding a Usability Laboratory occurred within the domain of the Computer Science Department. The primary purpose of the Lab would have been to conduct usability testing and evaluation for local technology firms, David said.

In just a few short months leading up to the August workshop, David explained, several faculty members from the colleges of Engineering, Business, and Liberal Arts were quite surprised to discover strong common interests in product design and usability evaluation. Further, all recognized a need for a facility in which to collect usability and market research data that could support the key areas of 1) student training, 2) faculty research and development, and 3) industry liaison and service.

As a result of these discoveries, in an unprecedented cross-disciplinary collaboration, instructors from the departments of Management, Marketing, Computer Science, English, and Art & Design formed a committee and held the August 5th session to present their various ideas and develop a strategic plan. David described how they had hoped to pool their joint interests to create partnerships across colleges as well as with industry, engaging groups involved in advertising, consumer research, and software and hardware development, among others. SLO STC and other invited community representatives were on hand that day to offer their observations, opinions, and ideas.

What purposes would the Center serve?

Confused about productsDavid, Erika, and Pat discussed several of the many uses the committee members envisioned for the Center, including:

  • Market research by providing an environment in which to conduct focus groups, ad testing, package design testing, and similar activities. Our Central Coast demographics are said to resemble those of “middle America.” Thus we embody a set of characteristics that is highly sought after by consumer researchers who travel the country seeking diverse audiences and well-designed facilities in which to conduct opinion studies.
  • Product design, development, testing, & evaluation by offering instruction to students and local businesses in rapid prototyping and user-centered design, packaging, and documentation techniques; and by offering services related to prototype testing and usability testing for Web sites, software systems, games, intelligent assistance agents, home and business equipment, and the like.
  • Business decision making by helping other groups conduct strategic planning, brainstorming, and consensus-building sessions locally and through remote video conferencing.
  • Human resources by hosting simulations, practice for job interviews, and performance-based or certification training.
  • Litigation science by enabling trial consultants and others to conduct simulated jury selections, witness depositions, and mock trials.
  • Public policy formation by providing a setting for coalition building and youth government education.

Equipment and space requirements. To make all of these activities possible, the presenters identified several big-ticket items on the Center's wish list, including:

  • A physical environment with at least 3,000–4,000 square feet, multiple rooms or spaces, a kitchen, and a prop storage room
  • Flexible meeting and viewing space with configurable room sizes that can be rearranged and staged to resemble a living room, board room, play room, or courtroom, for example
  • Unique attributes such as one-way mirrors and special acoustics
  • Equipment including recording, playback, editing, and teleconferencing capabilities (for example, video cameras, microphones, and a broadband network)
  • Staffing by faculty, students, and community members; the ability to schedule facility use with a quick turnaround time; invoicing and business management capabilities
  • Adequate parking and accessibility from off campus
  • Consortia and investment partners

Realistically, David said, the Center would evolve somewhat incrementally—by faculty members seeking unused space and equipment at the university until other resources become available.

It's show time. David explained that the Center also must be able to manage an assortment of props, furniture, lighting, and amenities in a “Disneyland-like” fashion. His experiences in the performing arts have helped him appreciate the power of using authentic-looking surroundings to elicit genuine human responses. In this regard, student or professional stage designers could play a role in creating sets for each type of event.

Although an artificial setting can't fully replace the comfort and familiarity of a test participant's home or office, David assured us that simulated sights, sounds, sensations, and even smells (as in circulating a baked bread aroma when testing kitchen products) can give physical test environments significant advantages over virtual ones. For this reason, it is believed that if properly outfitted, the Center could become a popular destination for groups researching consumer opinions and perceptions.

What's next? How do we get there?

Brainstorming sessionFollowing the comprehensive presentation, it was time for our group to spring into action—by initiating a brainstorming session!

We moved our chairs into a horseshoe configuration to “circle the problem” presented by the stretched time, resources, and expertise of the faculty members. The instructors on the planning committee are striving to teach, mentor students, and fulfill other demanding obligations while simultaneously sorting through options for funding, organizing, and growing a Usability Center.

Since the planning committee has been seeking assistance from organizations and community professionals to develop an action plan for the new Center, this was a great opportunity for us to help contribute to a list of basic, practical ideas.

Smaller critical needs identified. The ideas that surfaced during our brainstorming session were of a more modest scale, yet still vitally important to building momentum and helping the Center get off the ground. Our chapter offered to act as a sounding board and help create or provide constructive feedback on the following:

  • A name, logo, and mission statement
  • Case studies and success stories for projects already completed by students and faculty
  • A marketing survey to determine specialized niches or services on which to focus (in contrast, see the Cal State Long Beach Center for Usability Design and Assessment)
  • A project plan and/or business plan for the Center
  • Grant proposal writing assistance
  • Quarterly (or however often) participation in planning sessions


The Cal Poly Center for Usability Design, Testing, and Evaluation can impart many benefits to students, faculty, businesses, government, and the professional community. We know from recently advertised positions that local needs exist for professionals with solid usability, interface design, and focus group experience. David, Erika, and Pat articulated how the Center could offer services to help satisfy those needs as well as provide a flexible, highly adaptable research environment for other organizations to use.

David emphasized that the Center would aim to become self-sustaining through its fee-based services. Almost paradoxically, obtaining university approval for the Center would be based primarily on the extent to which it can enrich the student curriculum. Because of the complex nature of its public and private sector objectives, the combination of energies required to launch and grow the Center would need to emerge from several different sources. The planning effort undoubtedly will pose an exciting and challenging opportunity for faculty, students, and community members alike to become involved, pool their talents and resources, and make the Center a reality.

Spotlight on the Cal Poly Center for Usability Design, Testing, and Evaluation
Date: Monday evening, December 15, 2003

Spotlight on the Cal Poly Center for Usability Design, Testing, and Evaluationmarks the one-year anniversary of Dr. Erika Rogers' Dec. 16, 2002 presentation to our chapter on the subject of usability as well as the strategic partnership our chapter formed with her on this subject. During that event, Erika, a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Cal Poly, shared her department's vision for creating a usability laboratory that could serve both local and remote technology companies.

Since that time, the vision has expanded dramatically to involve a variety of disciplines and a host of different uses for such a facility. This anniversary event explained the planning now underway for a “Center for Usability Design, Testing, and Evaluation” and will describe the many roles a center of this type can play in our community.


Dr. David Gillette, a professor in the Department of English at Cal Poly and a member of our STC chapter, was the primary presenter.

Dr. Erika Rogers and Dr. Patricia McQuaid, a professor of Management Information Systems in Cal Poly's Orfalea College of Business, were on hand to answer questions and supply additional information. All are members of the planning committee for the Center for Usability Design, Testing, and Evaluation.

Door Prize: We had an assortment of just-published professional books from which to choose.


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