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Frosty tree December 16, 2002 Program Summary by Adele Sommers
Falling leaves

"If You Build It, Can They Use It? Ensuring the Usability of Interface Designs" was the third event in a three-part Fall professional development series entitled, "Solving Information Challenges in the Workplace."

Summary: The engaging presentation by computer science professor, researcher, and educational technology developer Dr. Erika Rogers struck a meaningful chord among the enthusiastic attendees who, as software users, have all had first-hand experience with software usability! Erika's sweeping overview of the methods and principles behind usability engineering revealed what distinguishes it from more traditional approaches. A spirited discussion ensued as we explored how user-centered software engineering:

  • Focuses on users and how they perform tasks, rather than on how the system manipulates data.
  • Engages multiple disciplines, drawing on knowledge from diverse areas such as art, psychology, technical communication, and computer science.
  • Relies on an iterative lifecycle that uses evaluation during every stage of development -- during task analysis, requirements definition, conceptual design, prototyping, and implementation. The stages occur repeatedly rather than in a once-only, linear fashion, refining the interface with each pass.

During the course of the evening, we also learned that:

  • Usability represents the ease, speed, and pleasantness with which intended people can use a product.
  • HCI practitioners are the intermediaries who study and listen to users, then communicate those needs to the software developers. (HCI refers to "human-computer interface.")
  • User and task analyses involve investigating the characteristics, goals, tasks, jobs, environments, and workflows of intended users. Their purpose is to contribute to a user profile around which to model the interface design.
  • Usability specifications target both performance measures (for example, the ability of a user to complete a task in X minutes), and preference measures (for example, the % of user satisfaction with a given set of features).
  • Prototypes offer a valuable way of incrementally assessing the usability of an interface design. Prototypes can consist of disposable, low-fidelity mockups or more realistic, high-fidelity models that embody working functionality.
  • Usability evaluation of prototypes or actual systems typically involves real sample users, expert evaluators, or both. User reactions can be collected via surveys, interviews, think-aloud recordings made while users perform a task, on-screen video capturing of pointer movements, role playing, focus groups, and more. Expert reviews can entail simulations, walkthroughs, and a variety of inspections for adherence to standards and heuristic guidelines.
  • No way to 'ensure' usability! Rather, usability engineering is a probabilistic attempt to achieve the greatest level of user satisfaction within the finite constraints of the project.

Erika has been teaching a variety of courses at Cal Poly on user-centered interface design and development as well as related topics. Plans are now forming to expand the program into the community with "short course" offerings on how to perform usability evaluations. These courses might be of particular interest to technical communicators as well as to businesses who want to develop in-house experts.

The Cal Poly Usability Laboratory is an important resource that Erika and her department are trying to initiate to offer usability testing and evaluation services to the business community. Such a facility could be used locally, as well as in a virtual mode across the country or in any location. In May 2002, Erika conducted a general interest survey to determine how many local businesses might want to use the lab's services. Whereas the survey responses were favorable, funding now presents the greatest challenge. The Computer Science Department would like to tap grants and other funding sources in order to make a physical laboratory a reality.

Stay tuned! We are now forming a chapter strategic partnership with Erika in relation to usability. The first product of this partnership is a new section of our Web site on Usability that now appears under the section called "Overview of the Profession." This section hosts articles contributed by topic sponsors (what's a topic sponsor?), definitions, resources, and other information that we intend to expand over time. Erika has already contributed dozens of links to the section on resources. To visit this new section, please go to

Photography by Mary Meyer.


Decisions, decisions!
Decisions, decisions!


A little holiday cheer


Embarking on our usability overview
Embarking on our usability overview


Puzzling over the problem
Puzzling over the problem


Engaged in a good discussion
Engaged in a good discussion


That's a great question
Now that's a great question!

Falling leaves
Falling leaves
Topic 3:
"If You Build It, Can They Use It? Ensuring the Usability of Interface Designs"
Date: Monday evening, December 16, 2002
Speaker: Dr. Erika Rogers, professor of computer science at Cal Poly, researcher in human-centered computing and usability, and developer of educational technology projects including multimedia-based courseware for industrial training.

"If You Build It, Can They Use It? Ensuring the Usability of Interface Designs" examined the usability of software -- specifically, interfaces -- of Web sites, multimedia productions, information portals, business tools, instructional programs, or any other environment that requires a person to interact with a system on a piece of equipment. Usability has received acute attention in recent years as exasperated customers continue to struggle with poorly designed interfaces, in small software programs to enterprise-wide systems. On the flip side of the coin, stellar examples of good design enable people with little or no expertise in a field such as accounting to do their own books and taxes, often without outside help. So, what makes the difference? This information-packed presentation explained.

Door Prize: "Usability Engineering: Scenario-Based Development of Human Computer Interaction" by Mary Beth Rosson and John M. Carroll.

Introduction and announcements

Part 1: Welcome to Usability 101!
This segment answered these important questions:

• What is usability? How do you measure it?
• What key principles support user-centered (or usage-centered) design?
• What are some examples of very good -- and very bad -- interface designs?
• What is the role of usability engineering and testing in system development?
• Is usability testing for software only, or does it include Help, documentation, and tutorials?

Part 2: Exploring the details -- how does it work in practice?
This segment addressed these key areas:

• What does a software usability testing laboratory do?
• What benefits will a software usability testing lab bring to our community?
• What are some of the tools and methods used in usability testing?
• What types of research designs are employed?
• Examples or demonstrations of the process
Informal Q&A

Disclaimer & credits