AUT gets closer to end users

The Auckland University of Technology's Systems Usability Research Laboratory is taking a different approach to software testing as it gears up to go commercial.

The Auckland University of Technology’s Systems Usability Research Laboratory is taking a different approach to software testing as it gears up to go commercial.

The lab is fine-tuning a service for testing commercial software products after developing and working on internal projects for the past 18 months.

Most labs observe and videotape users through one-way mirrors, says lab director Phil Carter. To provide a quick turnaround and get more accurate and precise feedback, AUT has developed a method whereby observers are closely involved with the user.

AUT tests typically have a user, a facilitator and a logger, who records what the user does, sitting together. The user is asked to speak aloud about their actions. The logger can make detailed comments such as “User can see Help but doesn’t want to use it” and can check with the user about whether they’re accurate or not. The logger is usually isolated in other usability labs and has no way of knowing if they’ve got the information right, says Carter.

“A lot of usability labs generate hundreds of codes plus videotape, which means having to do a lot of post-test analysis, and commercial time constraints are usually pretty tight,” he says.

The lab also takes a more holistic approach that looks beyond where a user clicks on a window to whether the buttons are the right colour and in the right place.

“We try to get alongside people and work with them, which means assisting them to do more research on their customers,” says Carter. “Sometimes a lot of assumptions are made about what users want.”

An example is Millers Oils New Zealand, a small diesel supplier that wanted a website for customers to place orders.

“We asked why customers used this small supplier and found they didn’t want to deal with a hierarchy, there was a lot of trust between them and the supplier and they got a lot of good advice because he had built up a lot of intellectual property.

“We decided that a website wouldn’t be a good way to interact with customers because they valued personal contact. Instead we looked at building a database of all the intellectual property he had built up.”

The lab says it is talking to Eagle Technology and Peace Software about possible work. In the past it has worked on an online collaboration product by WebSol (part of the AUT incubator in Penrose), a large information-based website, a tourism website and a digital whiteboard venture involving AUT and Waikato University.

The lab has six staff and a large number of postgraduate students from the business and systems design also work on various projects. Carter says turn around time is about six weeks. A full project with initial meetings, logger, facilitator and report is about $8500 including GST.

The lab is also looking at ways it can work with individual developers who might only have a budget of a few hundred dollars.

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