Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Usability testing: Bernard and Belinda’s route to information – Davina Borman & Frankie Wilson, Brunel University Library

Frankie and Davina have been giving their library’s website an overhaul and they have made great progress improving both the content and the compliance with accessibility guidelines. The content of this presentation was a great deal more practically focussed than some of the more theoretical ones that I attended.

They took us through the whole process but the most interesting aspect of it was that referred to in the title – their approach to usability testing. They started with creating some personas based on the different user groups and then asked librarians to ‘get into character’ and perform a few tasks on the new website. Although it was very time consuming, it turned up several aspects of the website that could be improved. Next, they trialled the new site using volunteer undergrads from the University. Although this group identified a few more issues, none of them contradicted those identified as part of the persona process. I’d say that’s a vote in favour of the persona exercise.

I can see the application of this persona concept really coming into its own when testing a website for which the audience is so large that it would be difficult to engage the end user. In this particular project, the audience is a finite and known group: the students. On top of that, it is a group for which they have the means of contacting every individual member. With such a closed group, I would have thought it would make more sense to engage a representative selection of the student body in the process right at the beginning to ensure that the first pass was as close to what students wanted as possible. I would then have used that same group and second representational one to test the site.

Frankie and Davina are the first to admit that they didn’t really know what they were doing and that it was a lot of enthusiasm, reading and a steep learning curve for them, but I think that their approach was a little naïve. Having said that, the methodology that they used appears sound and the results of the student testing did, to a large extent, prove the effectiveness of the persona approach. As the audience for our website is so large both in number and geographical spread and is largely unknown, I will be suggesting to the project team that we could use this persona methodology when we review our website in the next year.

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