Friday, November 03, 2006

Label, baby!

A central tenet of user centered design (UCD) is that the people who create a product -- content experts, technical experts, marketing, management and other stakeholders -- are not actual users of the product. Each has biases (both positive and negative) that are brought to the table and are inherent in the input and feedback that they provide. Armed with credentials in the UCD/HCI/usability field, part of my job is to hammer that concept home as much as possible.

So it's particularly humbling when my own biases are put on display.

One of my current projects is a new version of an online learning management system (LMS) that allows instructors to offer exams, training session, or a combination of the two to their students. Once once of these modules has been created, it can be scheduled according to preferred parameters and made available to be taken by students in the class.

In the programs current version, the interface has two views -- Instructor and Student. On the student side, these modules labeled Assignments. On the instructor side, they are labeled Scheduled Items. Part of the challenge of the new program version was to come up with a single label, to be used in both views, that best encompasses all three types of modules.

"Common sense" -- always dangerous in this line of work -- told me that Assignments was the best choice (i.e., a task or duty created by one person for completion by another), but debate within development and stakeholder meetings was spirited. Ordinarily, this would be a perfect opportunity for a card sorting exercise -- instead, I was asked to sit in on several design feedback conference calls with customers and try to glean consensus, which was not productive. Assignments did not have strong support, nor did Scheduled Items. One participant lobbied hard for Activities, which made everyone on our end of the phone roll their eyes.

With no way of gauging accurate preference or consensus over the phone, I decided to create an online survey and solicit input from my non-professional contact list. After providing some basic context information, I posed the following question:

In your opinion, which one of the following labels best describes the three types of modules outlined above?

  • Assignments
  • Tasks
  • Exercises
  • Projects
  • Activities
  • Other (Please Specify):
40 invitations to take the survey were sent out, with 20 people responding. The results:

  • Assignments - 2
  • Tasks - 1
  • Exercises - 2
  • Projects - 6
  • Activities - 7
  • Other - 2
Needless to say, this was eye-opening on several fronts. Project stakeholders started gaining an appreciation for the actual science behind UCD, understanding that conversations taking place in a conference call does not make for a foundation for good design decision-making.

For me personally, it was a huge and much-needed reality check. I am expected to be the in-house expert on such things, but when push comes to shove, the biases I bring to design can be just as potentially damaging as those of a "non-expert." Only by clearly defining and identifying the needs, challenges and preferences of actual users can information be effectively used by stakeholders to guide critical information design decisions.

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