These are a few of my favourite (audience research) things

On Friday I popped into London to give a talk at the Art of Digital meetup at the Photographer’s Gallery. It’s a great series of events organised by Caroline Heron and Jo Healy, so go along sometime if you can. I talked about different ways of doing audience research. (And when I wrote the line ‘getting to know you’ it gave me an earworm and a ‘lessons from musicals’ theme). It was a talk of two halves. In the first, I outlined different ways of thinking about audience research, then went into a little more detail about a few of my favourite (audience research) things.

There are lots of different ways to understand the contexts and needs different audiences bring to your offerings. You probably also want to test to see if what you’re making works for them and to get a sense of what they’re currently doing with your websites, apps or venues. It can help to think of research methods along scales of time, distance, numbers, ‘density’ and intimacy. (Or you could think of it as a journey from ‘somewhere out there’ to ‘dancing cheek to cheek’…)

‘Time’ refers to both how much time a method asks from the audience and how much time it takes to analyse the results. There’s no getting around the fact that nearly all methods require time to plan, prepare and pilot, sorry! You can run 5 second tests that ask remote visitors a single question, or spend months embedded in a workplace shadowing people (and more time afterwards analysing the results). On the distance scale, you can work with remote testers located anywhere across the world, ask people visiting your museum to look at a few prototype screens, or physically locate yourself in someone’s office for an interview or observation.

Numbers and ‘density’ (or the richness of communication and the resulting data) tend to be inversely linked. Analytics or log files let you gather data from millions of website or app users, one-question surveys can garner thousands of responses, you can interview dozens of people or test prototypes with 5-8 users each time. However, the conversations you’ll have in a semi-structured interview are much richer than the responses you’ll get to a multiple-choice questionnaire. This is partly because it’s a two-way dialogue, and partly because in-person interviews convey more information, including tone of voice, physical gestures, impressions of a location and possibly even physical artefacts or demonstrations. Generally, methods that can reach millions of remote people produce lots of point data, while more intimate methods that involve spending lots of time with just a few people produce small datasets of really rich data.

So here are few of my favourite things: analytics, one-question surveys, 5 second tests, lightweight usability tests, semi-structured interviews, and on-site observations. Ultimately, the methods you use are a balance of time and distance, the richness of the data required, and whether you want to understand the requirements for, or measure the performance of a site or tool.

Analytics are great for understanding how people found you, what they’re doing on your site, and how this changes over time. Analytics can help you work out which bits of a website need tweaking, and for measuring to see the impact of changes. But that only gets you so far – how do you know which trends are meaningful and which are just noise? To understand why people are doing what they do, you need other forms of research to flesh them out. 
One question surveys are a great way of finding out why people are on your site, and whether they’ve succeeded in achieving their goals for being there. We linked survey answers to analytics for the last Let’s Get Real project so we could see how people who were there for different reasons behaved on the site, but you don’t need to go that far – any information about why people are on your site is better than none! 
5 second tests and lightweight usability tests are both ways to find out how well a design works for its intended audiences. 5 second tests show people an interface for 5 seconds, then ask them what they remember about it, or where they’d click to do a particular task. They’re a good way to make sure your text and design are clear. Usability tests take from a few minutes to an hour, and are usually done in person. One of my favourite lightweight tests involves grabbing a sketch, an iPad or laptop and asking people in a café or other space if they’d help by testing a site for a few minutes. You can gather lots of feedback really quickly, and report back with a prioritised list of fixes by the end of the day. 
Semi-structured interviews use the same set of questions each time to ensure some consistency between interviews, but they’re flexible enough to let you delve into detail and follow any interesting diversions that arise during the conversation. Interviews and observations can be even more informative if they’re done in the space where the activities you’re interested in take place. ‘Contextual inquiry’ goes a step further by including observations of the tasks you’re interested in being performed. If you can ‘apprentice’ yourself to someone, it’s a great way to have them explain to you why things are done the way they are. However, it’s obviously a lot more difficult to find someone willing and able to let you observe them in this way, it’s not appropriate for every task or research question, and the data that results can be so rich and dense with information that it takes a long time to review and analyse. 
And one final titbit of wisdom from a musical – always look on the bright side of life! Any knowledge is better than none, so if you manage to get any audience research or usability testing done then you’re already better off than you were before.

[Update: a comment on twitter reminded me of another favourite research thing: if you don’t yet have a site/app/campaign/whatever, test a competitor’s!]

I’m blogging this post on Twenty Usability Tips for Your Blog so I can find it again and because it’s a useful summary. We’re in the process of finding a LAMP host, which we’ll be able to use for our OAI-PMH repositories as well as blogs and forums.

While on a Web 2.0-buzzword ish kick, check out the LAARC’s photos on Flickr and the Museum of London photo pool. The first LAARC sets are community excavations at Bruce Castle and Shoreditch Park.

Notes on usability testing

Further to my post about the downloadable usability.gov guidelines, I’ve picked out the bits from the chapter on ‘Usability Testing’ that are relevant to my work but it’s worth reading the whole of the chapter if you’re interested. My comments or headings are in square brackets below.

“Generally, the best method is to conduct a test where representative participants interact with representative scenarios.

The second major consideration is to ensure that an iterative approach is used.

Use an iterative design approach

The iterative design process helps to substantially improve the usability of Web sites. One recent study found that the improvements made between the original Web site and the redesigned Web site resulted in thirty percent more task completions, twenty-five percent less time to complete the tasks, and sixty-seven percent greater user satisfaction. A second study reported that eight of ten tasks were performed faster on the Web site that had been iteratively designed. Finally, a third study found that forty-six percent of the original set of issues were resolved by making design changes to the interface.

[Soliciting comments]

Participants tend not to voice negative reports. In one study, when using the ’think aloud’ [as opposed to retrospective] approach, users tended to read text on the screen and verbalize more of what they were doing rather than what they were thinking.

[How many user testers?]

Performance usability testing with users:
– Early in the design process, usability testing with a small number of users (approximately six) is sufficient to identify problems with the information architecture (navigation) and overall design issues. If the Web site has very different types of users (e.g., novices and experts), it is important to test with six or more of each type of user. Another critical factor in this preliminary testing is having trained usability specialists as the usability test facilitator and primary observers.
– Once the navigation, basic content, and display features are in place,
quantitative performance testing … can be conducted

[What kinds of prototypes?]

Designers can use either paper-based or computer-based prototypes. Paper-based prototyping appears to be as effective as computer-based prototyping when trying to identify most usability issues.

Use inspection evaluation [and cognitive walkthroughs] results with caution.
Inspection evaluations include heuristic evaluations, expert reviews, and cognitive walkthroughs. It is a common practice to conduct an inspection evaluation to try to detect and resolve obvious problems before conducting usability tests. Inspection evaluations should be used cautiously because several studies have shown that they appear to detect far more potential problems than actually exist, and they also tend to miss some real problems.

Heuristic evaluations and expert reviews may best be used to identify potential usability issues to evaluate during usability testing. To improve somewhat on the performance of heuristic evaluations, evaluators can use the ’usability problem inspector’ (UPI) method or the ’Discovery and Analysis Resource’ (DARe) method.

Cognitive walkthroughs may best be used to identify potential usability issues to evaluate during usability testing.

Testers can use either laboratory or remote usability testing because they both elicit similar results.

[And finally]

Use severity ratings with caution.”