Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

Remote Observation Strategies for Usability Testing

Academic journal article Information Technology and Libraries

Remote Observation Strategies for Usability Testing

Article excerpt

Observation is the cornerstone of usability testing and an important strategy in evaluating library Web sites. Traditionally, test administrators have directly observed test users as they interact with the Web site interface. Remote observation offers an alternative that may facilitate the testing process and offer additional capabilities. Usability testing during the California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) Library Web site redesign used a simple remote observation strategy to view the test user's screen on another computer removed from the test location. The library investigated Timbuktu, NetMeeting, and Camtasia as potential software tools to assist in remote observation.

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Usability testing has become an important component of Web site development for many libraries. Libraries are user-centered organizations. They provide an entire service--reference--just to help users find information. It is important that their Web sites also meet their patrons' information needs in a user-friendly fashion. The best way to improve a library Web site's usability is to observe users interacting with it and then incorporate their feedback into the site's design.

Norlin and Winters state, "the objective of usability testing is to evaluate the Web site from the user's perspective." (1) Usability testing uses a variety of methods to evaluate a Web site. Battleson, Booth, and Weintrop divide usability testing into three categories: (1) inquiry, which includes focus groups and questionnaires; (2) inspection, which includes heuristic evaluation (comparison of site elements with a list of usability design principles); and (3) formal usability testing, also known as formal observation. (2) Of the various usability testing techniques commonly used to evaluate Web interfaces, only a few, such as heuristic evaluation, solely depend on the Web developer's expertise. Most usability tests directly involve users in evaluating the interface. For example, card sorting asks users how they would organize the site; matching tests check if users can correctly associate the intended meanings with their icons; and questionnaires and focus groups solicit feedback on users' needs. (3)

The best-known usability test is the formal observation of the user interacting with the product to be tested. It is the classic usability test. It is so central that the term "usability test" is often synonymous with user observation. It is so important that organizations are willing to hire full-time usability experts and build special laboratory environments to facilitate the observation process. Most usability experts value the feedback from observation more highly than that of other usability tests--so highly that they are willing to cut comers just to make sure it is done. Krug expresses it most passionately: "Testing one user is 100 percent better than testing none. Testing always works. Even the worst test with the wrong user will show you things you can do that will improve your site." (4)

Libraries do not have special observation rooms or full-time experts, so they must make do with existing facilities and personnel to conduct usability observations. Doing usability testing on a budget has been a theme in the usability community since Nielsen's 1989 paper, "Usability Engineering at a Discount." (5) With the proliferation of networking technology and the advent of the Web, new ways of conducting usability observations have become possible. Just because most libraries' usability efforts are on a budget does not mean they don't have access to powerful tools to facilitate and enhance user observations.

This paper reviews the direct observation process typically used in library usability studies and introduces an alternative method--remote observation. How the California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) Library applied remote observation to usability testing is described, along with examined software tools. …

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