Tuesday Nov 06, 2007

Toh-may-toh? Toh-mah-toh?: Let's call the whole thing.. a terminology study

Ann Sunhachawee is an interaction designer in xDesign, and has been working for over 8 years in the area of tools, Java client, and currently OpenSolaris projects.

When deciding on terminology to use in your user interface, you try to fulfill a couple of different objectives: 1) accurately and concisely describe the concept 2) make it easy for the user to grasp.

The Network Auto-Magic project (which is part of OpenSolaris) needed to capture the concept of associating a group of settings (such as network proxies and services) with the network the computer is connected to. For instance, if you're using your computer in your office, you would need to use proxies that allowed you to work through your employer's firewall. But you would not need those particular proxies when using your computer at home.

What do you call this concept of needing different network settings depending on where you are? Mac OS calls it "Location" (as does Windows Vista). However, "Location," as Mac OS uses it, is not exactly the same as what Solaris will be implementing. We tried some alternatives like "Network Environment". No term was fully accepted. So what could we do?

A quick & dirty terminology study! I printed 2 sets of screenshots — one set featuring the term "Environment", and the other "Location". Then I walked them around the hallways to get people's opinion: "Hey you — Do you like A or B?"

But, before rushing into that, I consulted user researcher Nalini Kotamraju to figure out if there were any gotchas to think about. There are a few factors to consider, for what seemed like a short & simple survey. Here are some of them:

  • Alternate which term is shown first to each person, to get rid of any order-effect bias.
  • Don't ask about the term directly; instead just ask what they think the function of the dialog is. Observe the person's understanding by listening to their response.
  • Only directly prompt the user about the term in question if the person doesn't comment on the term during the course of their discussion.
  • Present the alternative after finishing discussion of the first term.
  • Ask for any alternatives that they might think are better.
  • And of course, avoid leading questions.

The Results

In the end, of the 10 people I polled, only 1 person preferred Environment over Location; 8 people chose Location; and 1 was undecided. I hadn't thought the results would be this skewed. Reasons for choosing Location did include familiarity with the term (a number of people were Mac users) and the notion that Environment is way too broad, evoking associations with the Desktop Environment and Unix environment variables, which were both something people felt were not changed very often.

In the end, the term might not be the most accurate, but sometimes it's better to use a good approximation that is recognizable. In the case of this project, it is an acceptable trade-off. I highly recommend the quick & dirty study method — great payoff for the price of a couple of print outs and getting to know your neighbors =)

Monday Oct 08, 2007

User Research at Innovation@Sun

Nalini Kotamraju is a user researcher in xDesign, and a PhD in Sociology. She has a penchant for research methods and telling it exactly like it is.

Jen McGinn and I recently had the honor of giving a talk about user research at Innovation@Sun, a gathering of Sun's top engineering talent. This illustrious group count among their ranks people who are pioneers in Java (of course), but also in computer graphics, routing security, cryptography, and large-scale distributed computing. Many great technical brains, many patents in pockets. An intimidating group, by most measures.

Jen was presenting (I was back-up) about user research that we had done last year for an organization in Sun. The research findings themselves are terrific and already being applied within Sun. What we wanted to share with this audience was the innovative way in which we conducted the research, and to remind the audience of the importance of understanding the people who are ultimately often the end-users of technical innovations.

One might imagine that such an audience, gathered to exchange information about advances and challenges in the realm of engineering might be -- at best, apathetic -- to a presentation about users and user research. Or at least I had imagined such a response from the audience. Instead, I found that many of the people who stopped by during the poster session or who asked a question after the talk were not only receptive, but were even enthusiastic about user research. In the formal settings, as well as over meals and in hallways, these engineers asked questions about how we think about understanding users and, more often than not, wanted to know how they could utilize user research in their own work for Sun.


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