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Designing Services with Users in Mind

Published on: October 1, 2014

Rarely are student users involved in the process of product design early enough that they can alter the course of a project. “We flipped it,” says Michael Clark, User Experience Designer for the NGSIS Program, of the User Centred Design (UCD) approach. “When you talk with students first, you’re better able to focus on producing solutions that are most important to them.” Clark, Senior User Experience Designer for NGSIS, and Mark Johnston NGSIS Student Services Architect, sat down to talk about User-Centred Design.

UCD involves shaping the product to match the needs and characteristics of users, instead of forcing them to adapt their behavior to the product. Users are consulted during the formative research process to put their needs first, and discover how they would use a tool, and what they’d use it for. This causes a strategic shift in design aspects of IT. “During a project it’s easy to try to build everything and the kitchen sink; but with an empathetic user-centred perspective you’re much more able to focus intently on producing work that most positively impacts the user,” Clark adds.

Based on this research, and combined with functional and technical requirements, designs are created and iterated upon until interactive prototypes are ready to be tested in the team’s usability lab. Contrary to expectation, the usability lab is not a sterile environment with clipboard-carrying assistants in white coats. In fact, it’s a collaborative workspace equipped with desktops, whiteboards and tables. Webcams, combined with software which tracks mouse behaviour and keyboard inputs, monitor users as they use the prototype, recording what’s going on as the student runs through structured tests. There is also a lightweight usability testing rig to record mobile devices in a natural manner. “It’s important to make the user as comfortable as possible, as if they’re using the product in the way they normally would,” Johnston notes. Here the team plans and tests their products, makes adjustments and iterations, and riffs off these before coding begins.

There is at least one assistant in the lab: Laura Klamot, the User Research coordinator. She is the latest work study student to help build what the User Experience (UX) team calls their “brain trust,” a roster of about 100 students who have indicated that they are interested in contributing to their project work.

The brain trust has been built over the last couple of years. When the team issues open calls for survey responses, students can indicate that they wish to contribute to usability testing at the end, and are added to an email list. Participation in the brain trust is also listed in the “opportunity directory” of the University’s Co-Curricular Record.

As a result, the UX team can test with a fairly representative cross-section of the student user population, including students from different backgrounds, various points in their academic lives and across academic divisions, as well as all three campuses (Klamot herself is a student at Mississauga campus). This diversity of student perspectives is especially important because there is a “learned competency with U of T online services,” notes Johnston, including the ways the University works and jargon students may or may not be familiar with. “A first year Applied Science student’s perspective compared with a fourth year Arts and Science student’s is dramatically different. We need to make sure our services are built for all of our student users, not just experts.”

It’s interesting, he adds, “when we first did this we were providing incentives – gift cards and the like.” They were consulting users every few weeks. Johnston and Clark quickly realized that lacked viability in the long term, and decided to try recruiting users without using rewards. The results were overwhelmingly positive. Contribution provided all the incentive for users to participate. “Surprise! Being able to effect positive change is more than enough incentive,” says Clark, noting students also enjoy the satisfaction of seeing the critiques and suggestions come out in the final product. “It’s really a collaborative effort,” says Johnston.

There have been numerous cases where the team has found the feedback alters aspects of a project. For instance, student users were consulted during the development of Transfer Explorer, the tool that helps students understand how a credit taken at another university would transfer to the University of Toronto. “It was designed for the sole purpose of students coming from outside the U of T,” Johnston notes. Through a User-Centred Design methodology the team realized that there is actually a significant population who needs such a tool to understand how to transfer credits between U of T campuses, a need uncovered during the research process. The tool now facilitates both.

The methodology also finds gaps in early product designs, saving user frustration. When the team was evaluating a potential transcript ordering process, they found students navigated the new system with ease until they got to a place where they should have been able to select an institution to mail their transcript. They had difficulty finding the appropriate link, and so the usability test task failed. “We generated several new design iterations and ultimately came out with a 100% pass rate design,” says Clark, noting that this was caught in the design process well before development and well before publishing.

The team has big plans for the User-Centred Design approach. In the near-term, efforts are focused on the largest student facing NGSIS project to date, ACORN.  ACORN will replace ROSI-SWS, the primary online hub for enrolment and financial based student activities. In the long term, the focus is on better integrating online services that should be in conversation with one another, handing off data between user tasks. They want to build tools with more personalized, richer information about students so that they can help guide them through processes, and “enrich the student experience at U of T,” Clark finishes.

They hope the Usability Lab will become a space for collaboration and community creation. “There are a few groups at U of T who are doing similar work,” Johnston says. “We’d love for this to be a community of sorts where we can share knowledge and process, and help that grow as a culture here.” They also want to expand their focus on assistive and mobile technologies. “Accessibility is a big concern of ours,” Clark adds. “It’s all well and good to have big innovative features, but that content also has to be accessible to everyone. Accessible design a big part of our process and evaluating it is established in the lab now, so that we can test and meet the needs where and how people are using these U of T services.”

The team has refined the case for UCD into one sentence that Johnston shares with me: “by understanding users needs, frustrations and desires, we are able to make sound decisions based on evidence, not assumptions.” Products are better when they’re tailored to what the user actually wants and needs, the team says. “Identifying and avoiding features that students don’t need saves time, money and alleviates stress from development teams as they complete more valuable features,” Clark adds. When we stop guessing at what students want and start asking them, we get intuitive products that are easy for them to use. Sounds like something worth trying.