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Simply defined, usability is about making products and systems easier to use, and matching them more closely to user needs and requirements. It is about effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction for the user and is affected by who is the user, the user’s goals and usage situation. UIT Academic Technology (AT) began integrating usability in its project development cycles in 2006. The reason was simple: to make the educational tools we spend so many hours developing more useful. Usefulness is key when talking about usability.

The field of usability has matured tremendously, from the early days of “testing” a product when it was ready to launch, to a broader approach called User-Centered Design (UCD). This design approach grounds the process in information about the people who will use the product and end-users are involved early, and at different junctures in a project. This helps the design team make informed decisions and avoid last minute “surprises”. As common sense as it may seem, UCD has not been part of traditional project development, where project teams and clients made decisions based on their own experience, and assumptions.

AT took small steps in integrating usability in its projects, but the value became quickly apparent. In early 2010, a large usability evaluation was conducted to explore Sakai and Moodle, the two contenders to replace Blackboard, one of the learning management systems being used at Tufts. From the start, we knew the evaluation would not be perfect: an aggressive timeline for completion, lack of rich data in the two systems being evaluated, and an “out-of-the-box” set up. While we could not replicate 300-student classes in the two LMS systems to evaluate complex scenarios, we created an evaluation that would capture participants’ first impressions, identify usability challenges in accomplishing basic tasks, and provide recommendations for configuration, documentation, training and support.

Usability sessions were conducted on all 3 Tufts University campuses and included participants from all of the Tufts University Schools. The evaluation targeted four user groups: faculty, students, LMS administrators and users with accessibility needs. The evaluation focused primarily on efficiency and ease of learning of the particular systems’ default interface, tools, and workflows. The evaluation tasks reflected what had been identified as the most common tasks performed by faculty and student LMS users. The selection process was complex and multi-faceted, and the usability evaluation played a small role in the overall selection process. The results of the evaluation will be helpful as we embark on Sakai’s implementation. More usability evaluations will be conducted as we move forward with the project. You can download the LMS Usability Evaluation Report.(PDF, May 2010)

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Last month, two AT staff members, Sheryl Barnes and Melanie St. James, organized a workshop entitled, Beyond Assumptions: Usability and Educational Technology, for the NorthEast Regional Computing Program. The workshop brought together educational technology professionals to discuss usability in the context of higher education. An interesting idea to emerge, presented by Jen Hocko of MathWorks, is the integration of UCD techniques in the procurement process of “off-the-shelf” software.

Incorporating usability requirements in the procurement process can reduce the risk of failure when implementing a newly acquired software and increase ease of use and thus productivity and/or profitability. Jen recommended using “the vendor software demonstration as a makeshift usability evaluation” when researching a software for purchase. See Jen’s article written with Herrod Laron and Richard Bye, “User Centered Procurement: Evaluating the Usability of “Off-the-Shelf” Software”, for more information.

Currently, AT is conducting usability evaluations for the “Academic Integrity Tutorial”, an online, interactive web site to teach all undergraduate and graduate students in Arts, Sciences, and Engineering about Tufts’ expectations for academic integrity. The tutorial will discuss the intellectual and ethical aspects of academic integrity, engage students via short scenarios with questions after them, and outline Tufts’ student judicial process and the disciplinary consequences of cheating. An additional module will include resources related specifically to writing and citing sources. The main part of the tutorial will be required for all incoming undergraduate and graduate students in Arts, Sciences, and Engineering beginning in Fall 2011.

Three rounds of evaluation are scheduled for this project. The first round was solely focused on content, and the results showed us what was not essential and could be removed. The first prototype was built using Google Sites, with the content living in Google Docs. This worked out really well for the team, keeping only one set of documents that all could edit while simultaneously providing the opportunity to see that content in context via the prototype. The second round of usability focuses mainly on the interactivity of the new prototype built with Captivate. The third and final round of usability in early 2011 will focus on the tutorial’s integration with Sakai.

We hope that by making usability testing an integral part of AT project planning we will be able to design, develop and implement web tools and resources that will more effectively and efficiently meet our diverse clients’ needs.

Melanie St. James, Senior Interactive Media Designer, UIT Academic Technology

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