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Dec 2006 Contents

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UPA 2007

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Making Mortals into Super Users at Bostonís World Usability Day

By Chris Hass

Chris Hass is the president of the UPA Boston Chapter, and is a usability consultant for the Bentley College Design and Usability Testing Center.

Disaster is in the air!

A stuffed cat dangles precipitously from a fake palm tree frond, a scant sixty seconds away from falling to the earth. A few feet away, unbeknownst to its hypothetical passengers, a cardboard train is about to encounter an enormous boulder lying in its path. Who could avert one, let alone both, of these impending catastrophes?

Activities like “Remote Control SuperUser” encouraged children to make design choices and field test them:

Can SuperUser save the cat?
Can SuperUser save the cat?

Kids drew remote controls to guide SuperUser

Can SuperUser save the train?
Can SuperUser save the train?

SuperUser stands patiently. Her red cape, thrown casually over her ten-year old frame, is resplendently asparkle in the unforgiving lights of the Museum of Science, Boston. SuperUser is calm, unfazed. Next to her, her brother works feverishly, knowing he has only seconds to devise a single solution to both dilemmas. Finally, Post-It flags dripping from his fingers, he shouts: “I got it!”

Kids defined SuperUser’s actions
Kids defined SuperUser’s actions

In a flash, he turns to the blueprint remote control drawn on a nearby whiteboard and begins to “press” the buttons he has labeled, one by one. “Walk Forward! . . . Stop! . . . Turn right! . . . Reach Forward!” SuperUser moves with controlled precision in accordance with his “button” presses. With every instruction she follows, disaster grows further away. Thirty seconds later the cat is safe. Another ten and the boulder has been removed. Both children are loopy with happiness, shouting: “We did it! We did it!”

With humble pride, the UPA Boston chapter Advisory Board can observe that turning a child into a superhero takes some planning. And turning a thousand children into superheroes takes just a bit more.

The Alarm Clock Alley Rally team
The Alarm Clock Alley Rally team

In honor of the second annual World Usability Day, the UPA Boston chapter Advisory Board and teams of volunteers worked tirelessly to support a November 14th event at the Museum of Science, Boston. In 2006 we produced twice the number of activities that we hosted in 2005, utilized over a hundred volunteers, and educated and made our activities available to nearly 3000 museum visitors in a single day.

Volunteers helped plan and run activities
Volunteers helped plan and run activities

Activities, like the “Remote Control Super User” (described above and brought to life by MetLife volunteers), the “Evaluation Station,” “the Great Sock Sort,” and “Instruction Blocks,” among others, proved to be fun and innovative ways to share User Centered Design techniques with children and adults. In an event that stretched from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., we offered walking tours of Boston’s public signs, evaluated sixteen non-profit organization’s websites, demonstrated touch screen voting machines, offered ten interactive activities, created podcast videos to post on YouTube.com, sorted mismatched socks to teach affinity diagramming, and saved a stranded stuffed cat countless times.

Most exciting, we put our entire suite of activities online to support educators and event planners worldwide. This archive, located at: http://www.upaboston.org/wud/, contains full descriptions of every World Usability Day activity we have hosted over the last two years. Each is is supported by downloadable step-by-step instructions, moderator’s guides, activity signs, tally sheets, video clips, and other materials.

The Great Sock Sort taught kids affinity diagramming

We encourage you to try one or more of the activities and to let us know how they work for you. We’ll add any variants or modifications we receive to the website.

How 2006 Differed from 2005
Drawing upon what we learned hosting our 2005 event at the same venue, we attempted to be better organized and to delegate responsibility more effectively. In the months leading up to the event we held open brainstorming and planning meetings to refine prior activities and to define new ones. From these we identified volunteer teams to own specific activities.

With great success, we appointed a chapter member with volunteer coordination expertise to communicate with and schedule the 100+ volunteers that were drawn from over fifty companies from Boston, MA to Portland, ME.

You can download free, modifiable signs from http://www.upaboston.org/wud/
You can download free, modifiable signs from http://www.upaboston.org/wud/

To ensure that every activity had an artful and attention-getting sign, Hot Knife Design donated a graphic designer to draft activity and event signs, and the Mitre Corporation donated facilities and materials to print and mount them. (You may download modifiable versions at no cost from our website for your own use.)

On the day of the event we asked on-site volunteers to wear white shirts and tan pants to help our crew stand out from the crowd, and to hand out a tri-fold brochure that introduced the event, our learning goals, and the activities.

Tom McCann shows pictures from his walking tour of Boston signs
Tom McCann shows pictures from his walking tour of Boston signs

To ensure that the event supported international outreach, we engaged a volunteer with video production expertise to film and edit on-site vignettes in English and Spanish that he posted during the day to YouTube.com. Collectively, the ten videos have received over a thousand views and are slated to be broadcast on Chinese television, per the request of a UPA China member.

Community Involvement

Usability pros evaluated 16 non-profit websites

Though educating individuals about usability was a key focus of the event, activities like the “Evaluation Station” gave our event a conscience. We invited area non-profit organizations to attend one-hour sessions where a team of usability pros provided advice for enhancing their websites. Between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., sixteen non-profits received personalized reviews from teams supporting two simultaneous tracks. The participating organizations gave the process rave reviews.

We’re lucky in Boston to have companies and educational institutions that support innovative usability outreach efforts. We offered an opportunity to purchase on-site booths and were grateful when agencies such as Adaptive Environments, Bentley College, BostonCHI, HotKnife Design, and Intuit stepped forward to use the booths to share descriptions of their usability services, job listings, and details of their user-centered development practices. With their support and the kind services provided by volunteers, we were able to meet the expenses associated with holding an event of this complexity.

Outreach and Next Steps
The Museum of Science, Boston, leadership has been consistently positive about the impact World Usability Day has on visitors and the museum’s activity planning process. The nature of our collaboration- having industry professionals volunteer their time to create educational activities- is unique. The World Usability Day premise- that technology should work well for the people who use it- appears to be an innovative approach for science educators familiar with presenting technology from an engineering perspective, rather than an eye to how well it supports human use.

World Usability Day is a model that works well for technology museums with an education mandate, and our ability to bear the burdens of designing, implementing, and showcasing activities has clear appeal. In response, they are working with us to adapt the activities into a more permanent part of the museum’s offerings, and into outreach activities that encourage other museums to do the same. Our website contains a letter from the Museum further enumerating the positive benefits of the event.

Lessons Learned
We’ve been invited back to reprise the event at the Museum of Science, Boston in 2007, and we’re looking forward to further refining our approach to address issues that arose this year or that, with an established base of activities, we have the luxury of addressing. In particular:

  • Entice by Example: People are more inspired to take part in activities when they see others their own age having fun. Presenting activities in age-appropriate groupings and where participants will be visible to peers helps build foot traffic. We’re rethinking the locations we choose for activities.
  • Empower Children: During the “Great Sock Sort” activity, children as young as five reacted with awe when we invited them to write or interact. “I can do it myself?” they asked, and beamed with pleasure when we responded in the affirmative. We’re seeking more ways to empower activity participants.
  • Entice Parents: Indicate on activity signs which age groups will find an activity enjoyable. This helps parents to decide whether or not to encourage their children to take part. Each sign next year will have an age indicator.
  • Make it inviting: Formal-looking tables with white tablecloths and signs tend to look like an adult-oriented activity. Colorful tablecloths, balloons, and signs help children feel welcome and encourages them to explore. Next year we’ll use them.
  • Entice the Press: Hosting activities that had ties to topics of national interest encouraged the press to attend. Exhibits on electronic touch screen voting machines and the efficacy of public signs inspired The Boston Globe to send a reporter and photographer to us. We’re on the lookout for tie-in topics.
  • Teenagers are Difficult: Even when our activities piqued their interest, they were often too shy, particularly in front of peers, to take part. We’re strategizing ways to more effectively entice them into action.

The MIT Media Lab demonstrated electronic voting systems
The MIT Media Lab demonstrated electronic voting systems

Visitors who took part in the activities reported having fun, learning, and seeing the products around them in a whole new light. Children, parents, teachers, and teens were eager to learn about usability, and sponsors were glad to share information about their education programs, development processes, and available jobs. More than one child raced out of our activity area shouting “I’m a super user! I’m a super user!,” and one group of pre-teens even deemed our activities the “best thing we did all day.”

Will SuperUser see YOU next year?
Will SuperUser see YOU next year?

We hope that the lessons we’ve learned, the activities we’ve created, and the successes we’ve had will support you in your own efforts to take part in World Usability Day!


Usability Professionals' Association
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