ETEC 511 – IP 1: Users, Uses and Usability

1. Formulate a conception of usability (based on the Issa and Isaias (2015) chapter on HCI and Usability). Use what you’ve learned about usability from that chapter—but you are not summarizing or repeating their ideas. Rather, you are setting out the idea of ‘usability’ you have put together from reading that chapter. Do NOT overly rely on quotes. And remember to use proper citation practices. If you are using text that is not your own, quote and cite it, including page numbers.

HCI (Human Computing Interaction) is essentially a translation service, in that it attempts to communicate between a machine and a human the purpose of the machine. Usability is the measurement of the success of that translation. If a piece of software or website is usable, then it is described as intuitive, easy to use, simple. To be usable, a designer must examine the functionality, efficiency, effectiveness of the software and take into consideration the user’s needs, context and satisfaction. (Issa and Isaias, 2015, p. 30) While this article was written only seven years ago, it seems like the authors only consider positive usage of technology and do not consider, or consider deeply, the idea of designing around bad actors. Wiegers contends that you should design around bad actors, and to prevent users from possibly misconstruing the information conveyed – in that usability should factor in not only the positive uses of a system, but also how it can be misused. (Wiegers, 2021)

2. Then, think about what is missing from this conception, from a specifically educational perspective, and on that basis try and patch together a reasonably grounded and defensible conception of educational usability.

While usability is a key concept in designing learning – especially the examination of context, and user/student needs, it is missing two other key components. While Issa and Isaias (2015) suggest that the user factors in HCI include motivation, enjoyment and experience level (p. 28) it does not adequately address cultural factors of the user/student. While culture will contribute to levels of access and equity, these factors are often great indicators of success in an educational context. This framework is very much built on western ways of knowing and draws from behaviourist theories of development. For instance, when the designed system works, the user is rewarded (by receiving information, having the computer complete a task, etc.). There is no real opportunity to design for remediation and it appears to have a very binary approach to solving complex problems.

3. Revisit Woolgar’s (challenging but rewarding!) account of “usability gone wrong,” which demonstrates several ways a usability study ended up configuring ‘users,’ thereby undermining the usefulness of usability. Identify and discuss 2 of Woolgar’s examples.

At the crux of Woolgar’s arguments of configuring the user during usability trials it was particularly interesting how he suggested that physical location of user testing is a factor in the results of the testing. Of course, when conducting research, you try to control those variables, and it is very clear (to me) that usability testing is far less rigorous than controlled, double-blind research. However, Woolgar (1990, p. 78) recounts how recalling computer features at Brunel University was different than when in the Stratus offices. If we take this as a common occurrence across users, then how we interact with computers will be different based on physical location. So, it follows that bringing users into a testing area to gather feedback on usability will be different than if the device were provided in their usual operating environment.

A second instance of configuring the users is the selection of who is eligible to participate in user testing (Woolgar, 1990, p. 83) – in this case it is noted that often early adopters, and people who are predisposed to like the product would be ideal testers. However, it is entirely unlikely that these people would provide you a new user’s perspective, or someone who was predisposed to not like computers, or be unfamiliar with computers. In fact, the opposite would likely be the case – users who were familiar and comfortable with computers. It only follows that someone who was familiar with computers would be at least more capable of using them, having a concept of what to do with them.

4. Finally, discuss the two excerpts quoted at the top of this IP, that have been drawn from your readings for this unit, and discuss differences you see in these 2 positions on the uses of usability.

Issa and Isaias (2015) are suggesting that user testing is a feedback mechanism to further improve software and hardware and Woolgar (1990) is suggesting that user testing is a confirmation mechanism – to confirm the assumptions made in designing software and hardware. I see both of these linked to a philosophical debate as to the role of computers in human’s lives – whether humans control computers, or computers determine the actions of humans – and the truth is somewhere in the middle.  It is dependent on your role with the computer. Computer programmers control what is possible and what is not within a game, or website. Human users subvert those possibilities through speedruns and other bending of the rules that humans put in place in the first place. Usability in the early days of computing would never have envisioned some of the ways people would have used computers.

References

Issa, T., & Isaias, P. (2015). Usability and human computer interaction (HCI) In Sustainable Design (pp. 19-35). Springer.

Woolgar, S. (1990). Configuring the user: The case of usability trials. The Sociological Review38(1, Suppl.), S58-S99.

Wiegars, K. (2021). Designing around bad actors and dangerous actions. UX Collective. https://uxdesign.cc/designing-around-bad-actors-and-dangerous-actions-8fc7984c510d

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