Basement lab seeks to find usability issues, offers course

Eye track among technical marvels

By Rachel RIggs
On November 2, 2012

     The solution to your problems just might be tucked away in the bottom floor of the Academic Building.

     The Usability Lab located in room 004B provides students, faculty and community members with high-tech tools and equipment to research human reactions to documents, game designs and web layouts.

     The coolest feature in the lab, according to Assistant Professor of English Kevin Garrison, is the "eye tracker," which is an infrared camera that records what people look at on a computer screen. This allows researchers to see what people notice and ignore on a web page, Garrison said.

     "What we do in the lab specifically is test whether or not people can navigate their way through a document without getting frustrated," Garrison said. "You are looking for efficiency or how quickly someone can get from point A to point B."

     According to Garrison, the lab works like this: the researcher will set up a test, the test taker will sit in front of a computer screen and the moderator will watch them throughout the test. During the test, the test taker is recorded and asked questions. Afterwards, the researcher collects data, quotes and video from the test.

     Graduate Student Javier Medina was the student lab assistant for the usability lab in the spring semester of 2012.

     "For that position, I used the lab to create and run two usability tests, one for the Travel Office and one for the Department of English and Modern Languages M.A. Program," Medina said.

     Medina said he also used the lab for two class projects. In one project, Medina's group tested the SMART Online Writing Center module to determine if students could easily access functions, he said. In a second project, Medina's group used the lab to test a website they had built for an oil field electrical contracting company.

     In both projects, Medina said he brought in students from a variety of majors and classifications for testing.

     "The lab provides students with a hands-on project that goes beyond a routine lecture or group project," Medina said.

     Senior Ryan New said usability testing helps products like websites, computer programs and documents become less frustrating and more user-friendly.

     "I think the usability lab is important because there isn't any other lab like it on campus," New said. "The capabilities of the lab are tremendous due to the hardware and software that is housed in the usability lab."

     Although usability is an aspect of technical writing, its use reaches across disciplines. Psychology majors, marketing majors, mass media and communications majors, computer science majors and technical writing majors may all find this lab useful, Garrison said.

     "Any time you have a poster, brochure, flier, website or document, you are trying to navigate through the information presented to you," Garrison said. "If you get frustrated because you don't understand how to get from point A to point B, that's a usability issue."

     Usability can be summed up with the acronym M.E.E.L.S., which stands for Memorability, Errors, Efficiency, Learnability and Satisfaction, Garrison said.

     "One of the definitions of usability is invisibility," he said.  "You don't know there is a usability problem until you see it. The purpose of this lab is to make usability a visual concept."

     Social decorum is a main reason why usability labs exist, Garrison said.

     "No one ever says that a website sucks to a guy who designed the website," Garrison said. "You may say it behind the scenes, but you never go to the people who actually designed the page."

     There is a usability testing class, English 4365, which is offered every spring that uses the lab, Garrison said.

     "The class is for anyone who is even remotely interested in how people interact with documents," he said. "We have waived most prerequisites for this course, so all a student needs are English 1301, 1302 and a sophomore literature class."

     New said the course was a mix between a business and computer science course "with a little bit of English on the side."

     "Once learned, the software and hardware used in the usability lab are easy to use, and Dr. Garrison was great with his lectures on usability and the process of conducting different kinds of usability tests," New said.

     "Overall, I would say that Usability Testing was the highlight of my semester last school year and I was certainly satisfied with the course."

     The English 4365 course is intense, but enjoyable, Medina said.

     "The first three or four weeks involve learning the theories and methods involved in usability testing," Medina said. "After the theory is out of the way, the client project work begins."

     Anyone interested in using the usability lab or enrolling in English 4365 is encouraged to contact Garrison. Send Garrison an email at or stop by his office in the Academic Building in room 019.

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