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Peering into the Users’ Technological Ecosystem

Posted on Aug 6th, 2007 by Everyone

Of course by now everyone knows what we mean by “Live Recruits” – they’re usability recruits that we snag when they’re in the midst of visiting the website we’re testing. It’s most often done through mini-surveys on a DHTML overlay (not a popup!). If someone fills out our survey and they’re a match for our target quotas, they’re contacted and interviewed immediately. There’s no scheduling participants and no lag time between the time when a participant is on a site and when they’re interviewed. We talk to them about the tasks they were already doing: no make believe required. It’s the closest way we’ve figured out to observing users interact with a design in their real life circumstances, without artificial barriers of the lab.

It’s a much more ethnographic approach, dealing with people in their home or office setting. And since we call the interviewee unannounced, they don’t even have time to clean house before we show up. We get to see first-hand participants utilizing their own computers, connection speeds, configurations. It’s a rare chance to get a lens into the user’s Technological Ecosystem.

Interviewing Live Recruits, we learn details about technical setups that are often highly idiosyncratic and their personally developed workarounds. This type of information is extremely relevant for designers, but hard to come by. We often learn things that seems so obvious and natural for users that that they would never think to report on it themselves. Some stuff we’ve seen recently:

  • Some avid online shoppers were not at all technologically savvy, and yet they had latest Firefox plugins for filling out e-commerce forms.
  • Users who have to log in and out of secure sites all day long had some ingenious methods of storing their login names and passwords. Some kept them in on a one-pager beside their desk; others had them in Word doc; others stored them directly in their Favorites list, right next to the web URL.
  • Users sometimes take us on a guided tour of the research libraries in their “My Documents” folder on their laptops – which they happened to prefer over using the company intranet or public drives. Seeing user-developed taxonomies showed us how they would label items on the site if they had the chance.
  • Interviewing a group of graphic designers, we noticed they pretty much all had extremely high screen resolution; a factor which really matters for design decisions
  • In the midst of one interview, a mom flashed on a to-do list in a Word doc. It told the whole story of how the website she was visiting was just one component of a complex workflow of managing phone calls, emails, and appointments for her sick child.

You just don’t come by this stuff in the lab!

(Photo by Johnath on flickr)

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