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World Usability Day Philadelphia: User Experience Beyond The Web

By Mike Madaio

Mike Madaio is currently the Chief IA for QVC.com and the Secretary of PHICHI, the Philadelphia Chapter of the ACM SIGCHI. He also keeps a user experience-related blog at http://mikemadaio.com.

Because many of the local UPA members work in Internet-related fields, Philadelphia’s 2nd Annual World Usability Day looked to broaden horizons by focusing on “User Experience Beyond the Web.”

Although the speakers, Hal Rosenbluth, co-founder of Take Care Health Systems; James Mitchell, Associate Professor and Director of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at Drexel University; and Stephen Wilcox, Principal of Design Science, spoke extensively about the differences between their work and that of web professionals, the pervasive theme throughout each presentation was that we actually have a lot in common.

As in web-related user experience design, off-line usability experts focus on satisfying user needs, creating usable experiences, and maintaining focus on usability throughout the design lifecycle.

Take Care Health Systems: Satisfying User Needs
The very best user-centric design places user needs above those of the company and/or technology; similarly, Rosenbluth aims to “fix the gaping hole in American Healthcare” by changing focus from the system to the consumer. Take Care Health System (TCHS) has an innovative approach to patient experience that places Nurse Practitioners inside chain drugstores and makes them available for same-day appointments. This is an approach that strives to provide what most people need, but few doctor’s offices or hospitals can provide: convenient, immediate service when ill.

Hal Rosenbluth strives to change the landscape of healthcare
Hal Rosenbluth strives to change the landscape of healthcare
by focusing on user needs

TCHS uses several tactics to create enhance this experience:

  • Forward-thinking technology that provides easy, quick check-in and wait time estimates, even suggesting nearby locations if the wait is significantly shorter
  • An extremely low $59 per visit charge
  • Doctors always available same-day for more serious illnesses

To ensure a complete experience, a nurse also calls each and every patient the day after an appointment to see how they are feeling.

Drexel University: Creating Usable Experiences
Just as the most dazzling flash animation is meaningless without purpose, the most beautiful buildings can be ineffective if usage is not incorporated into the design.

Mitchell pointed to Drexel’s new showcase building, the Bossone Research Center, as a perfect example. Designed by world-renowned firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, the structure is a stunning addition to campus but still suffers from several usability problems.

A narrowly-pointed corner at the front of the building, for example, is visually appealing but completely unusable, wasting a large amount of space on an expensive block in the city.

This part of the building looks great but can't be used for anything
This part of the building looks great but can't be used for anything

Once inside (if you can get past the hidden ID scanner to open the doors), trash cans mar the beautifully designed interior – a great example of how actual usage was overlooked during the design phase. The designers failed to take provisions for trash, something generated by users of every building.

Quite a shame when such a beautiful interior is marred by trash
Quite a shame when such a beautiful interior is marred by trash

Design Science: Keeping Focus on Usability
Like many usability professionals, Wilcox – whose company helps create user-friendly medical products – sees an opportunity to improve how our research is communicated and used by the entire design team. Design Science often uses simple but effective “posters on the wall” that reference the research in easy to understand charts and diagrams, which encourages his team to keep these principles in mind throughout the project lifecycle.

Stephen Wilcox believes in making usability easy for everyone on the team to understand and use
Stephen Wilcox believes in making usability easy for everyone on the team to understand and use

In addition to usability testing, Wilcox preached the virtues of several other research tools, also available in poster form:

  • Plan views, which show a plan of the operating room with detailed diagrams of the patterns of communication, movement and eyesight within the room.
  • Scenarios, which detail possible scenarios that may occur.
  • Personas, which, as they do in web design, allow designers to see the project from the perspective of a hypothetical user.
  • Videos, of actual procedures to watch potential users performing target tasks.

Lastly, Wilcox made an interesting point about the need to test extensively before bringing a product to market. Such “validation” testing is required in the medical field, which is akin to legally requiring usability testing for products.

Differences Between Online & Offline
The speakers did, of course, mention a few differences between their fields and web usability. Dr. Mitchell, in particular, pointed out some interesting differences. For example, detailed codes and standards are more than merely guidelines - they must be followed or serious consequences could occur.

Buildings also, at least for the time being, use more senses than web designs; a person can’t (currently) walk into a website. Also, due to the nature of the design, it is impossible to create a building prototype and have users test it, so architects must rely only on past experience, building codes, and sketches to create the most usable building possible.

In the end, although there will continue to be differences between the varied and diverse fields that employ user-centric design principles, Philadelphia’s 2006 World Usability Day proved that there is much to be learned by sharing information with each other. As technology improves, it will bring us even closer together by playing a larger role in the design of tangible products and by allowing designers of technology to create experiences that more closely mirror the products and experiences that occurs offline.

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