Thumbnail: Bill Albert
Cliff Anderson is a Senior Usability Engineer at GMAC Financial Services. He has been doing usability work for over 20 years.
NEWS FLASH: Bill Albert has just been named Director of the Design and Usability Center (DUC) at Bentley University.
Bill Albert is a quantitative sort of guy. That bent is reflected in his recent book, Measuring the User Experience: Collecting, Analyzing, and Presenting Usability Metrics, written with Tom Tullis. Readers may not realize, though, that there's a lot more to Bill than just the numbers.
Geography and Human Factors
Usability engineers come from all sorts of backgrounds. On the face of it, Bill's background is one of the more interesting ones. Bill's bachelor's, master's, and PhD are all in the field of geography.
"It's not the stuff you learned in fifth or sixth grade though," Bill is quick to point out. "It's an interesting discipline. It touches a lot of different areas." Indeed, Bill's master's is in geographic information systems (GIS), and his PhD in spatial cognition.
Spatial cognition, which combines geography with Bill's interest in psychology, has been particularly fruitful for him. In particular, he used it in post-doc work for Nissan, designing and testing 3D map displays for car navigation systems.
The Internet and Usability
Bill also found his interests proved useful when he moved to Lycos - in particular, with navigation and mental models. "It was an easy fit for me," he remarks, "making the switch to navigating information spaces." Citing his considerable work with "human-subject experiments," he adds that "running usability studies was a natural move for me as well."
Lycos also represented Bill's first real intensive experience with the Internet, as well as gave him exposure to numerous areas within the Internet space, including search, e-commerce, wireless, financial, and social networking.
Bill parlayed that experience into a position at Fidelity Investments, where he has happily spent the last seven years. In addition to hands-on work, Bill also manages several user researchers, and evangelizes for usability within and outside the company.
Industry and Academia
In addition to moving from geography to the Internet, and from traditional human factors to usability, Bill's career has seen him move from academia to industry. With a PhD from Boston University, fellowships from the University of California and the government of Japan, and post-doc work at Nissan Research & Development and Cambridge Basic Research, Bill was primed to pursue a career in academia.
While doing his post-doc work, though, Bill found that his research was "more theoretical" and that he was "desperate to know how this is going to be used, how the results were going to be applied. I hate for research to go to waste," he jokes.
At the same time, though, Bill admits he "can't look at products from a purely practical perspective. I want to understand the deeper reasons," he points out.
"I wouldn't be happy at either end," Bill muses. "I have to be somewhere in the middle. I really like a little of both."
Quantitative and Qualitative
Bill's thoughts when it comes to the great quantitative versus qualitative debate are very similar. "It's not meant to replace qualitative research," he's quick to point out about quantitative work. "It should act as a compliment to it."
"Traditional usability testing can identify issues quickly and cheaply," Bill explains. "It's not so good for getting you really reliable feedback on preferences though. We sometimes test out different designs where the alternatives are very subtle," he continues. "We think there might be a difference, but we really don't know, and we're not going to get at that unless we bring 60 people into the lab."
Bill also thinks that a quantitative approach can get the attention of senior management, who are often focused on "the numbers." Overall, Bill simply wants the average usability engineer to "apply a little more rigor. Whatever you're doing, it's important to consider all your sources. We're really not all taking advantage of metrics. It's not to say that you need metrics on every project. Sometimes, though, it really does help. A little bit can go a long way."
Bill's even-handed, practical approach is reflected very clearly in the book he authored with fellow Fidelity employee Tom Tullis. "We tried to make it very practical, very useful," he points out. "It's really for people with less experience with metrics. It's not dense. It's not a statistical handbook. It's not overly academic. There's nothing too technical. There's little math. We definitely didn't want to scare anybody off. We hope it's very easy to use. As usability people ourselves, we wanted to practice what we preach. It's ultimately about what's practical."
Moderated and Unmoderated
Bill's next book is already in the works. This one will focus on remote, unmoderated testing. What that means is using a system like UserZoom or Keynote, which serve up usability tests to users to take at anytime, over the Internet. These systems track the users' clickstreams, as well as their time on task and completion rates. Users can also enter comments, as well as respond to questions or surveys. All of this is tabulated by the tool, with the usability engineer setting up the tests and then analyzing the results.
"It lets you tap into the behavioral and the attitudinal," Bill points out. "You can get large amounts of data like task success and completion times. But you can also get verbatim comments, like why the task was difficult."
Bill likes the clickpaths in particular. "It's like looking over the shoulder of a thousand people at the same time," he notes. "It's powerful, but a little scary too."
As with quantitative methods, Bill knows unmoderated testing is "not a potential replacement for qualitative methods." In particular, he points out that "you can only dig so far. If you really need to probe, to understand, it's really not the best method." Ultimately, Bill sees it as "just another tool in the toolkit."
Now and In the Future
When asked what the future holds for the usability profession, Bill - not surprisingly - mentions this toolkit and how it will be growing. In the same breath, he also believes "how we think about user experience in general" will be expanding as well. "We'll be getting a more complete picture of user experience, however we can," says Bill.
"It's not enough just to be easy," he points out. "It's not just about task success, about efficiency. We have to create an exceptional user experience all around." Bill cites emotion in particular, along with methods such as field studies to get to that goal.
As for Bill personally, he wants to keep doing "all of the above. I never want to be just a researcher or just a manager," he notes. "There are all these different parts of the brain I need to feed."
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