Tuesday, April 10, 2007

NEASIST Usability Mini-conference

In a previous post, I referred to a resistance to professional development on the part of my colleagues. Because I try really hard to act congruently with my words, I attended a local full-day conference on Website Usability during my vacation from "work." Hah.

NEASIS&T: Designing Usable Interfaces at MIT was worth it, though. Fun and fascinating thoughts on website usability, presented in digestible one-hour chunks. I'd heard of Steve Krug and Jennifer Tidwell before, but Holtzblatt was a happy surprise.

Karen Holtzblatt from inContext spoke about context-centered design. First of all, if you can have her speak at your organization, do it. She is a dynamic, focused speaker who spoke to the New Yorker in my soul and made me laugh out loud. A lot.

Context-centered design is most of what we think of as customer-centered design, with the added emphasis of observing the customers in their natural habitat. One of her main points was exactly that: User design supports or extends the user life practice. Figure out who your users are and what they are trying to achieve: "Design for the intent, not the use." Once you have the intent and purpose clear, the system you create to allow users to do that will spring from those starting principles.

Steve Krug spoke next, blending the concepts of his book Don't Make Me Think with the notion that usability testing is like dieting – we all know we need to do it, but we don't for all sorts of reasons. Usability testing might seem scary, but a streamlined process is remarkably easy to implement. He's currently writing a how-to book on bare-bones usability testing, meant to be done by anyone during the process of developing a site.

Last up was Jennifer Tidwell, author of Designing Interfaces. Where Holtzblatt and Krug focused on the process of usability testing and designing from the 30,000 ft view, Tidwell got into the nuts and bolts of using graphic design elements to make looking at and using a website easier for users. She discussed gestalt principles and preattentive visual features and their applications in site design. (Warning on that last link; big picture under the cut) A good dose of practical application after the slightly more theoretical presentations earlier.

After a short break, two of the three presenters came together in a panel discussion. The panel wasn't convened to discuss a particular topic, just to answer audience questions. While it was interesting, it was less focused than I could handle after a day of thinking.

It's a great day full of fun stuff I need to process. There's stuff here to apply to librarianship in general, not just site design. But that will be the next post.

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