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  • The temptation to avoid usability work

    November 19th, 2010

    I am currently working on a private software project in a startup. I am involved not only in the design of the overall user experience, but also in implementation, since we are not many. The temptation to skip usability work is great for our team of two, and I too have to keep convincing myself why usability work is absolutely crucial to product success. Trying to find a succint enough way to express the basic needs for the work…

    Software engineers often question the value of usability work. It may be that a good designer could design a UI that does not create major confusion for most – if those designers already have lots of experience from usability testing in other projects. However, in any application that is done without explicit user research and usability testing targeted for the specific UI, you tend to have dozens of small confusing moments that make up the overall user experience and lead to a general ‘yuk’ reaction. Not to mention that if you don’t intimately know your users’ goals, you are likely to be designing the wrong overall application.

  • Master's thesis about Moodle and open source usability work

    September 30th, 2010

    A couple of weeks ago, my master’s thesis was approved, titled User experience design in open source development: Approaches to usability work in the Moodle community (PDF). The work documents usability work that happened for Moodle 2.0, so it was published just in time before that will finally get out. :)

    Summary of reactions: >60 Twitter tweets total including all links, grade Eximia Cum Laude Approbatur, honorary mention in the thesis competition (link in Finnish) of ACM SIGCHI Finland. The work continues!

    Update (Nov. 18 2011): This thesis won an honorary mention in the thesis competition (links in Finnish) of the Finnish chapter of SIGCHI ! Yay! Their statement of the thesis: “The jury thought this as a new type of thesis work, which successfully captures the phases and challenges in a multi-phased process of redesigning a Moodle community application. Open source communities have been little investigated from the HCI point of view, and the author successfully opens interesting new viewpoints with the thesis. The constructive Pro Gradu thesis has also resulted a tangible contribution.”

    Statement on Olli Savolainen’s thesis for M.Sc. in Interactive Technology titled User experience design in open source development: Approaches to usability work in the Moodle community, 82 pages, 5 appendices

    Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) development has become an important way of producing software in the modern society. In principle, the source code produced as OSS is openly designed, developed and distributed, and developers take part in the process voluntarily. The resulting code is freely or with little cost available to end-users. Often the software developers and users are from all over the globe, with the OSS community applying virtual forums for questions and user feedback and support.

    Taking part in OSS projects often poses challenges and obstacles to the usability practitioner whose main interest is to design the user interface so that it better fits the user needs. This is the topic Olli Savolainen deals with in his thesis. He reports on his personal motivation and continuous interest in improving the quality and, in particular, usability of Moodle Quiz. He also refers to his efforts and perseverance in gaining acceptance in the community before the changes he suggested after several iterations finally got accepted into the code base of Moodle 2.0. The description of the project is given on two levels. While reporting on the actual user centered design work done in the various phases of the project, another, more personal account of the challenges encountered on the way and reactions to them is unfolded. This kind of reflection is very valuable for understanding the norms, values and ways of working in FLOSS communities. These are important for gaining acceptance and recognition as an active FLOSS participant.

    The thesis is a well balanced and reflective document of things learned and practiced in the Quiz UI project as well as thinking about them in the larger framework of OSS development projects as described in literature. The background literature cited is extensive, ranging from books and journal & conference papers to blog and discussion forum entries and documentation. Furthermore, it is well utilized throughout the thesis.

    The vocabulary in the thesis is versatile and the language in general grammatically correct, though professional proof reading and language checking might still improve it. A minor drawback in the thesis is the structure that promotes the feeling of repetition, since some issues are first introduced in Chapter 2, but discussed in more detail in Chapters 7 and 8 with many cross-references between the sections. However, this is only a mark of thoroughness and consistency in reporting.

    Olli Savolainen has been involved with Moodle and the Quiz UI for more than three years, and his skills and expertise are apparent in the thesis. The main findings are based on personal work experience, and they smooth the usability practitioners’ path into OSS communities. The thesis work is relevant to future OSS development practitioners. It unites the fields of software engineering and usability engineering, bridging the gap still observed in computer science education.

    The work carried out by Olli Savolainen clearly fulfills the standards set for a thesis in Interactive Technology. We propose that the thesis is accepted with the grade eximia cum laude approbatur.

    At the department of Computer Sciences, September 9, 2010
    Saila Ovaska
    Eleni Berki


    (More …)

  • What is a course & the tools for having a great one (Part 1)

    May 11th, 2010

    See also: Part 2 – a design proposition for Moodle course front page

    (Update July 5th: Working on the follow-up article is taking longer than I expected. Bear with me, it is on its way! :)

    Inspired by Tomaz’ blog post, I did an informal interview with a business and marketing teacher I know. There are two separate points I want to make about the interview, so this article starts a series of two articles.

    I wanted to go thinking on a very general level of what are the tools that can be used for helping individuals learn on a given theme. I will here call the place to do such learning, a course.

    The questions I presented:

    What constitutes a course?
    What are the defining factors; what do you do on a course, how, and why? In other words, we playfully tried to generate a definition of a course.

    What kinds of tools can be used in order to facilitate learning of individuals on a course?
    Then I asked the interviewee to list the tools that can be used for learning in each aspect of the course’s definition. “Tools” are defined very widely here, as anything that can facilitate learning on the theme. They may sometimes have natural hierarchy, but here I want to perceive them such that each we can each still see the relations differently.

    The definition here is of necessity more narrow than that discussed by Tomaz – I believe that restriction helps when thinking about the design of a platform for courses.

    (More …)

  • Usability and Users' experiences in Moodleland @ iMoot 2010

    February 7th, 2010

    Preparing for presenting in iMoot, an online conference about online learning and Moodle, was an intensive process for me, but it paid off –  both in terms of learning while designing it, and because many of the presentations were really inspiring.

    Martin’s keynote also inspired me to create a small bug report in the tracker, my first one in months.

    #imoot2010 Twitter channel

    If you are interested, you can still register now for access to ALL the conference presentations, and today you can still join the discussions for a couple of hours.

    Usability and Users’ Experiences in Moodleland

    Quotations in the presentation:

  • Modelling concepts

    September 8th, 2009

    I am currently starting out on a course of conceptual modelling. One interesting phrase from the lecturer’s mouth caught my attention, while he was presenting an old diagram of  the concepts of a particular target domain to us. The idea was roughly this:

    Once the concepts have been defined like this, the rest is implementation.

    Software engineers are indeed aware of the fact that we must understand what are the concepts of the target domain, and their relationships. (They may express this understanding in different terms, though.) When we do, we can turn them into programming constructs, be they classes and objects, or procedural code (in Moodle, PHP pages and functions).

    What is missing from this image? The people using the system: the actual dynamics of what happens, the characteristics and the goals of the users (?), and the circumstances of the users. All of these are more abstract than implementation details and can not be described using programming code, yet taking or not taking them into account can dramatically affect whether software meets the actual needs of the people it is supposed to serve.

  • The power of simply having data

    July 6th, 2009

    From Contextual Design by Hugh Beyer and Karen Holtzblatt:

    […] Any change is a struggle. Engineers used to making what they are interested in feel constrained by having to think about what is useful and can sell. We all have to hold back the voice that tells us that producing code is progress – even if we cancel the project, even if it is the wrong code, even if we don’t know what would be useful to code. How does understanding work produce code? It is a struggle of personalities as we try to work in cross-functional teams to produce a shared direction. It is hard to remember that one smart guy working alone probably doesn’t have the whole answer. We simply have to realize that design is about people working together, and that’s what makes it hard.

    I remember the first design team I worked with. I barely knew what a computer was, but I jumped in to help a team designing a very large and expensive computer. They were stuck, not on the guts of the engine, but on the control panel! So I listened to six engineers arguing about how to lay out the switches: “Won’t we crash the system by accident if the remote selection is on the same switch as off?” “Oh, they’ll only do that once.” And whether or not there should be a key on the switch: “Security is important.” “No, it isn’t.” “Yes, it is.”

    As I listened, I realized that the team simply had no ground for their decisions. There was no way that reasoning and argument would get them to an answer. So I collected some data on how the panel was used: “Are you kidding? We won’t touch the remote. Someone might crash it.” “We turn the knob very, very slowly.” “Someone crashed it once, and the whole business stopped. No one touches that knob now.” And on security: “The computer is in a locked room; we don’t need it locked.” “Locking is a pain. We keep losing the key.” “We keep the key taped to the computer so we can find it.” “I catch my clothes on that lock; it sticks out.” The design was done in a day. We had a new switch for on and of and stopped agonizing about the key. I recently ran into a member of that team. He said he still talks about what happened 10 years later. The power of simply having data.

    Emphases and paragraph division (partially) mine.

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