This chapter describes results of usability research conducted on the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL). The Purdue OWL is an information-rich educational Web site that provides free writing resources to users worldwide. Researchers conducted two generations of usability tests. In the first test, participants were asked to navigate the OWL and answer questions. Results of the first test and user-centered scholarship indicated that a more user-centered focus would improve usability. The second test asked participants to answer writing-related questions using both the OWL Web site and a user-centered OWL prototype. Participants took significantly less time to find information using the prototype and reported a more positive response to the user-centered prototype than the original OWL. Researchers conclude that a user-centered Web site is more effective and can be a model for information-rich online resources. Researchers also conclude that usability research can be a productive source of ideas, underscoring the need for participatory invention.
Key Terms in this Chapter
System-Centered Theory: An approach to development that places the designer or technology at the center of the process. Users are not consulted at all or they are consulted in the late stages of design.
Participatory Design: A design practice that asks users to contribute to the development of designs for new products, services, or Web sites. It differs from usability testing because it asks users to contribute ideas during all stages of development rather than providing feedback on nearly completed or completed technologies and products.
User-Centered Theory: A theory of design that places users at the center of technology development in an iterative, recursive, and collaborative process.
Engagement: Meaningful communication between users and designers.
Writing Lab or Writing Center: A place, often situated on an educational campus, where individuals can go to receive one-on-one tutoring about their writing. Writing labs often provide other types of writing-related services such as online consultations, writing workshops, resource libraries, and ESL services.
Usability Testing: The quantitative and qualitative process of determining how well a Web site, product, or service works for users. It can include user testing based on scenarios and collecting users’ opinions and feedback. For the purposes of our work, we differentiate between usability testing and usability research.
Online Writing Lab (OWL): A Web-based environment that provides writing-related assistance and resources; it can include online tutorials, handouts on writing-related topics, and interactive writing exercises.
Web Accessibility: Access to Web technologies by any number of users regardless of physical, cognitive, or emotional disabilities. For more information on Web accessibility, please see the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) sponsored by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) on the Web at: http://www.w3.org/WAI/ .
Usability Research: The integration of usability work into all areas and all stages of design so that users are contributing to development. Acknowledges and fosters a space of professionalization for graduate students and a space for ongoing, critical practices that benefit everyone involved in the project, including researchers, faculty, staff, and so forth.