Saturday, July 30, 2005

Usability in Elearning

This post appeared some weeks back at IDiot. As the conversation is between me and the owner, I am shamelessly copying the converstion here.

Kern offers two kinds of services -- usability and elearning. Often our clients inquire about this holy matrimony of usability and elearning. I think usability lends itself naturally to any elearning solution. This got us into an interesting discussion about how usability impacts learning solutions.

Geeta: How do we apply the learning from usability to our elearning projects?

Ripul: Usability is a measurable attribute where we measure the usefulness of a product. We can apply the same concepts to elearning where we measure the learning ability or "learnability" of learners. The basic premise of usability is to make something easy and useful. At times, things may be easy to use, but may not be useful for the user. So, applying the same principle to elearning, we can make things easy to access as well as more learnable for learners.

Geeta: That's right. But often usability is limited to UI issues where the focus is more on the "ease to use" of elearning. For example, the focus is more on making the interface student-friendly, make navigation simpler, and reduction in download time. Whereas, usability in the real sense should focus on the "learnability" aspect of the courseware. So, how do you think usability can enhance "learnability"?

Ripul: Learnability can be enhanced by designing a courseware based on learners' needs, goals, and aspirations. To do this, first, we need to have a clear understanding of the learner; analyze their demographic and psychographic profile; understand their needs and motivations; and then come up with a design that best suits them. elearning organizations can adopt user research processes and techniques like contextual inquiry and observation to understand the learners, their learning goals, learning motivations, and the current learning patterns. This will also help organizations understand how learners use learning while working.

Geeta: This is exactly what must be done in the analysis phase of traditional elearning. Sadly, in a real world elearning scenario, the analysis phase is a mere formality, more so when content development is outsourced (will blog this sometime). In such a situation, the client is God and the subject matter expert (lovingly known as SME) is demi-god! They drive the requirements, provide the learner details, and define what strategies to follow. Amidst all this, we forget the plight of the poor learners who are left with no choice but to wear sweaters in summer! (as exclaimed by Sow!) More often than not, instructional design is decided based on: - the engine capabilities - standard successful strategies - client's preference - budgetary constraints, and - SME's diktats

Ripul: That's precisely where the problems come up regarding the effectiveness of learning. The course has to be designed as per the learner and not based on client requirements alone. Business stakeholders play an important role in the process, however they should not drive the design. We must design for our learners. There can be no "one size fits all" in instructional design. Gagne's nine events are not the holy grail of instructional design -- all learning challenges cannot have a single solution.

Geeta: To get back to our discussion, we can apply our learning from usability optimally. We can offer good UI solutions, make navigation intuitive, simpler, and reduce dependence on secondary instructions. We can use contextual inquiry process to derive learner requirements to complement stakeholder requirements. We no longer need to hide behind "interpassivity" to engage learners, we can ensure that the learner really learns. But tell me how do you measure actual learning?

Ripul: Learning can be easily measured using usability testing methods. However, I feel, these methods need to be adapted for learnability testing. Current usability testing methods are highly skewed towards correct navigation and completion of tasks, which is not the main focus while learning. The usability protocols must be designed to measure effectiveness of learning.

Geeta: The effectiveness of learning is in achieving the learning objectives that the learner has set out to achieve in the first place. Therefore, learnability testing should ensure that there is a one-on-one mapping with the learning objectives at the learners' workplace and not just in a laboratory setup.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Ask your employer these questions - Freshers

In the past few months, I have been asked a million times about how to choose a suitable company for a usability job. Most people who have been asking me are fresh graduates from NID, IDC, or from a US university. In India, the choices are few, and making a choice is very difficult. However, each company offers different usability jobs and has a different hidden job description. Here I want to demystify some of these things.

Companies looking for freshers dont expect freshers to contribute from day one. They want bright freshers who can learn and can apply usability principles in projects later. So, show that you want to learn, want to experiment, and can ask questions. You also have to show that you are willing to do any kind of usability work that is given. Anyway, you will not be pushed into a big project in the beginning. The company will not take that risk - however good your academic scores or academic projects are.

There are two types of companies that offer usability jobs in India - usability consulting companies and software companies. In India, you will may not find financial companies, insurance companies, call centers, or manufacturing companies offering usability jobs. So, which type of company would you choose? Ask all these questions, I am sure you will be able to find answers yourself.

1. Mentor As a fresher, you would need a friend in a mentor to help you learn the ropes of usability. During your first interaction with the prospective employer, you must find out who may be your mentor:

a. how many years of usability experience your mentor has? Usually more years the better, however, more experienced people are either hard to find or are not accessible. So find a mentor who has good work experience and not a fresher. A person who has worked in a software company as a usability engineer may understand "ground-level" usability. A person who has worked all her life in a consulting company may not relate to ground-level implementation issues. On the other hand, people who have worked with a software company may not have any usability testing experience.

b. what is the type of usability experience does the mentor have? Check if the mentor has complete lifecycle projects experience - from contextual inquiry to real-life usability testing. I am sure this is going to be a tough one, but this is really important for your first job. The wider and more project experience your mentor have, you will be productive quickly.

c. how accessible is your mentor? Many organizations boast of best people in the field of usability. And, freshers fall for their credentials. However, these people are never accessible. You will never learn anything from them. They are as good as not being there. You need to find mentors that are accessible regularly. In some organizations you may find mentors who have relatively less experience but are very accessible - that's what you may want to look for.

2. Type of work As a fresher, no company will risk putting you on bigger projects. They would rather start you with small projects and judge you periodically. But, many companies promise you with big projects in the beginning - dont fall for those promises - they will never be met! Find companies that promise you good learning and put you on projects progressively as you perform better.

I know of some companies which will only make you perform "heuristic evaluations" for years (and I really mean it!). They will not let you do any other kind of work - no contextual inquiry, no design, no testing, no nothing. They work on low cost India model for getting heuristic evaluations done - they will not move most guys to design or testing. Beware of such companies.

Usability consulting companies are good if you already have some years of usability experience and you want to broaden your experience. However, they may not be a right career choice while you are starting your career. The reason is that you will never get to see the light of day of your projects.

Find software companies that are usability focused. They are ideal breeding ground for budding usability engineers. However, find out about your mentor(s) and find out if you will be able to talk to users and do usability testing.

3. Access to development teams A complete architect is the one who can visualize the building and can supervise the construction too. However, in Usability, most projects go out of usability person's hands after usability testing of wireframes or mocks. You never get to see how programmers develop the mock. You never get to see what problems are coming up because of design. You never get to juggle between technical difficulties and usability issues. So, find out about access to development teams and how much access you may have with them after you create mocks or prototypes.

4. Location Some people say location does not matter. I say, it does matter a lot. Cost of living in Hyderabad is half of that in Mumbai. Quality of life is better in smaller cities because you can stay within 5 minutes of your office and not spend 2.5 hours one way just to reach office. You can work more or meet up people more often in smaller cities. And, you can catch up with films without waiting for the weekend.

5. Travel Entry level jobs will NOT have travel. If someone tells you that there will be a lot of travel involved, take it with pinch of salt. Travel will happen only if you can show that you are capable of doing projects well.

Some words of caution for experienced usability professionals - Some usability consulting companies in India will require you to travel to the US on a business visa. They send you on pretext of "training." However,they will expect you to "work" on projects there. They dont want to spend too much money on work visas - as long as no one gets caught by US authorities, its perfect by them. If you travel to US on business visa and "work" there, you are very likely to be "caught" by authorities. So insist and ensure that you go only on a work visa to work. Business visa is only meant for meeting clients, meeting users, and training.

If you have a spouse in India and you are required to travel for longer periods, please ensure that the company you join must have spouse friendly policies. Ensure that the company pays for your spouse's visa application fee, return airfare, and provide decent accomodation for a couple. Also ensure that the money that you get (per diem) is sufficient for both of you to "survive" in expensive countries like the US and UK.

6. Remuneration Yes, your favorite subject! Someone told me if she gets Rs. 6 Lakh (0.6 million), she will join a company. I asked her why do you need 6 lakhs? She replied "If my friends at Veritas and Oracle can get 6 Lakhs, why can't I?"

Good remuneration is good for you, however, if a company can offer you good learning at the beginning of your career, you can sacrifice remuneration. You will have ample opportunities to earn more - better you are at your job, better remuneration you can command later. You must strive to learn and perform in your first job.