Calum Benson "a top usability expert at Sun Microsystems" gave a talk on Open Source usability, as guest of the Trinity Internet Society (Netsoc). Coincidentally the talk was held in the Swift lecture theatre, exactly the same place as Calum gave his usability presentation at GUADEC 4. Even though the place was the same the talk was different, it even featured the recently created South Park incarnation of Calum but more importantly the substance of the talk was about the application of usability methods in commercial and open source environments. The talk was not as Gnome specific as I think people would have expected and with the impending exams the attendance was unfortunately quite low, maybe only twenty people.
Calum gave a formal definition of Usability as "The effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction with which a specified set of users can achieve a specified set of tasks in a particular environment" which helped to avoid any of the usual confusion and vague about user experience or utility. Some of the ideas were not new to me but it was useful to hear them expressed in a different way. It was good to hear a more formal description and learn the usability jargon to better describe the ideas I had already seen in practice. Competitive Analysis is a much more professional and eloquent way to describe the concept at looking at what existing popular applications are doing and borrowing the best of their ideas (embrace and extend). Contextual Enquiry is a fantastically scientific way of describing watching and learning from your users. The other notable piece of terminology was Heuristic Evaluation which describes the kind of superficial screen-by-screen usability evaluation almost any user or developer can learn to do having read the Gnome Guidelines (or a good checklist) and awareness of a few essential usability principles.
Calum mentioned the concept of Personas, the idea of describing who you think the Archetypal user of your software would be. This concept is something the Sourcegear developers who originally started Abiword made great use of in a simple informal way by identifying a Church Secretary as the archetypal Abiword user which has always helped to keep things in perspective. You could say Abiword has another very significant archetypal user in the form of the University Academic. Not only has Martin Sevior done amazing work improving Abiword to meet his own needs but he has done so with an implicit awareness of the class of user he and his colleagues represent. The idea of personas for Gnome was discussed but I don't recall anything ever being formalised. I imagine it would be a lot harder to come up with a shortlist of clear but relevant archetypes for the whole Gnome Desktop. Scenarios were also mentioned, I won't go into detail about it but I hope to try applying the concept in the future.
There was some laughs when Calum showed some of the mistakes that had been made by Microsoft and Apple. Calum was able to show us a short recording of work done in the Sun Microsystems Usability Labs, and I wish I could have seen more. The user in question was asked to create a Shortcut and struggled to discover she needed to use the item confusingly labelled "Launcher" to create a Shortcut. I couldn't help laughing when the user visibly reeled in horror when confronted by the Advanced Tab of the Launcher dialog, having recently had a similar reaction myself. (There is a longstanding bug report looking at revising the Launcher dialog.)
One notable point Calum made was about the difficulty of getting quality feedback from users and a timely reminder that any user who goes to the trouble of providing feedback is exceptional. He came out with statistic from the Mozilla Foundation claiming less than less than 10% of users ever provide any feedback. The beauty of the Gnome Guidelines has been how they empower users like me to give developers useful feedback in a way more likely to be understood and accepted.
The talk covered a wide range of other ideas and ended with the obligatory Questions and Answers session. The Q&A ended quite quickly but I got a chance to talk to Calum for quite a while later on. In Trinity you have a better chance of having a conversation about the intricacies of Constitutional Law or the History of 19th Century Irish politics than finding people who are interested to talk about Gnome so I hope Calum can understand, my slightly rabid enthusiasm and forgive the barrage of questions.
When in the presence of an expert (or simply an expert speaker) I thoroughly recommend getting them to geek out and talk in detail about their area of expertise for a while. So long as you can find an aspects you can relate to, guide the conversation a little, and know when to stop them, it is very often compelling to hear people talk about a topic they are deeply interested in. Even if it is not necessarily an interest you share you can often marvel at their enthusiasm, but maybe it is just me that enjoys seeing the obsessive aspect of my own personality reflected in others. This journal does allow me to geek out and ramble on to my hearts content about subjects of limited interest to other people like I would never get the chance to do in normal conversation and allow others to quickly read it and filter out anything that might be of interest. At least that is part of the plan.
Update: Calum has posted his usability presentation and quickly mentioned it in Calum's Wee Blog.
For better or worse my website finally uses Stylesheets. It's not much but it's a start. The aspect I am most pleased by is that users of Opera or Mozilla can choose Use Style and change switch to a red and black themed alternate stylesheet, unfortunately the stylesheet doesn't really look all that good yet. (Firefox doesn't even seem to be able to do a decent job of copying Opera but the Page Style feature has been belatedly restored in version 1.0.3.). The picture of Tweek from South Park is not an attempt to jump on the current bandwagon and has in fact been there for years.