Usability Tools 101

I had a great visit this week with a professor here at Rice, Phil Kortum. He was an industry Human Factors guy for a long time before becoming a professor, and is just a kind, amazing, and smart guy. I hung out for a bit in his Human Factors lab, and learned that usability doesn’t have to be as rigid as I sometimes think!

For instance, many times I feel that I need two people to administer the testing. This was before I started using screen capture software (more on that in a minute) so maybe I did! But, with screen capturing software you really only need one person, and to hear Professor Kortum, maybe you don’t even need that one person most of the time! He says that usually he starts his subject on task, and has the phone there if they need to call him on something. He is in the next room, and pops over if needed. Or maybe he stays in the room, but he busies himself with some task himself, and I am sure the subjects forget about him, or don’t want to “interrupt” him. He really relies on the technology to capture what he needs to know about what his subjects are doing, and really depends on watching them do what they do, rather than listening to anything that they may TELL him about what they do. This is really going to impact how I do usability going forward. I’m taking his class in the Fall, too, so can’t wait for that!

We talked about usability software, and I thought for sure that he was going to say Morae was the top of the line–I fantasize about being able to afford it for my library testing–but it wasn’t at the top of his list. His top is Noldus, which is unbelievably expensive I am sure! Morae was his second, but he knows about and seems to approve of lesser free tools, like BB Flashback. I was relieved by this, as I will be using BB Flashback  for my next study. It is free, easy to download, and works on a PC. We didn’t talk about the other tool that I have been looking at Silverback, which is currently priced at around $70.00 and works on a Mac. You can download a free 30 day trial.

Silverback allows you to watch sessions, with a little box of the user present, and to set tasks and mark noteworthy moments within a session. This is useful for sharing out in stakeholder meetings. Their selling blurb is “Silverback makes it easy, quick and cheap for everyone to perform guerrilla usability tests with no setup and no expense, using hardware already in your Mac.

BB FlashBack Express Free Edition bills itself as  an easy-to-use free screen recorder that creates compact, high quality movies for tutorials, demos and presentations. This is perfect for usability too! It records the screen, sound and web-cam activity.  You save the movies as AVI or Flash. You get a perfect capture of your Windows desktop with minimal impact on PC performance, even on low powered PCs.

I am really grateful to have experts like Dr. Kortum around, and I am super-grateful to have cheap or free usability tools around now too!


About effervescentlibrarian

UX Librarian at Rice University, Houston, Texas.
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