Usability as ethnography

I just read Peter Merholz’s now-ancient post on getting out of the lab and into the real world when doing usability testing.

One example he cites:

What we did, however, was field research. We went into 12 homes, and saw how people currently managed their stuff. And, believe me, it’s messy and complex. One participant used: a church address book, a week-at-a-glance, a Palm-style PDA, a simple address-storing-PDA, and an Access database to manage this task. Had we brought her in to test our prototype, we could have found out all kinds of stuff about how she used this prototype in isolation and away from her tools. But we would have learned nothing about how this tool could possibly have integrated itself into his complex web.

Wow. This makes me sit up and pay attention.

I’ve done some testing in a usability lab. It was a powerful experience to see people using applications that you’ve built, and breaking them, and breaking them in entirely unexpected ways.

But I can see that leaving people in their natural environment would be far, far better.

(Interestingly, Peter’s talking about using Bolt Peters’ relatively new Ethnio app for doing the in situ testing. I had contacted Bolt Peters for a usability testing job, but we hadn’t been able to make the schedules work together, so I eventually went with a different firm.)

The closer you get to people in their own … errr … habitats, the better you can understand how and why they are doing what they’re doing. And, therefore, the better you can design your product/service to meet those need and actually fit in their lives.

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Incidentally, Peter says he’s in Vancouver right now for a conference and visit, and to email him if any regular readers of his blog want to meet up. I can’t find your email address, Peter, but if you see the trackback I’m sending, consider this an offer to get together for a coffee or something. My email is accessible on my resume.