Mark Stephens Mark has been working with Java and PDF since 1999 and is a big NetBeans fan. He enjoys speaking at conferences. He has an MA in Medieval History and a passion for reading.

User experience in Software Development evening by Software East

5 min read

UX is a relatively new field and I have not been to a Software East event before. I was keen to learn about UX and my experience is that anything involving Redgate is worth attending (Bos2011 is now booking!). So it seemed worth the trek up from Kent to Cambridge to try the event.

The evening kicked off at 6pm with food, drinks and lots of informal chat. There was a good crowd, with lots of people from Cambridge (unsurprisingly). They were from companies large and small and happy to talk to the newcomer in the room. Have your elevator pitch ready…

At 6:30pm we were ushered into the big meeting room and the event kicked off. There was even a small ‘goodie bag’ of Redgate items (you too could have a copy of the famous Redgate Red book!) and notes for the evening so we knew the background of the speakers.

Embedding Usability in Your Organization(Michele Ide-Smith)

Many people do not see County Councils as a leader in Innovation. So this was a real eyeopener. Michele is the Web Strategy Manager for Cambridge County Council. Delivering services via the Internet generally costs pennies (as opposed to pounds with phone or personal contact). With the curent spending squeeze on Councils, delivering more for less is a big issue. Perceived usefulness is the key to getting people to adopt technology, so the biggest issue is identifying their users and providing a website which meets their needs. This is where UX comes in handy.

UX started in 2006 at Cambridge with an occasional survey and is now integral to all parts of the website. It arose from user testing and seeing the frustration of users who struggled with the site.

Michele has learnt her skills from practical experience and recommended starting with a small project. There are now more books out there and she recommended Undercover User Experience Design as a good introduction.

Michele’s job requires tact as well as technical skills. Highlighting poor design or content which clutters up your site and is not used but seen internally as important requires tact and diplomacy. The Cambridge County Council website has been redesigned in the light of research on how it is used. Things like News and links to everything which were considered important internally but not used have been removed and things which were buried but heavily used such as snow reports/school closures given more prominence. The site experienced 2 massive peaks in traffic in December and January when heavy snow falls prompted parents and children to rush to the site to see if their schools were shut.

Data  for changes comes from analytics, heat maps from tools like CrazyEgg and web transactions.

UX is still a ‘work in progress’ but it is pretty impressive what they have achieved so far.

Michele also wrote a report on the evening here.

Things we learned when redesigning the Redgate website (Stephen Chambers)

Beer in hand, Stephen showed us how the Redgate site had developed over the years into a bit of a mess (reflecting the way Redgate has grown as a company and developed a whole range of products while keeping the same site). The UX team at Red Gate had been urging for a complete redesign of the website for quite some time and persistence finally paid off. When the green light was given to start the redesign, it was with the target of having the new designs completed in a mere 5 weeks. Given a large meeting room to take over and use as their base for the length of the web project, the UX team set about the redesign.

1. Don’t design only to solve the current problem. That is how the original Redgate site became such a mess.

2. Inconsistency can kill a brand/site.

3. Deal with the ‘politics’ immediately. Be open, transparent and make it clear what is happening. Let people walk in at any time and see what is going on. And make sure you have the backing of the senior management.

4. Do not even start if you do not have the resources and the support for the project.

5. Do it on paper first and keep it simple with  dummy text. As soon as you start adding content and real text, the design and usability becomes lost and people focus on the text, fonts, and stuff which do not yet matter. Balsamiq is great for quick mockups  as well.

6. Create a set of templates which allow for customisation and specific needs but preserve the consistent feel of the site.

7. If possible simplify the download process.

The new Redgate site goes for a horizontal navigation style and the next step is a version for mobile devices. It is pretty impressive what they managed to achieve in 5 weeks.

Why do I click there? How ro run 1-to-1 usability testing (Jenny Cham)

Jenny is a scientist by training and works for the European Bioinformatics Institute. She makes sure that the scientists can actually use the websites and software that her development group develops and how they can be improved. She gets to travel to some very nice locations in the UK and Europe where she gets sample users to use the software and observe what they do. The user and screen is also filmed and the mouse tracked.

1-to-1 testing involves Jenny (and often an assistant who may well be a developer) visiting a site where the software is used (such as a Hopsital, University, Institute), taking over a room for a day and getting one (or more users) to use the software. The benefits of this are:-

1. To discover unknown or unexpected problems.

2. Get video footage to provide object proof.

3. Make it easy to fix issues early.

Less obviously it also:-

4. Provides marketing and PR for the new software. It also creates lots of buzz and interest if the users feel personally involved.

5. Identifies features which are not actually needed.

6. Provides a record of progress for development.

As a result of running testing she offered the following recommendations:-

  • Testing is a negative word. Call it research.
  • Offer simple, creative incentives (a free lunch is very popular with postgrads).
  • Use named invites
  • Try to do the testing onsite and see users in their native environment
  • Schmooze the management. Tell them what you did at the end – its also a great way to maintain contacts and market your products.
  • Testing should be based on a scenario and a task
  • Get user to read the task aloud as it really helps to focus
  • Do a dry run. Then you know timings and unpleasant surprises will not occur.
  • ‘Love they user’. Make it clear they are not being tested, have the equipment setup for ease of use (and make sure you have covered left and right handed usage), get them a nice drink.
  • Super sticky notes are worth the extra money! Use a different colour for each interview and write down comments.
  • Say as little as possible and do not lead the user.
  • Avoid users with a software development background (who will try to analyse everything rather than just use the software), unless that is the specific persona you are researching. Doctors usually make very poor patients!
  • End test early if going nowhere.

Remote User Testing 101 (Rob Kerr and Neil Turner)

Rob and Neil talked about remote testing. Their slideshow unfortunately did not quite fit the display (a clear vindication they pointed out about the importance of testing!) but they did a great job of improvising around it.

Face to face testing is great but not always viable due to cost, distance, time. So Remote user testing is about bringing testing to the user.

There are 2 types – moderated and unmoderated testing. Moderated testing is where the user is observed remotely and in contact with the user. It offers some of the advantages of  1 to 1 testing but not the non-visual communications you get from being with the user.

Some suggestions for this type of testing are:-

  • Run a small piot first.
  • Tell people exactly what they will need beforehand.
  • Ensure they are briefed so they understand what they are doing and why.
  • Post some test questions.

Unmoderated testing involves letting the user use software such as loop11 to complete a test without any intervention of observation (you are able to review all that they did afterwards).

A ‘volunteer’ was selected from the audience to take a test which involved using yahoo to find the rating of a film. The software tracked everything she did and allowed her to comment afterwards.

Unmoderated testing needs a specific task and often tells you what happens but not why.

But it is very easy to setup and you can even use it to evaluate your competitors!


The evening was free, entertaining, full of practical advice, free food/drink and a great chance to meet people. And you get to sneak in and see Redgates offices… If you have not been before and live within 2 hours of Cambridge, you should check out the website as there are some really great events coming up.  Anyone need a lift from north Kent???

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Mark Stephens Mark has been working with Java and PDF since 1999 and is a big NetBeans fan. He enjoys speaking at conferences. He has an MA in Medieval History and a passion for reading.

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