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Students are in the Driver’s Seat for Usability Project

Posted May. 21, 2010

 

By Dawn Burngasser

For the Usability II class taught last spring by David Robins, Ph.D., associate professor in the IAKM program in the School of Library and Information Science, student projects went beyond the classroom and into the driver's seat – literally.

Two students in the information architecture and knowledge management graduate program, David Cunningham and Christopher Thomas, tested the usability of a touch-screen stereo in a 2010 Volkswagen CC model.

When Cunningham and Thomas began discussing their interest in testing automobile controls, they decided to take the project a step further by using an actual car for the test.

"We thought about building a replica of the stereo's interface, screen by screen, so we could use our lab," Cunningham said, "but using the stereo inside a car would be more realistic."

SLIS has its own usability lab, a combination of non-portable hardware and software, similar to one that a company would use for testing new interfaces. However, using the lab to test a vehicle interface would be difficult at best.

Getting the car was not difficult, Cunningham and Thomas explained. Even though a few dealerships said no, they eventually were able to borrow a test vehicle from Dave Walter Volkswagen in Akron. Learning how to use the radio was no problem either.

"The sales associate at Dave Walter Volkswagen spent an hour and a half showing us the touch-screen stereo," Thomas said. "By the time we were finished, the dealership was closed and everyone else had left for the night."

"The problem is you can't take the lab on the road," Cunningham said.

Needing a way to capture user interactions with the stereo, they decided to use a video camera instead.

"We were lucky that we were able to borrow the car for a day and that the camera fit perfectly in the back seat" Cunningham said.

Cunningham and Thomas recruited 10 participants who had some experience using touch-screens, but none had ever used a touch-screen car stereo. To create a realistic experience, the participants sat in the driver's seat while cars drove by on a busy nearby road. To ensure the safety of the vehicle and everyone in it, the car was parked during the tests.

Participants were asked to perform a series of tasks and given instructions when needed. Examples of tasks included turning the radio on and off, changing and setting channels, inserting and playing CDs using the six-disc CD changer and using the satellite radio feature. The purpose of the test was to determine if the system was easy to learn and use while discovering how the interface can be improved.

The student researchers shared their findings with Dave Walker Volkswagen in the hopes that the dealership will pass the information along to the manufacturer. Typically, these kinds of tests do not result in immediate changes due to time and expense. However, by the time the next generation of the device is produced, such findings can prove invaluable in creating a better product.

"As an IAKM student, it's helpful to know that tests can be run outside the lab," Thomas said of their creative project.

"While it's one thing to do testing, trying something different says a lot about your initiative," Cunningham added.

Both students agree that they will apply what they've learned in the User-Experience Design program to their future careers.

Other class projects included the prototype for a touch-screen drive-thru menu, improved car wash and photocopier interfaces and a phone application to help people find local pubs serving specific types of beer.

"While websites and web applications remain a strong focus of study in the User Experience Design (UXD) concentration in IAKM, students are being encouraged to explore experiences people have with everyday objects in everyday life," Robins said. "One of the core philosophies of UXD in IAKM is that the world can be made a much better place to live if we can improve peoples' interactions with commonly used objects."