Reactome: usability testing was worth the effort

ReactomeEach week, on a Thursday morning, staff from the EBI and the Sanger Institute attend a meeting called the Human Sequencing Forum (HSF). It is an opportunity for different project teams to talk about their work and research in relation to the sequencing of the human genome.

There were two talks today, the second of which asked the question “Usability testing – was it useful?“. This was presented by my colleague, Steve Jupe, who is a developer for the Reactome project. He came to me a few months ago to ask for some tips on how to run usability testing sessions, and I was only too happy to help. Like my colleague, Jenny Cham, I just don’t have the flexibility to help out directly on every project that comes up, and as soon as I arrived at the EBI, I could see that a distributed model of applying UX design concepts was the only feasible way to go.

So to have a developer tell me that they want to do their own testing was great; the ideas are getting out there!

Steve Jupe’s presentation from June 16, 2011

The summary of Steve’s presentation (slides below) was that yes, it was useful. There were surprises, and assumptions were shaken. Clear issues floated to the surface very quickly, and they have already been able to go back and improve some of the features of their site as a result. Knowing where (and where not) to focus their efforts has been a valuable outcome of the testing.

But see for yourself…

Usability testing 101

Along with his colleague, Bijay Jassal, Steve and I ran through the basics of running discount, qualitative usability testing. They wanted to target early-career biologists who didn’t have a lot of experience of working with tools like Reactome (which is a curated knowledgebase of biological pathways in humans), so I helped think about creating relevant scenarios and tasks; how to arrange sessions; how to facilitate those sessions and involve observers, and so on. I actually pointed them towards Steve Krug’s rather fine “Rocket Surgery Made Easy“, because that’s got it all in one place!

Initially, the guys recruited participants from the Sanger Institute, an excellent source of potential participants, and right next door! Jenny was able to help here, having recruited usability testing participants from Sanger before. Steve and Bijay also tested their website with PhD students and postdocs from the Dept of Genetics in Cambridge, and from a university in Ontario.

I sat in on the testing sessions in Cambridge, to help Steve and Bijay hone their technique a bit. In fact, both guys were really good at setting participants at ease, and then guiding them through the scenarios and tasks. They are developers on this project, too, and they were getting direct feedback on their work. It all went really well.

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