World Usability Day New England 2007

Yesterday was World Usability Day New England 2007, hosted at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH. Here are some random notes and thoughts from my day.


Ben Shneiderman gave the keynote, titled "The New Science of Universal Usability," which was a bit over my head. He talked a lot about "Science 2.0," the ways that the old scientific method does not directly translate to the world of usability testing. Ben also had some interesting demonstrations, including a visual representation of the stock market and a US map that represented population and other statistics aurally.

Universal Usability of Dynamic Content

I opted for the Web Usability track, not having much immediate use for Teaching and Learning. The first session, Universal Usability of Dynamic Content, was led by Marguerite Bergel and Ann Chadwick-Dias of Fidelity Investments. Some of their points:

  • Challenges of incorporating usability and accessabilty into their corporate site, which incorporates many new technologies like Flash, Flex, and Ajax.
  • Examples of usability problems found during testing, including a user who relied on screen magnification. Ajax dynamically updated the page he was viewing, but he could only see a few inches of the screen at any one time and the update was lost on him. Even fully-sighted users missed out on this update at times.
  • Emphasis on document structure, especially headings. Helps JAWS users navigate the page.

I also took the opportunity to ask about "hidden" text elements which are only given to screen readers. They use CSS styles top and left to move the elements far off the screen for normal browsers, as JAWS 8 (their reference screen reader) obeys display: none ! important.

Adaptive Design for Web Environments

This session was run by Sarah Horton of Dartmouth College and Patrick Lynch of Yale University. They presented independently but had great things to say; unfortunately, Patrick was limited to about 15 minutes of podium time. Some of Sarah's points:

  • Designing in a way that enables all citizens to succeed.
  • "Universal design" approach, not creating a mobile page and a print page and a visual page and so on. Attempt to provide identical interfaces, use equivalent interfaces as your backup. (The "One Web" idea.)
  • Sarah gave several examples of using Opera to show headings, a structured view, etc.

And Patrick's:

  • Google's suggestions for SEO are very similar to W3C's suggestions for accessibility. Use SEO as a way to make your pages better for everyone.
  • Strive for 5-9% keyword repetition rate. Too high makes it look like you're trying to play the system.
  • Shorter titles are good. Use your keywords, but don't overload them. Be cognizant of how that title will show up in a bookmark.
  • Prefer dashes over underscores for URLs, helps with readability. Directory names count, too.

User Role in Web (Re)Design

This topic hit closest to home, as our company's site redesign is in its initial stages. Sarah Bordac and Jean Rainwater of Brown University talked about their redesign of the university library's site. Their redesign was user-centered, a fast track project iteratively building the website based on continual user feedback. A conscious effort was made to avoid being bogged down by politics: the redesign team was comprised of Sarah, Jean, a programmer, and a designer.

Recorded interviews, including screen captures, played a part in analyzing usability. They tried a variety of interfaces throughout the project, making small tweaks and finding out which versions worked best. (ie. Playing with the search box to find out what worked and what didn't.) Avoiding emotional attachment to your page elements lets you find the ones that work best for your users.


I'm glad I took the time to attend this conference. While many of those in attendance were from academia (63 of the 73 attendees, by my count), the lessons were applicable to anyone designing for usability and accessibility. My regret is that the speakers didn't have more time to talk. All the topics were extremely interesting, but nearly every presenter I saw had to cut herself short and skip many of her slides. One hour was allotted to the demonstrations, only one of which I saw from start to finish. (I caught the very end of Universal Design & Usability Lab.) By the time Patrick Lynch got to the podium, he had only ten minutes left on the clock. Rushed, indeed.

So, a positive experience for my first real conference, though I wish it had lasted longer. See you at Landmark College in '08.