Photo by Liz Danzico

The AIGA is currently in the throes of a major web site redesign. Liz Danzico, the AIGA’s Experience Strategy Director, invited me and about 7 other design industry types to attend a card-sorting exercise to help their design team understand how the AIGA’s users think about the types of content and features the AIGA will have on the site.

It was a great experience for me to be able to see things from the other side of the user test microscope. Although I understand the hows and whys of conducting user testing, I still learned a few things about what test subjects go through, lessons that will doubtlessly be valuable to me later on.

For example, although I didn’t feel any pressure to say certain things to please the testers (a common problem that can poison a test subject’s ability to provide good feedback), I did have a strong inclination to try to pretend to be somebody I was not, to pretend to not know things I already knew, and to try to put myself in the shoes of someone else in order to provide what I thought would be more useful ideas (this is incredibly ironic, given the fact that in the post immediately prior to this one I wrote at length about how criticism shouldn’t originate from what we imagine other people would think, but only from what we can think and observe ourselves).

I absolutely recommend that all usability consultants try to get themselves into a test situation to feel what it’s like to be the lab rat for a change. At the end, we even got some cheese (cream cheese, with bagels).


15 responses to “The View From the Other Side of the Microscope”

  1. I’d like to put in a really geeky request for more detail about the card-sorting methodology.

  2. OMG that is GREAT! When we started our redesign (second time round – remember we did 8 redesigns in two years) we did a card sorting game to see what was important.

    While I am 100% CERTAIN that your card sorting was done in a more professional manner than our ad hoc method, I can lay out for you guys and gals how we did it.

    Firstly, it was based on an article our programmer read in some geeky magazine that promised a much closer relationship between programmer, designer, and end user. (this in reality did not occur).

    Secondly… and well here is how it worked:

    1. the dream team (those that dreamt up the concept) put together a list of “things” we wanted on the site (like database or internal shopping cart or CMS etc.)

    2. we then put the cards in order of importance and priority (do we REALLY REALLY need this? or that?)

    3. then gave it to our inhouse programmer who turned around and said “are you kidding me? this will take 1.5 years to do” yes he did say that. then i strangled him and somehow we figured out that 3 months was more reasonable. (i have very very much summarised what happened – the strangling was a much bigger part of the process).

    would we do it again? (only the strangling part).

  3. Hey Chris, I have been meaning to congratulate you on what I consider a truly wonderful site. And what makes it wonderful is your thought provoking posts. Thanks for taking the time to make this live.

    🙂 Fancy Nancy

  4. Nancy: Gosh, thanks! You’re my favorite commenter!

    Elliott: Sure. Basically we were in two groups of four participants. Each group was given a stack of about 50 cards corresponding to different content and features that obviously were parts of the AIGA site. We were first asked to group the cards into sorted piles, and to discuss aloud why we made the decisions we were making. Any card which we found hard to understand we were asked to label with a red sticker. This took about ten minutes, and there were about four AIGA team observers floating around and taking copious notes. The next phase was for each team to write topic titles on blank cards and use them to label the groups we made in the first round. This took about five minutes. For the third phase, we were given a stack of cards with questions/goals written on them (like “How do I renew my membership” or “I want to see something inspirational”). We were to associate these questions with the stacks we’d built. During all these stages we were given subtle hints that bending the rules a little was okay, that we could re-adjust our stacks if we wanted to. At the end, each group spent ten minutes presenting and discussing what they did and why. Then we ate food and engaged in chit chat.

  5. Hopefully not TOO off-topic …

    I hope AIGA has changed a bit in recent years — I used to go to AIGA meetings here in Chicago, and had one hell of a time not only meeting people (it was very cliquey here, even if you walked up and initiated the conversation) but also just reading name tags. My problem with AIGA is that it’s always been SO design-centric that its materials, nametags, and so on are often illegibly overdesigned. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the pieces I received, honestly – my taste aside, it was just hard to read what I needed to know.

    I know I’m nitpicking, and, judging from the number of people in the meetings to which I went, I’m certainly in the minority. But I finally gave up on joining — I couldn’t find anyone to talk to me and I didn’t agree with the design decisions made for the promotional materials. It reminded me of what I’ve been told by friends about architectural organizations — a bit snooty, and fairly resistant to new folks. Less of a professional organization, and more of a treehouse club, except with funny glasses.

    A quick perusal of their current site seems to me to better than it used to be. So I’ll give it another shot or two. But I hope the web redesign team is less entrenched in the aura of AIGA and more interested in getting the word out.

  6. I don’t know how long ago you were attending, but the AIGA is hardly so cliquey from my experience with them. In fact, they are pretty humble about trying to bring new designers into the fold (as I imagine this user-focused test might show). Nobody is high off any “aura” that I know of, at least not unreasonably so.

    In particular, I know some people who are fairly active in the Chicago chapter and they’re super cool and nice folks.

    The design materials might still not be your style, but that’s the thing about the AIGA: they showcase a lot of stuff.

  7. That’s great – I’ll give them another try. It was quite a few years ago now, and I may have just gotten a bum meeting.

    As for the design materials, you’re absolutely right – I think I was in a bit of a mood when I posted that. But I do still think that function should preceed form, and while the materials I was getting from them were quite attractive, the information they were meant to convey was lost in the form, so to speak. Very consistently, at that time.

    But again, I’ll give it a shot again – I’ve been freelancing for ten years and I seem to spend entirely too much time without anyone of like persuasion to talk to!


  8. OK, the new AIGA site is live now (July 2006), right? Because it’s a classic Failed Redesign. They had that lovely AIGA Austin site to use as a model instead, and didn’t.

  9. Joe: Maybe you shouldn’t be so quick to condemn. The currently-live design is over two years old.

  10. Joe, your innumerable condemnations of web designers (as “incompetent”, “underschooled”, producers of “shite”, and more) on your site ignores the possibility that the designers of these sites may not be responsible for the actual coding of the sites. Many content management systems simply cannot output table-less or standards-compliant HTML, and these are usually chosen by tech people, not designers. Many designers work for companies whose client-side code is done by non-designers as a corporate policy/decision. In short, you are blaming designers for problems that are in many cases beyond the designer’s control.

    Again, your condemnations may not be aimed at the right people. In fact, I would argue that by far the biggest barrier to web standards adoption is not designers at all, but the IT departments of the world who took 10 years to learn HTML and are now pissed off that they have to re-learn it.

  11. I almost always condemn the developers, not the designers. Developers of lousy sites are, in fact, the right people to condemn.

    As I explained on the W3C Quality Assurance blog, we’ve tried being nice and we’ve tried burning through billable hours publishing free or low-cost materials. Sometimes the wasp (lower case sic) must sting.

    We are all of course aware of what happens when perfect templates get screwed up by the client. I recently linked to such an example. Where there are other examples, developers can contact me directly.

    Now, I wouldn’t have put the main AIGA site on my Failed Redesign Watch™ if I didn’t believe it had been redesigned. I recall seeing a posting on that site. I stand to be corrected on that. Perhaps someone *from* AIGA could write me.

    Those of you who always want to look on the bright side of life will be pleased to note my Not Failed Redesigns column, which will be expanded to include the growing list of former Failed edesigns that *re*redesigned– correctly.

  12. Am I the “AIGA pseudoblog”?

  13. You aren’t pseudoanything, Christopher.

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