Usually theory precedes practice. In terms of usability engineering, it was the other way around for me. Since the end of 2011 I have been working at coeno as an interaction designer and have already applied some methods that are taught in the training to become a certified usability engineer at the Fraunhofer Institute. Many of my colleagues have already completed the training and could thus pass on some of their knowledge to me. However, I lacked the understanding for the bigger picture. So it was time for me to set off for Bonn to complete the five-day training with a final exam. And of course I was curious if my practical experience would match the theory...
On Monday morning, I arrived together with 15 other participants in room 311 at the Fraunhofer Institute, where large name plates for the table, small ones to pin on, file folders with pad, ballpoint pens, highlighters and a large selection of drinks, fruit and cookies were already waiting for me. The welcome by the course instructors Britta Hofmann and Peter Hunkirchen was followed by a short introduction. Surprised, I realized that I was the only one from an agency, the only one from a small company, the only one with a designer background and also almost the only one from the entertainment industry. So while I was talking about TV UIs and smartphone apps, most of the other participants were talking about complicated work software, the intranet of large companies and medical equipment that can quickly cost lives if not handled properly. So usability took on a whole new dimension for me even before the training really started.
Get an overview
The next few hours we learned definitions, methods and process models in a quick run-through. According to ISO 9241-11, usability is the extent to which a product can be used by certain users in a certain context to perform certain tasks effectively, efficiently and satisfactorily. Part 210 of the ISO standard specifies seven dialog principles that help make a product usable. The usability process is iterative and includes an analysis of the context, derivation of requirements and usage needs, creation of the design and testing. There are different methods for measuring and testing usability, where experts can be consulted, but even better real users...
Gradually we gained an overview of the topics that were to be deepened during the week. That was quite a lot of information, but Britta and Peter conveyed it in a relaxed and varied way. Fortunately I knew a lot of things from work, so I didn't feel too exhausted in the evening. That was a good thing, because now the fireplace evening with a 3-course menu and two guest lectures by usability representatives from the practice followed.
Consolidation and practical exercises
The next few days served to deepen and practice the usability process steps we had already learned. On Tuesday, the topic of usability testing was on the agenda and we were allowed to visit the test lab of the Fraunhofer Institute and marvel at old eye-tracking devices. Then, for the first time, we rehearsed what we had already learned in practice and, based on a recorded usage test, identified critical usage situations and discussed which dialog principles had been violated. In the process, I also realized the importance of somewhat abstract-sounding dialog principles such as self-descriptiveness and conformity with expectations.
This was followed by the day with the most complicated topic, deriving requirements and usage needs from context scenarios. I was particularly curious about this, as I had already used the method in my work many times before. In fact, I understood the theory behind it very quickly and it was also much easier for me to formulate it in practice than other participants.
On Thursday the focus was on design. We listened to a presentation on information processing and perceptual psychology and then learned how moodboards, personas and affinity diagrams can be helpful in the creation of design. We also touched on the topics of typography, photography, icons, infographics and color selection. I felt strongly reminded of my studies in media design.
In a group exercise we were asked to design an alternative for an existing screen. Here, too, there were amusing parallels to group work during the study. First we got bogged down in a discussion, recorded different solutions at the same time, then noticed that time was running out and almost panickedly began to piece together the different approaches in order to be able to present a halfway understandable result at the end. Nevertheless it was a lot of fun and it was very interesting to see how different the results of the different groups were. The final conclusion was that it is almost impossible to come up with a convincing solution within an hour.
Also on this day a fireplace evening with two lectures followed, which ended early, however, because everyone was exhausted or wanted to learn a little for the exam. Friday was dedicated to exam preparation and ended early in the afternoon. So we all had a little time to study.
Test and conclusion
I found the exam on Saturday well doable. Although the duration of five hours is already very long and the amount I put down on paper made my arm cramp up, the questions focused very precisely on what we had learned. In the end, I could go home with the secure feeling that I would soon be a certified usability engineer. And even though I already knew a lot of the content from practical experience, it was certainly worthwhile to get to know the more detailed background. I was positively surprised how much what I had done so far in my everyday work life corresponded with what I had learned. So the training does not teach theories that are far removed from practice, but methods that can be used directly in everyday work.