The following blog post is written by Johnathan Porton.
[somehow this post slipped through the cracks before we launched but it demonstrates the lengths we went to engaging users throughout the project so I wanted to share it – Matt]
One of our biggest regrets during the Alpha was not engaging more with users outside of our usual areas of London and Newport. We did lots of online testing involving users from all over the UK, but nothing that actual involved physically sitting with them in their home towns or cities.
To address this during the Beta we decided to get out there and meet as many users, in as many locations as we possibly could. We wanted to ensure a good mix of users from all of our persona types.
As a team of 2 (moderator and observer) we clocked up over 3000 miles going to Exeter, Coventry, Manchester, Newcastle plus our usual sessions in London and Newport. This, on top of the research already carried out earlier in the beta in Bournemouth, Cambridge, Swindon and Winchester.
One of the biggest challenges was finding suitable venues, therefore we had to be extremely flexible in our approach, with sessions ranging from formal lab based usability testing to very informal guerrilla style testing in their offices. Quite often participants we’d lined up for formal usability sessions would ask to bring along colleagues so the sessions would become a group based activity. That was fine by us. It’s not often you get to go to all these places so everyone was welcome.
During the sessions we tested the website and a variety of prototypes. Along with the usual task based activities we gave ourselves 10-20 mins at the end of a session to explore something particularly important to the user. If they were concerned about search then we’d get them to search for things dear to them. If they were interested in local data then we’d show them our local prototype. Interested in methodology? We had a prototype for that too! One thing we did want to keep constant was the key paths through the website. We tested them consistently throughout the Alpha, and the Beta was no exception.
We set ourselves the goal of performing some kind of usability testing activity every week during the beta. The difficulty in that is when you’re away for most of a week it becomes very difficult to sustain that. In the end we decided to supplement the trips with a series of online studies, ranging from quite in-depth task based studies to 5 minute preference tests. It became fairly common for us to have at least two activities running online (one simple, one more complex) during the week before testing. Possibly the only upside to 8 hours on a train is you have plenty of time for the write-ups.
In the end it was a hugely rewarding experience. We got to meet some great people and discovered a surprisingly vast array of different uses for ONS data. We uncovered a raft of improvements we could make to the website and a backlog of even more for after we launch.
The great thing about ONS users is their unrelenting willingness to help us improve the ONS website. Of course it’s often in their best interests to help us, but it’s still staggeringly generous of them. Honestly, no amount of Toblerones can ever really be enough of a thank you.