Usability and Analytics

Usability is a qualitative research method and a user-centered design principle with its roots in human factors. Website analytics provide statistical and quantitative analysis of website traffic. When used together, these two methods for improving digital products compliment and inform each other—analytics can provide the “what” and usability can answer the “why.”

Usability

In the early days of mainframe computer systems, there was a focus was on improving efficiency in how people (usually employees of a company) used those systems. Many disciplines such as Computer Science, Psychology, and Technical Communication began collaborating on what was soon called “human computer interaction” or later just “human factors.” The chief problem in large computer systems was that people didn’t know how to use them, or used them inefficiently. In an effort to design better computer systems, a new user-centered design methodology emerged with its focus on the user instead of the system.

Technical communicators, at the forefront of this emerging methodology, used their background in rhetoric and audience analysis to create what is now known as user and task analysis. This process of starting with users, figuring out who they are and what they are trying to accomplish with computer system became the basis for how user-centered products, documents as well as interactive experiences would be created and then evaluated. User and task analysis is now a primary process for any serious web professional. It is an incredibly practical, rhetorical question (no pun intended): who are your users and what are their tasks?

The focus on who users are and what they are trying to accomplish not only informs how a product is created, but that very same analysis is also used to evaluate the product. This is usability testing and research. The process of doing usability testing also has roots in psychology: the observation of actual, representative users performing representative tasks is a key part to the evaluation.

I began studying and conducting my own usability tests before I began the Master of Arts in Technical Writing program. The topic has appeared as lessons in multiple classes and a usability textbook was even assigned. Over the past decade I’ve performed dozens of usability tests, especially on ualr.edu. I’ve given presentations on the topic to classes and at conferences; I’ve also attended professional development workshops by Jakob Nielsen, one of the major proponents of the field.

Usability Research, Bibliography, and Presentation

These are materials I produced in a special topics class on Teaching Technical Communication. The presentation was meant to be the basis for an introductory talk about usability to junior- or senior-level writing students. Prior to creating the presentation I wrote an annotated bibliography of sources relevant to usability and technical writing.

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Analytics

In April of 2005, Google acquired Urchin, a popular albeit expensive software used to analyze website server logs in order to provide insight to marketers about website traffic. In August of 2006 Google was released, free, to the public after a long invite-only period. One year later, after becoming Web Services Coordinator for UALR, I decided to use this free service to start tracking as much traffic on university websites as I could.  Today, Google Analytics is invaluable to me as a web professional.  While originally (and primarily) used in website marketing and optimization for e-commerce, Google Analytics tells me more about audience, technology, and interaction than I knew to ask.  I have used it to conduct better usability studies by knowing more about how my audiences actually use the website.

Google Analytics for Higher Education

In 2010, higher education web professional like me and my counterparts at UALR as well as other universities across Arkansas started a regional conference (first called Arkansas High Ed Web Conference or AHEWC but now High Ed Web Arkansas or HEWEBAR) with the encouragement and support from the national Higher Education Web Professionals Association (HighEdWeb). I presented a half-day workshop on how web administrators like me could best utilize data from Google Analytics to make decisions to improve user experience. I also presented a 45-minute general presentation which was voted best-of-conference.

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