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Office Visits

The central idea of contextual methods is to get out of your office and interact with users in their offices. Not only does this give you better data on which to base your design decisions, it costs less. Building a half-million-dollar usability research facility may get you written up in the trade rags and may signal the marketplace that, by golly, your company is truly committed to better user interfaces and to client-centered design, but hopping into your car with a notebook and a tape recorder may lead to better software.

On the down side, most people do not particularly cotton to having someone looking over their shoulders as they try to do their jobs. And, being watched changes how they do it. When an interface designer or usability investigator sits at the user's elbow taking notes, an interaction is set up that changes what the user does. The designer gives the user unconscious cues: a sudden intake of breath, a quick scribble on the pad, a quiet “ah” or “hmmm,” leaning back or leaning forward, shifting in the chair restlessly. In myriad ways subtle messages are communicated about what the user is doing or ought to be doing instead of the incredibly stupid moves being made. The temptations to “help” are great, and typical developers just love to step in and take over when someone else is making less than optimal use of “their” software. Untrained or inexperienced investigators often make even more blatant interventions. (“Here, let me show you an easier way.” “Ah, just click there.” “No, not quite.”)


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