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Observing a Usability Test at Kayak.com

Posted by hsiung on March 20, 2008

On Monday 3/17, Darius & Bob had the privilege of attending a Kayak.com usability session. Paul English, one of the founders of Kayak.com, is both a usability evangelist/guru and a huge PIH supporter. Since we are actively working on redesigning the OpenMRS user interface, he generously invited us to take an inside peek at how they conduct their usability tests there.

The set up was pretty simple. The test user was given a set of tasks to perform and was instructed to talk through his thought process aloud as he tried to perform the tasks. We sat in an adjacent room with 4-5 Kayak employees watching a projected copy of his monitor and listening to him talk.

It was pretty fascinating – especially with Paul (what is it with guys named Paul?) sitting there adding his insights. Obviously an airline ticket/hotel search application is very different from an open source medical records system, but there are definitely basic principles that hold true for both applications. Principles like – “Faster is better.”, “Not making people think is good.”… Not exactly rocket science, for sure, but it was eye-opening to watch an actual user make assumptions and mull over interfaces that everyone assumed were completely intuitive.

Here’s just one small example from this test. People in the room were shaking there heads when this particular user expressed surprise that a certain fare was more expensive than he thought it should be. “It’s a first class ticket! It says ‘1st’ right there!” someone said.

“Well… why isn’t he seeing it? Maybe that indicator should be right next to the price rather than on the side (everyone slaps their foreheads), maybe it should say ‘first class ticket’ rather than just ‘1st’ (more forehead slaps) Or maybe he really needs to be told explicitly that there are no available economy class tickets for this route. (doh!)”

“Actually, we really should continue to focus on the test & not talk about potential solutions at this point,” Paul said to us quietly. “The really important thing is that we’ve identified a problem that this user is having and if he’s having it, you can bet that there are a whole lot of other users out there having the same sort of problems.

Our attention to usability has given us a lot of success, but we can’t afford to let that make us arrogant. We have to stay humble. We will always have a lot to learn from our users to help us to continue to improve their user experience. This is why these tests are essential.”

(For more on the progress of the OpenMRS redesign, check out the OpenMRS wiki – http://openmrs.org/wiki/WorkingGroup/EndUserInterface)

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