Usability design methods in my Masters project

This Microsoft-sponsored Masters project sought to explore a solution for some of the educational challenges experienced by a tertiary institution in developing world countries. These challenges were the high cost of bandwidth for Internet access and lack of money for building new computer labs resulting in overcrowded labs and fewer learners gaining access to information. The solution explored was one which would provide a reliable means of accessing time specific tasks for students through the use of existing technologies. Several Usability design methods were used to achieve this goal and I discuss them in this post.

My role: User Experience research student


The University of Cape Town was used as a study case and technologies explored were the Snap and Grab board and mobile phones. The Snap and Grab board is a public display that is connected to a computer which stores various media packages. Through the use of a mobile phone, users can freely exchange information with the board via Bluetooth. This project looked at how the board could be used as an educational application by redesign and integrating it with a university’s learning management system. The final system serves as an interactive alternative to current methods of accessing educational material.


The main research objectives of the study were:

• To support student activities by adding mobile access to VULA through the use of the Snap and Grab board.
• To find out how the students will respond and appropriate this new paradigm of interaction.

Building on the work of PHD student Andrew Maunder, the project looked at how we could redesign the system as a whole for an educational context. Andrew had developed a system that transfers generis data via bluetooth and a solution was being sort after that would enable it to be more relevant to an educational context.

The original Snap and Grab board and Andrew Maunder
Stemming from the project’s first aim, students’ daily activities had to be supported by the system. By using a user-centered approach I conducted Contextual interviews to elicit students’ habits and what they accessed on the system. Everything was carefully noted down and mapped onto the final system. From the evaluation it was noted that students used the information they got in their daily activities. They used it to plan for assignment deadlines and test dates, shared it with friends and kept up-to-date with their courses. Most students kept the downloaded files on the phone and did not delete them. This enabled them to review the information anytime. Furthermore, students felt comfortable enough with the information to share it with friends.

Over the course of two years different methodologies were used in the development of system the students would find useful. These displays were put on campus for students for actual use during the semester with real data for two weeks with successful results.


The first project aim focused on adding mobile access to the VULA learning management system by identifying information that would be suitable for the Snap and Grab board and mobile use.

The use of interaction design facilitated engaging user experiences, by using knowledge of how people act and react to certain events in various contexts. The use of a rapid development approach alongside interaction design was necessary to reduce development time, given the project timeframe of over two years. Changes could then be easily implemented as the project progressed.

Contextual interviews proved extremely useful in gaining understanding of how students currently work in the educational context. Students were observed whilst performing tasks they do on a daily basis in order to pick up on problems, design ideas and insights. Coupled with questionnaires, the project was able to confirm observations and findings from the Contextual contextual interviews. This also provided the project with clear and concise system requirements which took into account the user, the user’s tasks and the environment.

User-centered design ensured that the prototype incorporated user affordances specific to the educational context. Interviews with the VULA administrator and the Snap and Grab board designer were very helpful to understand how each system works and how they could be integrated. A pragmatic approach proved ideal in the redesigning of the Snap and Grab board from being a generic information exchange application to be one which caters from educational tasks in an educational context. In order to test out design ideas prototyping was used to iterate through several designs rapidly and redesigning of the Snap and Grab board. Card sorting with users was used to define layout of content and system as a whole. A bigger heuristic evaluation group than 3 three could have been used, to pick up on usability problems and to enable more users to be co-designers of the final system. However , more experts were not available this number was sufficient in identifying most of the issues.

card sorting

Card sorting grouping
The second aim was to gain insights into the students’ response to the final display system and its novel interaction. From observing the participants using the interactive prototype, users responded positively to their experience and users were sufficiently interested to ask questions from other users about the system. All participants were enthusiastic about using the system and had a general idea about its purpose. For some, it was only after receiving the educational media from the board, that they realized that up-to-date course information from VULA had been transferred to their mobile phone using Bluetooth.

Interviews were the most insightful in gaining an understanding of the users’ experience in their own words. Most of the participants’ motivation for using the system was its convenience. The information is free, no typing is required and the system is fast. Participants loved the novel aspect of interacting with a public display system and only had reservations about the board’s location and the types of phones it could support. From the data logs, the novelty of the system seemed to last for the first week and thereafter evened out over the remainder of the evaluation period.

Lessons learnt:

Computing applications should always start with a thorough understanding of how people behave in their natural setting, how they perform tasks and how these behaviors are influenced by technology. Learners’ needs and requirements had to be addressed in the design of the interactive prototype.

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