Posts by Paul Mirocha

Personas: Student Life website

Content Strategy Recommendations

Introduction

Research has shown that the non-academic aspects of student life play a huge role in attracting a prospective student, encouraging them to enroll, maintaining a satisfying experience while a student, and loyalty after graduation. The purpose of the Student Life section of the Kent State University website is to support students’ needs and desires outside of class. The Student Life and Campus Safety sections of the site are currently not well organized: a patchwork of links, images, and sections that could do a better job of  meeting site visitors’ expectations. 

Visitor Personas

We identified the four top-priority audiences for this section of the site: 

  • new undergraduate students
  • Parents of students
  • Current on-campus undergraduates
  • Online graduate students

Based on observation and research, we found that these audiences had many needs and goals in common. We created a persona for each of these groups that summarized these desires. The following is a summary of the kinds of content that would resonate with these people.

Graduate students
To an older graduate student, balancing work, family, and school assignments seems impossible sometimes. They will tolerate a lot of this stress because of the perceived benefit to their career when they graduate.
Current undergraduates
Undergraduates are focused on making the most of their education so they have good job prospects when they graduate. While they are busy, they want to be comfortable and enjoy their time in school. Time to relax with friends between studying is important. 
Parents of prospective students
Parents of students are very busy with their own lives, yet want to take on a lot of the burden of college research and applications. They worry about helping their child make the right choices. 
Prospective undergraduate students
These are young people in high school or who have recently graduated. They are still living at home, about to live on their own for the first time. They want to be independent, but feel insecure about that, and want someone to lay out the options for them. Typically, they have a lot to think about and their attention spans are short. They want to enjoy their 4 years and are more likely to trust college social media channels than promotional text on the site.

University Business goals

Kent State Student Life program staff feel over worked and short of time. The technical side of managing the CMS is more time-consuming than it should be. They also are not necessarily writers or editors. They have very little time to actually post and manage content—most of their day is spent managing the student programs.

Needs

  • Connect students with clubs and student organizations across different sub sites
  • Communicate commitment to safety
  • Support, communication,  and training from the IT department
  • A simple to use CMS that they are familiar with, no changes
  • Knowing what content is most popular, and highlighting it
  • Having a regular schedule for new content, a content management policy 
  • Page profiles or templates for safety alerts and a way to post them as timely notifications
  • Know how to implement accessibility
  • Integration with other sections of the KSU web site

Recommendations

  • Information organization. Students and parents both are busy and trying to multitask, but for different reasons. They should be treated as if they have attention deficits. Many of the students actually do suffer from ADHD and are sensitive to information overload. Home page layouts should be minimalist and have a simple, uncluttered feel. Highlight priority items without distractions from secondary items. 
  • Safety alerts. Students and parents are very concerned about security. Web editors should have discussions with IT about how to post timely and regular safety updates to the site.
  • Content silos. Editors should be able to populate content across different sections of the larger site. Technology should make this simpler, not more complex.
  • Content calendar. Make it clear where content is coming from and when. There could be regular schedules for each type of content to be posted so a program manager knows what to expect.
  • Analytics. Content editors should have access to analytics so they know what pages are most popular, and get feedback so they know how to make important business content more visible. 
Project produced  while a student project at Kent State University UXD program. 
The Persona Experience Framework is by Brand Therapy. 

User research: online reading behaviors for a literary magazine

How do people read online?

Project metadata
Project title User research for terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environment.
Project tagline Improving engaged reading online through design
Project summary Usability interviews and a heuristic review
Company/client name Publisher, Terrain.org
Project dates/time frame January-April 2016
My major responsibilities In -person user interviews in context, literature review on readability
Platforms Web
Tools used
Key performance metrics Increased readership, time on page, more donations
Team UX team of one
Link to final project Terrain.org

As a writer, you fight a war against indifference. You have to force people to care enough to click through to your story. You have to convince them to take a chance on you…
—Quincy Larson, Free Code Camp

Project summary

Terrain.org is an online literary magazine that publishes high quality essays, poetry, and creative nonfiction about the natural and urban environments. This project aimed at increasing readership,  encouraging more engaged reading of longer essays, and maybe there by increasing donations. I conducted usability interviews, and an expert review with four other designers. My role was user researcher. I interviewed people in person and interpreted the results. In collaboration with the publisher and site owner.

 

Terrain.org, home screens
People choose a story to read based on the featured image, title, and a short excerpt.

Executive Summary

A casual glance shows Terrain.org looks beautiful and is doing well. It has lots of visits ( 200,000–250,000 in 2015) and a large list of subscribers. But, there are some pain points. The number of subscribers had leveled off. Analytics showed the bounce rate is high and average time spent on site is low–a major concern for a literary magazine featuring long essays.

Pain Points

Site Visits

In 2015 were down 4.75% from the previous year

Returns

Only 20% of the total viewers were returning visitors.

Bounce Rate

85% of visitors exit from the home page.

Pages Viewed

The average number of pages viewed is 1.5.

The number of new subscribers has leveled off and few people use the “donations” link (less than 1% of site traffic).

Research overview

Since Terrain is an all online journal and there are a lot of challenges to reading longer articles on screens, we started comparing how people read online as compared to print magazines. After a review of the literature on readability and surveying similar text-heavy sites, we conducted an expert review of the site usability. Next we conducted live interviews and walk-throughs of the site with both current Terrain readers and potential readers.

Research questions

We wanted to understand the goals of new visitors and things like:

  • How does site usability and typography influence engagement with longer literary texts?
  • How do most Terrain readers arrive at the site?
  • What are their motivations for coming there?
  • How do they search for content they want to read.

In addition, we asked people how they thought about donations, to this and other sites. Is the Donate button too small to easily find?

Data analysis

I created a matrix of results from the expert usability review (also called a heuristic evaluation) showing the scores, and comments for each check point, as well as an overall score for the site (54%).

Expert review

A radar chart of the expert review, showing categories and detail questions asked.
A radar chart of the expert review, showing categories and detail questions asked.

Ideally you want your site to score around 75% on an expert review, or heuristic evaluation such as this (Balatbat, 2014). The lower scores are because we were very picky about readability. Note the low score on find-ability–we flagged find-ability as an issue.

User interviews

I recorded user interviews using audio and screen capture videos. From our notes and transcripts, I organized the rich qualitative data obtained from the interviews by research question, using affinity mapping with sticky notes. I also noted new themes and ideas coming out of the research. I then organized this data into a Findings and Recommendations Matrix, featuring quotes, summaries and key insights from each participant.

Affinity mapping
Affinity mapping is a business tool used to organize free wheeling qualitative data like interviews. It allows large numbers of ideas to be sorted based on their natural relationships, for review and analysis.

Key findings

Most users commented positively on the site design, admired the images, and eventually read something interesting. Yet, the site’s overall usability score is below average. Users in the interviews were more forgiving than the experts, and combining both methods we found key design edits that would increase readability without changing the site’s WordPress theme.

Most people interviewed preferred print on paper for personal, literary, and in-depth reading over digital screens. Computers were seen as better for research, email, and finding facts. In keeping with this, participants all scanned the pages first, looking for cues to content before committing to an article. Everyone got stuck on the featured images, trying to use them to decide what to read, which was not reliable. The photos were either a beautiful distraction, or visual overload.

Everyone interviewed did finally enjoy some longer reading that engaged their interest. This supports our idea that providing the right visual cues, and clearing the critical path to interesting content would help people reach this desired state of engagement with text.

After watching people choose a story from the home page, I believe most of the page views come from links in the email newsletter to subscribers. People usually read only the page they clicked on, and don’t browse the rest of the site. That could be due to browsing usability. My theory is that a user is confronted with too many choices, however enticing, and has a hard time choosing just one to read. This is knowh as Hick’s Law: the more stimuli people have to choose from, the longer it takes the user to make a decision. In effect too much cognitive load and likely abandonment of the page.

 a drop-down secondary menu appears, (blue outline is mine) showing a curated view of articles in that category.
When a user clicks on a top menu item, like “Nonfiction,” a drop-down secondary menu appears, (blue outline is mine) showing a curated view of articles in that category.

Few people found the Donate and Subscribe links. People wanted to share articles, but there is no share link to make that easier.

Key recommendations. Usability improvements will help keep users on the site, but that alone will not increase readership. Since most people arrive at the site from external links to a particular article, Terrain should maximize its presence in the external places where likely readers readers would find the site, like links and banners on other relevant sites, content aggregators, social media, email newsletters, etc.

Given a longer-term trend away from home pages and towards apps and social sites, Terrain should look outward to publishing on other social sites like medium.com, Apple News app, and Facebook’s new Instant Articles feature which allows people to read without leaving that site. A longer-term goal might be to create a phone app, as more people are reading that way as well.

 


A Readability Reading List

Balatbat, C. (2014, January 27). A Beginner’s Guide to Heuristic Evaluation (Part 2). Retrieved April 24, 2016, from http://blog.foolprooflabs.com/2014/01/beginners-guide-heuristic-evaluation-part-2/

Jabr, F. (2013, April 11). The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens. Retrieved April 25, 2016, from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/reading-paper-screens/

Goodman, Elizabeth; Kuniavsky, Mike; Moed, Andrea (2012–09–01). Chapter 11. Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research (Kindle Locations 4818–4819). Elsevier Science.

Herrman, J. (2016, April 17). Media Websites Battle Faltering Ad Revenue and Traffic. Retrieved May 02, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/18/business/media-websites-battle-falteringad-revenue-and-traffic.html smid=tw-nytimes

Holst, C. (2010, November 01). Readability: The Optimal Line Length. Retrieved May 21, 2016, from http://baymard.com/blog/line-length-readability

Krug, S. (2006). Don’t make me think!: A common sense approach to Web usability. Chapter 2. Berkeley, Calif: New Riders Pub.

Marjoo, F. (2013, June 6). You Won’t Finish This Article: Why people online don’t read to the end. Retrieved March 31, 2016, from http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2013/06/how_people_read_online_why_you_won_t_finish_this_article.single.html

Nielsen, J. (2003, November 10). The Ten Most Violated Homepage Design Guidelines. Retrieved May 09, 2016, from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/most-violated-homepage-guidelines/

Nielsen, J. (1995, January 1). 10 Heuristics for User Interface Design: Article by Jakob Nielsen. Retrieved April 01, 2016, from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ten-usability-heuristics/

Nielsen, J. (1995, January 1). How to Conduct a Heuristic Evaluation. Retrieved April 2, 2016, from Nielsen Norman Group, https://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-to-conduct-a-heuristic-evaluation/

Nielsen, J. (2008, May 6). How Little Do Users Read? Retrieved March 30, 2016, from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-little-do-users-read/

Nielsen, J. (2007, July 9). Write Articles, Not Blog Postings. Retrieved March 30, 2016, from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/write-articles-not-blogs/

Nell, V. (1988). The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure: Needs and Gratifications. Reading Research Quarterly, 23(1), winter, 6–50.

O’Hara, K. (1997). A Comparison of Reading Paper and On-Line Documents. Retrieved July 26, 2016, from http://www.sigchi.org/chi97/proceedings/paper/koh.htm

Sharon, Tomer (2012–03–21). It’s Our Research: Getting Stakeholder Buy-in for User Experience Research Projects (p. 97). Elsevier Science. Chapter 3.

Travis, D. (2016, April 12). 247 web usability guidelines. Retrieved May 01, 2016, from http://www.userfocus.co.uk/resources/guidelines.html

uk.gov, Government Service Manual. (2014, June 4) Expert reviews: Getting input into products and services. Retrieved April 1, 2016, from https://www.gov.uk/service-manual/user-centred-design/user-research/expert-review.html

 

View the entire report

Mobile app strategy and user flows

Tumamoc Hill is a puzzle: a tiny piece of highly-protected wilderness surrounded by a growing city. Compared it to Central Park in New York, there would be only one path through it, the rest of it off limits, left as much as possible in it’s natural state–before Europeans colonized it.

Continue reading

Usability presentation: do people understand weather?

I made this slide deck for the report on a usability test on the Weather Underground web site. The slides are intentionally dense with information because this was meant as a high-level deliverable as well as a presentation. The project was done for Kent State University. I did everything myself.

The weather: it’s more than rain or shine.

View as a slide show


Everyone talks about the weather–Weather Underground does something about it. Wunderground.com a beautiful weather and climate site absolutely packed with information. The site can be a bit intimidating for a new visitor or someone who is not a weather geek. This usability study looks at the experience of these new users.

Summary

Although the home page and search functions work really well, There is some friction in the interface and critical paths to user goals are cluttered. The resulting cognitive load causes some slowdown and failures.

The people who completed the tasks took a long time going through the site. For 6 out of 10 task failures, users thought they had actually completed the task, or were uncertain about it. Sometimes people found the right place by accident.

Because of some difficulty in finding the information people wanted, there was a low satisfaction level. Some of these problems are due simply to a low level of general understanding of weather science.

To summarize: although the home page and search functions work really well, There is a lot of friction in the interface and critical paths to user goals are cluttered, the cognitive load causing some slowdown and failures. The people who completed the tasks took a long time going through the site. For 6 out of 10 task failures, users thought they had actually completed the task, or were uncertain about it. Sometime people found the right place by accident. There was a low satisfaction level. Some of this is due simply to a low level of science understanding.

 

Weather underground started out as a weather database created at the U of Michigan in 1995. It later became commercial and was bought by The Weather Channel (Now The Weather Company and owned by IBM) in 2012. Thousands of personal weather stations feed in from site members. The Wundermap is famous for it’s layered visualization of complex weather data. The shear scope and quantity of information there is amazing.
There is an ad-free version for subscribers. It is generally used by citizen science weather geeks and scientists. Yet, the site could be made more accessible to non-technical uses. That’s the purpose of this study.

 

Each task required using specific skills and we had our own idea or expectation of the steps we would take to complete it successfully. In almost all cases, participants used a different path to reach their goal than we thought they would. Some still got to the destination, most did not complete task 1. These paths and failures were what was most interesting and offered deep insights into how the site could be improved based on common default behaviors.

 

Our participants were mostly female, for reasons I’m not sure about. These were the people who agreed to the study and weren’t culled out for one reason or another. A little less than half had use wunderground.com before, and age was somewhat biased towards the over 40 crowd. All rated themselves as web experts and had at least a bachelor’s degree.

 

Participants were impressed with the depth and aunt of data on the site, but were overwhelmed and intimidated by it. This made a lot of it inaccessible to them. The default wether maps that came up of their location worked really well to ground people in their own starting place. Also they were comfortable with the main location search bar, and gravitated to that when they felt lost.

 

I swear I did not doctor this data. The ratio or previous users vs new users came out the same as the ability to perform the 3 tasks. This tells me the site has a pretty good learn-ability, but poor recognition—it’s not as self-explanatory as it could be. In addition even some of the veteran users didn’t think it was intuitive.

 

Satisfaction with the site is correlated with whether people completed their tasks and how much anxiety they felt while searching for the right information. Time on task is also a part of this perception of difficulty. The two people who dropped out did not understand the tasks.

 

The ads are necessary to support the site. Still, they add to the visual clutter, in this case visually overwhelming the complex data graphics being presented. Having to sort through a lot of information creates a high cognitive load. There’s also something called choice paralysis in retail marketing: if people are presented with too much information or too many choices, they often don’t make any at all. You could also call this multi-tasking, which research has shown is not efficient.

 

The ads are necessary to support the site. Still, they add to the visual clutter, in this case visually overwhelming the complex data graphics being presented. I was not shopping fro shoes while doing this. Having to sort through a lot of extra information creates a high cognitive load. There’s also something called choice paralysis in retail marketing: if people are presented with too much information or too many choices, they often don’t make any at all. You could also call this multi-tasking, which research has shown is not efficient.

 

Most people started out looking for a weather forecast 9 months in the future. This was a fascinating finding since weather can’t be predicted more than 5-7 days out. It seems to reflect the poor science and math skills taught in schools. Everyone looked at the 2015 or 2016 weather for that day. No one found the Average precipitation for August 21, 2017. It was hiding in plain sight in the data table.

 

This was an interesting sequence to watch, as a user wandered through several types of wether data looking for things, not knowing what anything is. She eventually did find the radar maps for her area, but through a maze-like roundabout path.

 

This participant missed the Webcam checkbox (in plain sight but very small) and found the Community photos near the bottom of the age. She thought she had found a photo of the sky over Melbourne (she didn’t ) but couldn’t be sure of where and when the photo was taken. Although she remarked that it was a cool image.

 

Success! Another participant found the golden easter egg. It was a moment of good feeling for her. One puzzle was the time difference. I chose Australia because it was likely to be daylight there when people in North America took the test. This person was not sure if the photo was recent or not.

 

The usability issues on the site are mainly a blend of two factors:
Site information architecture and typographic hierarchy is unclear. This plus the visual clutter makes it difficult to scan the data.
2. Most visitors seem to be hazy knowledge of weather, climate, math, and science in general. The challenge is to explain things to new and intermediate visitors in a way that does not impede advanced users.

 

This research was general and high level. We recommend more targeted research be done in the future on specific interactions to find detailed the best design solutions.

FIND seems to be the key word and find-ability was the point of each task. Finding things is the main goal of users on the site and was related to their satisfaction with using it.

Information architecture for a small town library

Upper-Sandusky Public Library

Project metadata
Project title Design research for a small town public library
Project summary summary
Company/client name  Public Library, Upper-Sandusky, Ohio / Kent State University
Project dates/time frame March-May 2017
Research Interviews, literature review
Deliverables personas, sitemap, wireframes
Tools used Balsamiq, Tree-test & 1st-click test by Optimal Workshop

I did this project in an Information Architecture class at Kent State University.

Project summary

Library sites are complex and small town libraries often don’t have to resources to hire professional designers. The Upper Sandusky Library site had become cluttered over time by the accumulation of new content without a strategy for organizing it. It was difficult for patrons to find information.

I analyzed the information structure of the current site and did a content inventory. Then I did a literature review of research on other library sites and interviewed several librarians. With this input, I designed a new site map, created personas, and tested the new navigation remotely with users. After revising the structure several times based on feedback, I created the wireframes shown in this report.


Analysis of the existing library home page to identify the problem areas.