I had the chance to attend my first BarCamp, which in Minneapolis is called MinneBar. A BarCamp is a conference about technology topics that have a very loose, informal feel that some call an unconference.
All attendees are asked to contribute either by being vocal participants in sessions or by hosting a session themselves. I decided to dive in head first host a session. The topic was the continuum of the user experience.
I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the session and really like the format. I viewed my role as facilitator more so than session speaker. Yes, I led the talk down certain paths, but the value is in the conversation. We had great questions by several people, and several others chimed in with examples and answers themselves.
I have no slides of real value to post although if anyone asks I’ll put them on the MinneBar wiki. I’m an anti-powerpoint guy, so my slides included several gapingvoid.com cartoons, and some favorite Kathy Sierra charts from her blogging heyday.
I started the talk with a discussion about what a field study is and the desire to visit users of your site/software/interface in the environment in which they actually use it. The room (about 50-70 people, I’m a horrible judge of this stuff) was split in thirds around "I don’t know my customers at all" "I know them a little" "I know my customers very well" in terms of usage of the user interface.
As a group we talked about what we do with that collected data, from creating personas, to focusing on specific issues. There were some tangents, good tangents, about where content falls in the user experience (hint, it matters), and about what tools you can use to gather stats, e.g. click tracking on other analytics. Everyone agreed that these statistics cannot be the only tool, and you have to decide what they mean. For example, someone pointed out that length of time on a web page may not be a good thing, it may mean the user cannot find what he is looking for.
After we talked about field studies we moved on to the value of paper prototyping or quick online prototyping. The value here is in including customers during this process and the iterative process of this stage. The other benefit of intentionally informal sketches is a participant doesn’t get hung up on something like colors at this stage when you are really trying to see if you’ve solved ‘flow’ problems.
We finished up on usability testing, from detailed studies, to remote tools like morae, to hallway usability at your firm with people not on your project. The short answer is that something is better than nothing, and you should always get some usability testing in before you launch.
The back channel was working well I think, i.e. people were twittering the session. Part of the nature of the BarCamp is you can get up and walk out if you like. And while a couple folks walked out, we had a lot more wandering in and had people standing in back by the end. The group made it a great session, as I mentioned, and every step of the way, people were adding their own examples of usability testing, or talking about the challenges of companies that don’t ‘get it’.
I thoroughly enjoyed the day, will write up a post on the overall BarCamp over on my personal blog, and look forward to more great discussions like this in the future in Minneapolis and Milwaukee.