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Usability testing: information scientists take a close look at the DLR web portal

05. January 2012, 14.58, Andrea, alt Schaub, 2 Comment/s
With today's contribution I want to fulfil the promise I made in the blog entry I wrote on 12 July 2011 to inform you about the results of the tests on the usability of the German Aerospace Center's (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft und- Raumfahrt; DLR) new web portal.

The results are very instructive. They provide valuable insights for the optimisation of our website with regard to design, content, function and navigation, as well as the much awaited confirmation that our new web concept is making a positive impression on visitors.

The usability test is an important part of the entire redesign project, which was preceded by a user survey involving more than 2600 participants. The test was intended to investigate how the DLR web portal can be oriented towards users, how user-friendliness can be assured and to examine its strengths and weaknesses.

DLR-Webportal im neuen Gewand
The newly designed DLR web portal, which went live in July 2011.

DLR-Webportal vor dem Re-Design im Juli 2011
The DLR web portal before the redesign in July 2011.

To evaluate the screen design, the pages were scrutinised in terms of content, structure and also technically with the help of 11 participants. Such a small number of users cannot, of course, be used for any statistical analysis, but with regard to web usability, this is not necessary in most cases. The aim is to find potential problems and solve them as quickly as possible.

What is a usability test?

Before discussing the results in greater detail, I would like to briefly explain what a usability test is and how it is carried out. Usability testing is a technique used to analyse and evaluate the quality of products, and is carried out to test the ease of use of an application. Usability tests provide valuable information regarding, for example, the suitability of a product such as the DLR web portal for the desired target group, or whether a product should be optimised in its ease of use.

What methods are available?

Various methods suitable for usability testing are available. These include, for example, numerous software programmes for creating and evaluating log file analyses, interviews and questionnaires, or elaborate methods such as 'eye tracking', in which the eye activity of a subject is recorded. Interactive procedures record the click and entry behaviour at the keyboard, and the cognitive walk-through method uses relevant tasks to test whether the expectations of users are fulfilled. The most widespread method is what is known as the ‘thinking aloud’ protocol, in which users comment on their impressions and experiences with a product during the test phase, and this is recorded on video.

The usability test of the DLR web portal was carried out by academic staff of the Institute of Information Science at the Cologne University of Applied Sciences and AK12 Agentur für Kommunikation und Innovation GmbH on our behalf. The methodology used by the experts was a combination of cognitive walk-through, thinking aloud and interactive procedures. The users were given research tasks; to complete them, the users had to navigate through various areas of the website. During these taskes, the users were studied via observation and the thinking aloud method using questionnaires.

The portal testers had basic knowledge of the Internet and web-specific terminology. The testing group was comprised of students, DLR staff members, editors and others in DLR’s target group; testers with both a technical and non-technical background were considered. For the purposes of documentation and subsequent analysis of the screen content viewed by the testers, video, sound and the system data (tracking data) of the product run were recorded as well. Besides recording mouse clicks, page visits and URLs, the testers had to explain each step of the navigation paths they followed; conspicuous behaviours and comments were collected and analysed by the experts.

www.DLR.de/en is modern and well designed


The graphic shows the location of the panorama header, sitemap and terminal.


The news skimmer with current reports.


Access to the multimedia section; this is where image galleries, videos, publications and animations are stored.

As mentioned at the beginning, the general impression of the website was positive among all the testers. The majority liked the dominating image content, as well as the modern graphical design. This led the testers to 'overlook' initial difficulties with the navigation and rate DLR's new 'Web face' positively.

The individual results explained:

Panorama header

According to the survey, the panorama header on the home page gives a modern impression, but the link function associated with it was not, however, noticed; there were also slight complaints about the image quality.

Das Panorama im DLR-Webportal

Text design and content

Ten of 11 testers expressed positive views about the text content. The design and order of the teasers tended to be rated as difficult to read, whereas the brief introduction to articles in the news skimmer was rated very positively. The news skimmer was frequently used alongside the home page or the subject-related start pages to quickly search for news and information.

DLR social media channels

DLR's social media channels were easily found both on the home page and within article pages and, in general, considered positive. The 'share' function fulfilled expectations and was very quickly made use of by the majority of testers.

Sitemap

The sitemap at the end of the page was not used or noted, and was not employed as a tool for completing the task.

Die Sitemap am Seitenende des DLR-Webportals

Images and videos

The multimedia content offered by the DLR web portal, such as images and videos, is found both in the articles themselves and via the multimedia menu at the terminal. The pages for video and image material can be viewed separately and have been prepared with different appearance and content. The testers complained about the image and video components, as their function did not appear to operate consistently. But the content itself was rated positively: good service, exciting images, fast response to the 'five Ws' in the image captions. The 'five Ws' form the basis for understanding and researching texts. The logical sequence for answering them is: What happened? Who is involved? Where did it happen? When did it happen? Why did it happen? And, how did it happen?

Multimedia im DLR-Webportal
Images can be viewed in, among other places, the multimedia section of the DLR web portal.

Multimedia im DLR-Webportal
Videos with a download function can be selected from the multimedia menu in the DLR web portal.


Carrying out the research tasks they were set proved to range from easy to very easy for the testers in most of the cases. Elements such as the primary navigation in the left column were not used by the testers and, as such, were not rated by them either. The position of the breadcrumb navigation below the content elements appeared unusual to them and remained mostly undiscovered.

Conclusion

Content on DLR.de/en is fun and has been prepared accordingly. The wording must become more intuitive. Images and multimedia elements represent added value for visitors, but must be designed more uniformly. User guidance, especially secondary navigation such as breadcrumb navigation, is confusing and must be given greater prominence as an orientation guide to make returning to content easier. The header graphics (panorama header) are very attractive but their link function must be highlighted more clearly. The results of the usability test will be implemented as soon as possible to optimise the DLR website and the user interfaces. Here, we would like to thank all testers for participating in the usability test. And we would of course like to thank all visitors who have helped and supported us with suggestions and constructive criticism via the feedback functions of the DLR web portal since it went live in July 2011.

Your opinion is important to us

Please continue to tell us what you think of the DLR web portal. We welcome all constructive criticism. Giving feedback is possible at any time via the comment function of this blog or the new DLR web portal.