User experience, alcohol and Buddhism

By Stephen Kellett
7 March, 2011

Last Thursday I attended an event hosted by Red Gate Software with the topic “User Experience in Software Development”. I also met with Roger Atrill at the event – we used to work together at (the now defunct) Laser Scan. After the event, I went swimming, swam 1km (physiotherapy) and while getting changed chatted with another swimmer about my evening (two bottles of Grolsch provided by Red Gate, 3 and a half talks – had to skip half the last one to get to the swimming pool) and the swimming. We were both surprised my swimming was still quite rapid despite the 1 pint(ish) of Grolsch I had drunk. It was during this chat I realised a connection between Buddhism and user experience testing.

The event consisted of four talks about user experience.


The first talk was about the challenges of creating a website for a council and balancing the conflicting desires of many council service providers and a useful user experience finding your way to the right part of the website to find out if (for example) your local school is closed because of the snowfall overnight (no big deal where you live, but snow is rare in the UK and a heavy snowfall causes chaos here because we are not equipped to deal with it).

Red Gate

The second talk was about how Red Gate managed the challenging task of going from their 1500-page hard-to-navigate website to a smaller 750 page easier-to-use website. Some of the techniques they used were one room for all the work, complete transparency, post-it notes for everything, anyone (even non-ux team) could walk in and annotate prospective design changes, allowing people to comment on work when the ux team were not present. Don’t put colour in your mockups because then people argue about incorrect branding rather than looking at the ux. Don’t create real webpages, keep it on paper or using mockup tools like Balsamiq, but even Balsamiq can be “too realistic”.


The third talk was about user testing from the perspective of someone whose users are mainly scientists and for whom computer use is only 10% of their daily task – the software needs to be easy to use and obvious. Simple things like naming items “Literature” is not helpful – too obscure. Choose a more useful name. And don’t use two tabs, tabs only work well when you have more than two tabs. Post it notes (super sticky, not regular) for everything and colour coded by topic to make things easier for analysis afterwards. Don’t talk too much. Everyone knows that one, but it still needs to be said.

Remote Testing

The fourth talk was about remote testing. I didn’t see much of this talk as the first three talks had overrun and I had to leave at a given time. Fortunately for me as I think this would have been the least useful of the talks (as I had already used some of the tools they were going to talk about).

Being Present

One Buddha thinking about user testing of the key aspects of user experience testing is being able to observe without influencing the test. You can do this with isolated rooms and one-way mirrors, but there is still influence at work – the fact that this room (and possibly this computer) is not the room the user normally uses. Or you can test at the user’s site in their normal room using their chair and desk. But you will need to be present and there will not be a helpful one-way mirror (unless you are testing inside a police interview room!). Your presence may influence the test. In fact, it probably will. You will be tempted to offer the user helpful hints when they get stuck. Or maybe they are thinking and you ask them a question and break their train of thought. After all, you thought they’d gone quiet because they were stuck. It’s a bit of Schrodinger’s Cat. You don’t know if it’s dead, but if you look it will be dead. Hmmm.

But there is another part to user testing. Separate from you, the tester, influencing the user. And that is being present in the moment. Actually watching the user, observing what they are really doing, not what you think they are doing. Not drifting off into some other train of thought, whether it be able why they clicked there five minutes ago, or what they’ll do on the next page (which you know really sucks and does need work), or about something unrelated like Star Wars or your girlfriend. You need to be present in the moment. Noticing what is happening, why it happened and noting it down.

In that respect, I think user testing and Buddhism have more in common than most folks realise. Buddhism is all about being present in the moment. Not off on some fleeting journey somewhere else. Not in the past, not in the future, not in some drunken haze because you got blittered last night. Many folks think Buddhism and Islam ban the consumption of alcohol. They do not. But they do ban the consumption of such quantities that cause you to lose your focus on the moment.

Next time you find yourself drifting off in your user experience testing, think about changing your focus. Be present.

And if you find yourself too agitated to focus on user testing, you may want to consider some meditation classes (Buddhist or otherwise) to learn how to be calm and in the moment.

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