Further misadventures in testing website usability

I’m now more than halfway through the spring outreach events mentioned in a previous post.

There are several reasons why I enjoy these events. First, they enable in-person interactions with live people (as opposed to Internet-based interactions enabled by this website, which are worthwhile too, but not the same). Second, they allow collection of potentially publishable data. (This spring we are measuring whether kids can learn science from music videos, and the results so far have been interesting — more on that later.) Third, they constitute valuable field-testing of SingAboutScience.org’s usability.

A striking example of the latter occurred during the 2011 Paws-On Science weekend, which revealed widespread confusion regarding the database search results page, prompting important improvements.

More recently, this spring’s outreach events showed the new Quizzes section of the site to be less user-friendly than intended.

The specific source of users’ problems was that, when they clicked on a song title on the main Quizzes page, a new browser window opened.

I had various reasons for setting up the Quizzes page that way. One was that having a quiz pop up in a separate “box” gave it a more video game-like look and feel, which I liked. Related to this, the appearance of the new window could be tightly controlled; for example, the “back” button was omitted to prevent users from returning to the pre-video quiz after having watched the video.

Such rationales aside, the fact was that the new window often became hidden behind the other window, and users lost track of it. Some of them clicked over and over on the song title, which reloaded the pre-video quiz in the window that they couldn’t see, thus making the site seem unresponsive and increasing their frustration. Those who didn’t lose the new window spent a fair bit of time resizing it to make it bigger.

Once it became obvious that the opening of new windows was causing lots of confusion, I altered the HTML code so that clicking on a song title would now open a new browser TAB within the same window. A subtle change, perhaps … yet the percentage of people completing the quizzes they started immediately rose from 50% to 75%.

That’s a win for our data collection efforts as well as the site’s usability per se. I just hope that, now that the “back” button is back, people won’t abuse it.

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