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WPI’s UXDM Lab: Bringing Science To The Art Of Design

Lynda Elliott also contributed to this post.

Last Friday, members of our web development and executive team were invited to the grand opening of the User Experience and Decision Making (UXDM) Research Laboratory at WPI, something that will be a great addition to the campus and will help promote an industry that is only getting bigger.

What Is it?

The UXDM, which Dyn helped fund through our DynCares initiative, is a laboratory set up where individuals or businesses can test how users interact with their mobile and/or full-screen website, using the cutting-edge technology of user eye tracking. Simply put, the lab gives others the chance to look through the user’s eyes and learn something valuable about what they see and how they interact with it.

From there, businesses can then apply what they learn to an array of different issues, from streamlining a complex process in order to increase conversions to making their website more compatible for those with disabilities. No matter what your use for it may be, user experience has become an undeniably important commodity and having a better understanding of it can noticeably improve a company’s revenue.

Let’s Talk Tech Specs

Tom Daly - WPI
For the lab’s opening, the eye-tracking station was set up for mobile testing. In this case, an iPhone was used for demoing the process. However, tablets, desktop screens and projections can also be used. The demonstration included calibrating the user for measuring activity during the mobile viewing process, as well as actually capturing the eye tracking data as the user explores the site.

You could follow the user’s glances at different parts of the sight in real time, which was amazing to observe. At first the user’s viewing patterns seemed sporadic and shaky, but as the user began to focus on certain items, the areas that he/she was viewing became clearer for us to see. After aggregating this data into a heat map or time-lapse, patterns that as first seemed disorganized and random, were then highlighting important UI “touch points” over time.

Though this sounds amazing, it certainly doesn’t come easy. In the past, performing testing on a standard computer screen required a significant amount of measurements and reconfiguration in order to adjust for even slight changes in height and view angle. So in order to remove some of the variability, custom mounts were built into the hardware to hold the eye tracking equipment in the correct position, allowing them to switch between mobile and desktop testing with a little more ease.

However, it’s not only the software that requires a lot of calibration. As Dr. Soussan Djamasbi, Director of the UXDM Research Laboratory, said, “The equipment is very easy to use from the user standpoint, but the backend could still use a little more work to allow for easier data collection on the technicians’ part.”

The Findings

During the visit, they had a presentation prepared detailing a few of their past experiments. For one of them, it was interesting to see the results of how users responded to four different versions of a sample web page the lab had tested. Surprisingly, the version that could be considered “most plain” (black text on white) received the most favorable response, whereas the versions that contained images or dark backgrounds with white text failed to perform nearly as well. Although each of the pages were fairly plain, the test helped to reinforce the idea that having lots of color and imagery doesn’t necessarily result in higher customer engagement and it’s certainly not the answer for better usability.

As many of the UXDM lab presenters continually impressed upon us: “keep it simple.” It became the credo of the day and was certainly refreshing to hear.

What This Means For Us At Dyn

For Dyn web developers, it is cold, hard facts that reign supreme. Sure, this might make it sound like it takes some of the glamour out of the art of design. However, knowing instead that what you are creating or improving upon has a measurable, definite impact on your audience is entirely worth the number crunching. Web design isn’t about creating “what looks good” anymore; it’s about creating “what performs well” and “what is useful to the user”. You may think your website looks sharp and sleek, but if it’s confusing to the person that matters most — the customer — who are you really designing for?

It was a sobering reminder to be more conscious of one’s personal tastes and preferences influencing decisions. As a designer, you are just one of the many users. What works for you might not work for everyone and in fact, it most likely won’t. You are the designer. You know where the cheese is at the end of the mouse maze. You know how to get where you need to go in the easiest way possible. Things that might seem so second nature to us might be hurdles for the common user, and without the data to clue us in to that, we may be too blind to see it.

Even the smallest of changes can yield amazingly impactful results when backed by scientific observation.

But That’s Only The Beginning

By the end of the day, we had realized that this cutting-edge technology has implications reaching farther than we originally imagined. It can provide valuable insight to improve upon anything from technology to business to overall quality of life. For example, future application of this technology could improve accessibility for those with limited movement disabilities. Eye-tracking technology could eventually become standard in all computers, allowing us to control visual interactions by the simple blink of an eye. The fringe benefits alone are well worth the time and money that have been invested in this technology.

We’re very proud of Dyn’s contribution towards advancing an innovative research facility such as this and we are excited to return to the usability lab soon to do a few tests of our own. We encourage others in the space to learn more about the lab and get involved if you’re local to the WPI campus in Worcester, MA. Let the testing begin!


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Whois: Dan McAuliffe

Dan McAuliffe is a Manager, UX and Digital Conversion at Oracle Dyn Global Business Unit, a pioneer in managed DNS and a leader in cloud-based infrastructure that connects users with digital content and experiences across a global internet.