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Master Students collaborate with DUO in a User Interface Evaluation Project

As part of a course taught at the University of Groningen, master students in Communication and Information sciences & in Human-Machine Communication were commissioned by DUO to run an evaluation of the duo.nl website to improve its access and usability. Students got the chance to present and discuss their findings and suggested solutions to the encountered problems directly with the user experience team of DUO, at the DUO headquarters in Groningen. This wonderful opportunity and formative experience shows how truly fruitful collaboration between Academia and non-academic partners can be.

Students, teachers and DUO-team meet up at the DUO Headquarters
Students, teachers and DUO-team meet up at the DUO Headquarters

Interfaces: frustrating or subject of interdisciplinary research?

We deal with interfaces every day, from cash machines to websites where we read news or book trips, to apps with which we communicate with the rest of the world at any time of day and night. Sometimes we're happy with how they work, sometimes we're utterly frustrated. Beyond the feelings that interacting with such interfaces trigger in the users, there is a whole field of scientific research aimed at developing working techniques towards a more objective evaluation of the interfaces we use. This field is called User Interface Evaluation, and at the University of Groningen we offer a course for Master students in Communication and Information Sciences at the Faculty of Arts, and also for Master students in Human-Machine Communication of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences.

Dr. Malvina Nissim (Informatiekunde), this year with teaching assistant Folkert van der Kolk, shows the students how this evaluation can be done: Either by empirical evaluation techniques that involve testing interfaces with actual users, or by analytical evaluations run by experts. A specialty of the course is its applied flavour: students are confronted with theory, but they have to put it right away into practice. During the seven weeks of the course, students work in groups to run evaluations of various websites and apps. They find several problems and suggest solutions, but in this stage there is no customer who asks for the evaluation of an interface with a specific problem in mind. But this is true only until the final project is launched. Indeed, the weekly evaluations are preparatory for the end of the course: the evaluation of a real interface on a real set of usability problems, as required by a real client.

March-April 2017: A chance to evaluate at DUO

This year, our final project's client was DUO (Dienst Uitvoering Onderwijs). Most people know DUO from student financing, but DUO does a lot beyond this. From the distribution of exams to loans for migrants, from student administration to financial scholarships for teachers and more. The usability team of DUO is responsible for all these users and the way they can access their information at duo.nl. The DUO Usability Team is working on re-structuring their "particulier" portion of the website as they are aware of a series of problems. And while they have their internal team already focusing on this, they were keen to have the User Interface Evaluation students provide their own evaluations and suggestions for improvement.

In practice, Robert Flap and Maike Veltman from DUO set up a composite evaluation task, and gave a class within the course to provide the students with an overview of the website and explain some of the known problems. The students, in small groups of two or three, worked on this project for approximately three weeks, eventually producing a report and a presentation. The reports will be handed out to DUO, who will use them to complement their own usability studies. The presentations were given on April 5th directly at the DUO headquarters, in front of the DUO Usability Team, who also presented their general approach to user experience and their specific solutions to the same problems the students worked on. It was truly rewarding for the students to discover that there was a large overlap between their findings and those of the DUO Usability Team. At the end of the presentations, the students got the chance to tour the DUO building, including a guided visit to the data centre and breathtaking views from the 22nd floor. Finally, DUO treated the students to pizza and drinks, and contextually offered them the chance to further discuss usability issues with the DUO team.

A fruitful collaboration

At the university, we are truly happy and proud of this experience, which goes to show how fruitful collaboration can be between Academia and other non-academic institutions, and how much we can offer students in terms of real world experience. We are also very grateful to DUO for making this happen and for their warm and dedicated welcome. This experience turned out to be positive and rewarding for the DUO team as well. Maike wrote the next day: "It was so great to have the students at our office yesterday. It was a great boost for my co-workers. And very motivating to see that we implemented some of the solutions already so we are on the right track." We definitely hope to continue this kind of collaboration in the future!

Last modified:09 May 2019 2.49 p.m.
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