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Pioneering Innovators Share Insights at Michigan World Usability Day

Contact: Sarah Swierenga, MSU Usability/Accessibility Research and Consulting (UARC),; Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement,, (517) 353-8977

11/15/2018 - For Immediate Release

EAST LANSING, Mich. - A large, diverse crowd attended the Michigan World Usability Day event at Michigan State University held on Thursday, November 8. They were there to hear pioneers and trailblazers in usability and accessibility at the 16th annual conference established at Michigan State University in 2003, when user experience and user-centered design were emerging as essential components of web design and information technology.

MSU Usability/Accessibility Research and Consulting (UARC) and the Michigan User Experience Professionals Association (MI UXPA) partnered to host this year's gathering of industry and academic professionals, students, and government leaders. Nearly three hundred participants were on hand to hear from five featured speakers.

"Each year we continue to draw outstanding speakers for our participants, and this year was notable because of the caliber, breadth, and depth of experience and innovation they brought to the agenda," said Sarah Swierenga, MSU UARC Director. "Together with our partnering organization, MI UXPA, and our sponsors, we offer Michigan usability professionals strong learning opportunities. In particular, Peter Morville and Shawn Henry individually represent breakthrough leadership in our field of expertise."

Planning for Usability

Peter Morville, a pioneer of information architecture and user experience, said, "We are drawn to information architecture because it's an important crossroads where a small force can make a big impact. Our users learn unique ways of understanding the world: What's it like to be a bat? We've reframed [information architecture] over and over again. That keeps it alive."

In addition, Peter talked about planning for everything, not just usability: "If you hate planning, you're doing it wrong. The uncertainty of change makes us crave chaos or control, but it's as dangerous to be rigid as it is to move fast and break things. To organize the future, we will find better ways, because happiness is a prediction, and it's also the freedom you feel upon realizing there is no one right way to plan," he said.

Understanding the User Experience Behind the New Accessibility Requirements

Shawn Henry leads worldwide education and outreach promoting web accessibility for people with disabilities at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). She said, "If you want to understand the new [Web Content Accessibility Guidelines] requirements, don't start with the standards themselves. That's not the place. Look at the user experience behind them."

Shawn pointed to one example: "Low-vision users often want to change the font size onscreen. But this may result in paragraphs that don't wrap properly-that are wider than the screen-so the user has to scroll across as well as down. So to fix this, you want a requirement that says changing the text size will not cause any loss of content or functionality. But that's not testable. It's too open-ended. So you write a new requirement that's testable: 'The user must be able to zoom to 400 percent of original size with full reflow (or wrap).' That's why the wording gets so complicated."

According to Shawn, "Accommodations for accessibility are essential for some, but they often turn out to be useful for all. Designing for disabilities improves the user experience for everybody."

How to Talk with Engineers about Usability

Dawn Opel is an Assistant Professor and user experience (UX) researcher at MSU who regularly pitches projects to engineers and writes grants with large teams, advocating for the inclusion of UX and usability. "Starting a new usability or UX project requires buy-in from multiple stakeholders who often do not think in the same ways, speak the same language, or prioritize the same goals. It's all about learning rhetorical flexibility to get things done. I call it lifelong cross-training," said Dawn.

Designing a Usable and Accessible Personal Health Record

Jason Withrow, who teaches web design and development at Washtenaw Community College, is part of a team that recently designed a usable and accessible personal health record to help patients and their care providers share information and complete common tasks, such as refilling prescriptions, online. "Individuals with disabilities have a high need for health information," he said. "They struggle to access that information. What we found was the guidelines are not enough. You need to test your design with actual users and let it evolve."

Designing Our Future(s)

Erik Dahl, who calls himself a "design anthropologist," said, "Design is about the people. It's not about the object. Think back to the happiest time in your life. Did it involve a website? Experiences-not features or functions-lead to relationships that unfold over time. They move from system to ecosystem, they scale up. Are you designing at the appropriate scale? You should design a chair for the room it's in."

Michigan World Usability Day Sponsors and Affiliates

MSU UARC and MI UXPA were joined by several sponsors to make the event possible, including A.J. Boggs & Company, TechSmith, MSU College of Arts and Letters Academic Technology Office, MSU College of Communication Arts and Sciences, MSU Department of Media and Information, MSU Experience Architecture Program, MSU Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, and MSU University Outreach and Engagement.

Event affiliates included Detroit UX, IXDA Grand Rapids, Ladies that UX Detroit, Ladies that UX Grand Rapids, Metro Detroit WordPress Meetup, Michigan CHI, Refresh Detroit, West Michigan Shores - Society for Technical Communication, and UX Toledo Region.

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