ATUL – Usability

Usability Testing of software, websites and e-commerce applications:

Everyone knows how useful computer systems are, and yet how often we get frustrated when they get in the way of what we want to do. By focusing on what users want to achieve when using an application, our laboratory method of usability evaluation begins with an analysis of the real needs of users, determines typical scenarios of use and records how these followed by real or surrogate users.  Testing can be done in the ATUL facility, but ATUL is also mobile, and can do Usability Testing on site.  ATUL can also do an expert assessment of the usability of an application or website. We can provide you with a report on current usability and ways it could be improved.

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What is the activity theory approach to usability testing?

An important property of computer applications and business websites is that they are easy to use and meet the needs of both the business and the users.  Employees are more productive when their work is supported by usable computer applications.  Websites may be accessed by a wide variety of customers that may never be seen by the system developers, or even by employees of the business.  In both cases, testing for usability is difficult but important.

The activity theory view of usability testing takes a realistic and down-to-earth approach, which identifies the purpose of a business’s computer system or web-site and tests it in a situation that simulates the typical real-life activities of the users.


Activity Theory Usability Testing typically includes the following procedural stages:

  1. Establish test goals: Testers consult with the client to establish the reasons for the test and what form of outcomes the client wants.
  2. Establish the system purpose: The clients and/or owners are interviewed to determine the business goals that the system is designed to achieve.
  3. The information from stages 1 and 2 is used to create a questionnaire for interviewing the user after the test.
  4. Identify User Characteristics: Who is going to use the system? The set of potential users of the system are identified. This could range from experts in the field to lay users.
  5. Identify User Activities: Typical user activities are identified including the presumed needs and goals in using the system. What would people want to use the system for? What information would users need to find out?
  6. Devise Test Scenario(s): Typical scenarios of use are produced at this stage to enable the usability testing to proceed. Tests can be more or less structured as required.
  7. Select Test Subjects: One to five subjects are chosen and interviewed in order to establish their level of expertise in using relevant and similar software.  Subjects are reassured that it is the system, not them, that is being evaluated.  The role of facilitator is explained to the subject and one is only used if the subject concurs.
  8. Conduct the Usability Test: In the usability laboratory, the scenario is explained and given to the subject who then proceeds to carry it out. Simultaneous recording is made on videotape of the whole room, the computer screen, the user’s facial expressions and hands movements and audio as prompted by the facilitator.  The latter keeps the user on the task, by asking general, encouraging questions such as ‘Are there any other ways to do that?’ ‘Where else could you look for it?’  The post-test interview, using the questionnaire from stage 3, is also recorded.
  9. Analyze the test records: The taped record of the usability test is reviewed in the context of the test goals and system purpose.
  10. Write the client report

The Activity Theory Usability Laboratory (ATUL), at the University of Wollongong, is set up both for research into Human Computer Interaction, Activity Theory and Knowledge Management and for practical usability testing of systems using methods derived from that research.