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CHIPS Articles: Innovation abounds at the Usability Engineering and Research Lab

Innovation abounds at the Usability Engineering and Research Lab
By Dan Lulue - April-June 2006
The Usability Engineering and Research Laboratory (USER Lab), of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SSC) San Diego, is just over one year old. In the last year its mission and capabilities have evolved from performing software usability studies to becoming a center where the disciplines of knowledge engineering, business process modeling, and user-centered design (UCD) are practiced on a daily basis.

Numerous projects have benefited from the multidisciplinary approach pioneered by the UCD team. Extensive process and domain modeling was done on behalf of U.S. Pacific Command and the Joint Intelligence Center Pacific. Other projects include the Border and Transportation Security network and, most recently, the Naval Facilities Engineering Command's antiterrorism/force protection program.

The domain models created through the methods used by the UCD team are used by software developers to write mission process Web services and, by human factors engineers, to design supervisory control and decision-support user interfaces.

Perhaps the lab's greatest success has been in the area of innovation. Innovation can be most easily seen in the design room where warfighters and watchstanders collaborate with UCD staff to identify roles, tasks and workflows for day-to-day activities, high-tempo exercises and critical real-world events.

Innovation of the type practiced in the USER Lab doesn't just happen. According to leading innovation expert, Dr. John Kao, innovation occurs at the edges of organizations. Kao states that innovators must have foresight, they must be able to tell a story in a compelling manner, and they must execute successfully.

The evidence of all of these activities is just what visitors see when they tour Building 368. The tour usually starts at the UCD space, and then moves to the human performance and usability test area at the building's north end. Here one encounters the ergonomic, four-node Multi-Modal Watchstation pod that was designed for the air defense warfare domain. The watchstations are part of the usability testing facility that also includes video taping equipment, a one-way, glass-fronted observation room, and user interaction monitoring and recording systems.

User-centered design is an agile process that borrows heavily from lightweight software development methodologies such as Extreme Programming.

Wikipedia defines UCD as: "a design philosophy and a process in which the needs, wants, and limitations of the end user of an interface or document are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process. User-centered design can be characterized as a multi-stage problem solving process that not only requires designers to analyze and foresee how users are likely to use an interface, but to test the validity of their assumptions with regard to user behavior in real-world tests with actual users. The chief difference from other interface design approaches is that UCD tries to bend and structure the functioning of a user interface around how people can, want or need to work, rather than the opposite way around."

SSC San Diego's UCD designers and engineers "beef up" the UCD process by adding current best practices from the knowledge engineering and business process modeling disciplines. Both fields contain a variety of tools and approaches that engineers choose from as they craft successive requirements-design-develop-test cycles. Knowledge engineering provides useful lexicons and ontologies that add rigor to the UCD domain and task models.

Business process management provides process diagrams that are drawn using standard notations such as Unified Modeling Language and Business Processing Modeling Notation. Engineers are then able to design optimal mission and decision-support user interfaces, and help customers reform their organization by supporting the reengineering of current practices and processes.

Each UCD cycle combines up-front research, discovery and analysis to yield low-fidelity wireframe prototypes that converge into interactive high-fidelity prototypes. Prototypes are tested with participating fleet and command personnel. Different types of tests are administered ranging from cognitive walk-throughs, to heuristic evaluations, to formal inspections.

Regardless of the test type, the results are fed back into the UCD process just in time for the next design-a-little, code-a-little, test-a-lot cycle. After a full year of operation the agile USER Lab has become a highly-prized resource that promotes discovery and innovation to support SSC San Diego's mission.

For more information about SSC San Diego, go to

Dr. Bela Feher, usability test coordinator, works with a test participant.
Dr. Bela Feher, usability test coordinator, works with a test participant.

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