On the second floor of the College of Communication and Information is nestled a lab where human psychology and computers meet: the User eXperience Lab (UXL). The UXL opened in 2009 as a joint project with ORNL, but it has evolved over the years into a UT core facility serving as a resource for CCI faculty and students, as well as a pay-for-service facility for other university units, government, or private organizations.
The lab is managed by Rachel Volentine, who started in the position almost a decade ago shortly after she graduated with her master’s degree from the School of Information Science. At its most basic level, Volentine said the lab is a place to “study how people interact with technology and see how you can improve those interactions. You’re watching what people are actually doing versus what they say they’re doing.”
The lab is equipped to employ various methods to test user experience (UX), including eye tracking devices that follow where users are looking on a screen. UX testing is not limited to technology-based applications. The lab also does UX evaluations on physical objects and spaces, for example: wayfinding. Wayfinding examines how a user would orient themselves in a building to get to where they’d like to go, which isn’t that much different than what UX testing looks like when applied to a software program or website, Volentine explained.
“Usability testing is looking at not only how a user completes a task,” she said. “Is the process smooth from Point A to Point B, or are there problems? But UX also examines the feelings involved – is the user satisfied or frustrated?”
Volentine added that the UXL also does accessibility work, which ensures all users, including those with disabilities, can have a good user experience and can access information.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, CCI students and faculty were always able to get time in the lab to conduct research studies, complete course projects, or get hands-on training. For example, a student might use the lab to complete a project for a UX design class or to complete a thesis or dissertation. Now that many classes have gone virtual and social distancing is necessary, Volentine said they’ve had to change some of their services.
The UXL welcomes any CCI student or faculty who want to familiarize themselves with the equipment and process, and lab employees are there to help them. The lab can also help them with any online research. If they have something they hope to do in person, lab employees can work with them to transition it to a virtual platform, Volentine said. They are also available to talk to students about lab services and equipment, and provide additional resources for learning.
Besides adjusting services to help students and faculty during the pandemic, Volentine said they’ve also had to adjust how they serve their paying customers. The UX Lab has done work for other units at the University of Tennessee, for the NSF DataONE project, for Oak Ridge National Lab, and for a variety of private businesses. By making a lot of adjustments, they have been able to continue to support their client needs.
Volentine said every business or organization is going to have an online presence, and all organizations could benefit from having someone on staff who is familiar with UX design and usability basics – which is why even students who are not on a UX Design track could benefit from learning a bit about UX, as it could come in handy wherever they end up working.