IP 1: Towards a Concept of Educational Usability
Updated: Sep 23
Based on Issa and Isaias (2015) and influenced by Woolgar (1990), it can be said usability is the degree to which a human accomplishes tasks with minimal effort and time and the greatest accuracy. This concept of usability, based largely on Issa and Isaias’ (2015) seven principles of usability, includes the stage where a user learns to use the system and extends to considerations of gaps in and frequency of use of the technology. From this perspective, we notice usability refers entirely to human experience (Issa & Isaias, 2015,).
To extend this conception of usability to HCI where the human is a learner, some consideration is required. Usability aims to eliminate challenge, struggle, and discomfort in the user’s experience and that may or may not be beneficial to an educational experience. The key is intentionality. Educators, when using or considering the use of a technological system in learning, need to consider what is and isn’t being challenged by a particular HCI. Key questions to ask include,
Does the usability of the system eliminate the opportunity for deeper knowledge construction?
Does the system’s usability create barriers to a learner’s access to the educational experience at the core of the exercise? Ex. Considering Issa and Isaias’s (2015) Errors principle, is it easy to make frustrating, unintentional errors that are hard to undo?
Beyond Issa and Isaias’ (2015) usability criteria, does bias affect the HCI and learning experience of some or all learners? Issa and Isaias state “users should not even have to think about the complexity of how to use a computer” (2015, p. 20), which suggests the assumptions made in the design of a system should match the assumptions of the anticipated learner. Again, we see the importance of understanding and reflecting on the assumptions and biases built into a computer’s design.
From Woolgar (1990) we get a more nuanced version of usability that offers an opportunity to peel back the layers of interaction and influence between technologies and their users, as well as designers and developers through the technologies they create. He argues developers and designers configure, or “define, enable and constrain” (Woolgar, 1990, p.69), users in the development of technologies, and that users are further configured in using technologies, giving the technology itself an active role.
For instance, Woolgar (1990) describes how users are defined as inside or outside the company by the ways in which they are enabled or constrained from interacting with computer parts inside a computer’s exterior case. While it was common for computers to be open and parts routinely touched in development, home-users were (and still are) strongly discouraged – or constrained – from interacting with a computer in this way. Woolgar (1990) recalls inserting a microchip into a computer as an important initiation milestone – defining his new position as “inside”. Similarly, a test user, in using a manual as intended by its creator, is defined as ideal, enabled to accomplish goals, and constrained by the manual text into a set of actions. This layered interaction configured the user both in the moment and going forward, as the user learns to repeat actions in future impact the (Woolgar, 1990). The habits the user then brings with them impacts future configurations, such as the way Western culture’s convention of a fictional hero calling to a higher power for aid has impacted the design of smart voice assistants and thus impacts what users expect from not only voice assistants but likely other technologies now and in the future (Humphry & Chesher, 2021).
In consideration of the two excerpts selected for this assignment, the term target users stands out. This term is used by Issa and Isaias (2015) and indicates their ultimate alignment with Woolgar’s (1990) assertion that users are configured by a computer’s development, though their discussion appears to hope for the potential of a universal design. However, Woolgar's perspective grants greater appreciation for the cyclical relationship between users and technologies. From an educator’s perspective, it is important to understand how that configuration affects a learning experience during an HCI in the context of education and the lens of usability can offer an access point.
Humphry, J. & Chesher, C. (2021). Preparing for smart voice assistants: Cultural histories and media innovations. New Media and Society, 23(7), 1971-1988.
Issa, T. & Isaias, P. (2015) Usability and human computer interaction (HCI). In Sustainable Design (pp. 19-35). Springer.
Woolgar, S. (1990). Configuring the user: The case of usability trials. The Sociological Review, 38(1, Suppl.), S58-S99.