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Usability Testing of Community Data and Mapping Systems

Denice Warren, Chief Information Systems Designer, denicew@gnocdc.org
Joy Bonaguro, Web and Data Production Coordinator, joyb@gnocdc.org


Usability testing is the only way to ensure that a web site designed for the public is truly usable. Devoting resources to such testing pays off by making a web site more efficient, effective, and credible, and leaves a trail of satisfied users who come back to the site and recommend it to their colleagues. This document summarizes research behind why usability testing is important, especially in web-based GIS, and concludes with a basic protocol for applying usability testing to community data and mapping systems. On the web page www.gnocdc.org/usability are links to detailed protocol resources such as scripts, sample users tasks, release forms, and sample analyses of results available for download.


Web-based data and mapping systems can be powerful tools for the public to access and visualize complex information. However, the inherent complexity of these web systems can itself create a barrier between the public and the information they need.

Philosophy of user-centered design

A philosophy of user-centered design, coupled with a culture of continuous quality improvement through formal usability testing, can create a web system that meets the public where they are and capitalizes on people's existing strengths in finding and using information. A highly usable web site allows users to focus on the information within the system, rather than struggling with how to use the system itself.

Usability testing is a natural extension of the community engagement process, and having an easy-to-use site is an essential element in respecting the community audience. IBM has published a "User Bill of Rights" that summarizes the philosophy underlying true user-centered design (IBM).

User Rights (verbatim from http://www-3.ibm.com/ibm/easy/eou_ext.nsf/Publish/12)

  1. Perspective: The user is always right. If there is a problem with the use of the system, the system is the problem, not the user.
  2. Installation: The user has the right to easily install and uninstall software and hardware systems without negative consequences.
  3. Compliance: The user has the right to a system that performs exactly as promised.
  4. Instruction: The user has the right to easy-to-use instructions (user guides, online or contextual help, error messages) for understanding and utilizing a system to achieve desired goals and recover efficiently and gracefully from problem situations.
  5. Control: The user has the right to be in control of the system and to be able to get the system to respond to a request for attention.
  6. Feedback: The user has the right to a system that provides clear, understandable, and accurate information regarding the task it is performing and the progress toward completion.
  7. Dependencies: The user has the right to be clearly informed about all systems requirements for successfully using software or hardware.
  8. Scope: The user has the right to know the limits of the system's capabilities.
  9. Assistance: The user has the right to communicate with the technology provider and receive a thoughtful and helpful response when raising concerns.
  10. Usability: The user should be the master of software and hardware technology, not vice-versa. Products should be natural and intuitive to use.
What is usability testing?

Usability is formally defined as the effective, efficient and satisfying completion of tasks by users (Lee, 1999, pp. 38). In a community data and mapping system, task completion might include printing a thematic map of one's neighborhood, downloading data about crime rates within a city, or analyzing statistical phenomena within a specific community.

Usability testing is a formal method of watching users interact with a system to complete a task. In such testing, a naïve "typical" user is given realistic tasks to complete on the web site. A variety of qualitative and quantitative data is gathered while the user navigates to complete the task. An analysis of the data from such testing then informs the iterative design of these web systems to better meet the needs of the audience.

Rationale for usability testing

Why designing from usability guidelines isn't sufficient

The field of usability has spawned a massive collection of web design guidelines based on sound principles of human-computer interaction (HCI). With so much guidance on how to design a web site, it almost seems that one would be able to design a perfect web site from the onset - one that did not require usability testing. This is not the case.

HCI is based on human behavior, which invariably produces "fuzzy" results (Nielsen, 2003). And, guidelines are generalizations based on the characteristics of all users, not your target audience. As such, they can fail to address the unique goals of your system and the specific needs of your users (Microsoft Corporation, 2000). Guidelines are an excellent starting place for design, but the only way to know if a particular guideline works is to test it with members of your target audience.

What makes for poor usability?

Across the web, users are most frustrated by slow download times, being unable to find specific information, and confusing site design (Bernard, 2001). All of these annoyances harm the effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction of task completion in different ways and all can be improved through usability testing and redesign.

When users have to wait for a long download, their subjective evaluation of the web site suffers even though they may still be able to complete a given task (Bernard, 2001; Selvidge, 1999). This harms the satisfaction component of task completion, and thus the usability. Willingness to wait for pages to download differs with audience characteristics and bandwidth; as you would expect, younger adults and those with faster Internet connections (cable/DSL) are less willing to wait for pages to download (Selvidge, 2003).

When users cannot find the information they seek, the underlying causes are typically in navigation and organization, the sheer volume of information, or page placement of content and links (Bernard, 2001). Difficulties in navigation arise when the site is organized counter-intuitively and users cannot predict where their actions will take them in the system. Users might find a web site confusing if it employs a lot of jargon, has insufficiently described links, or contains an overwhelming amount of content. Information or links located in unconventional places on the page or distracting information may also generate confusion. These types of problems inhibit the likelihood of task completion.

Special challenges in designing web-based mapping systems

Many of the issues discussed above are problems that all online systems face. These problems are even more pronounced in online mapping systems due to the 1) increase in complexity that occurs when specialized functionality is added to a conventional web browser environment, and 2) the inherent complexity of the content itself.

Online community mapping systems were adapted from software designed for expert users who had common training in both GIS content and tools (Slocum, 2001, pp. 12; Cartwright, 2001, pp. 13). Lay users of these systems are in the difficult position of concurrently learning new content and new tools. (See Haklay, 2003 for a review.) Visitors to an e-commerce site, in contrast, have an easier time learning the system because they can rely on their previous experiences shopping in the real world.

Moreover, there are still technical and system incompatibilities that exist in online mapping systems. With a wide, uncontrolled user base, client-side technology may not be capable of handling memory-intensive functionality, specialized plug-ins, or high bandwidth requirements.

One reason for the often high-level client system requirements is that, as GIS has been applied to a variety of disciplines, it has become very feature-rich. The same flexibility that allows GIS to perform a wide range of tasks in different fields of expertise also acts as a hindrance when attempting to modify the system for the lay public. Many data and mapping systems inadvertently overwhelm the users with functionality that requires specialized knowledge. To avoid this phenomenon, designers can employ such functionality sparingly and with caution, choosing to implement only those features that have been proven usable (Cartwright, 2001, pp. 5). The premise is that it is better to have a simple, easy-to-use site than one with extravagant features and poor usability (Fogg, et al, 2001, pp. 67).

Credibility & usability

Good usability can increase the credibility of a web site and its content - an effect that is especially positive for community data and mapping systems whose purpose is to inform decisions that impact communities. Credibility also helps persuade users to perform actions such as registering personal information, participating in surveys, contributing content, returning to use the site again, and referring the site to colleagues. Users are less likely to perform these actions if they doubt the credibility of the site (Fogg et al, 2002, pp. 4). Not only will poor usability make it more difficult for users to find information they need, it will also make them less likely to trust it when they do find it.

Usability testing protocol for community mapping systems

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen (Nielsen, 1997) notes that there is a gap between people watching a demonstration or discussing a product and actually using it. This is because people are not necessarily aware of how they work when using something, and often do not notice the subtle techniques they use to compensate for poor design (Usability.gov). Asking people what they think of a site's usability will result in potentially misleading results. The only way to truly understand a site's usability is to watch people use it, and formal usability testing provides a structure for doing so.

For many of the reasons outlined earlier in this document, testing the usability of community data and mapping systems is notably different from testing other types of web sites, especially commercial ones. Most usability testing protocols, however, are designed for commercial web sites. We found that a customized combination of the following usability techniques worked best in evaluating a community data web site:

  • Contextual inquiry (to understand the users' work context)
  • Ethnographic study (to help refine user requirements)
  • Usability testing (experiments where users are given tasks and asked to think aloud as they perform them).

The major steps in designing and implementing this integrated protocol are:

  1. Generate research questions from which to design user tasks
  2. Recruit users to test the site, and then conduct the tests
  3. Analyze the results of testing and make design changes accordingly

1. Generating research questions from which to design user tasks

Usability testing requires a commitment of time, energy and resources. To get the most out of this effort, you'll want to do two things in preparation. One, maximize your time with the usability testers - catch and fix all broken links, misspellings and other obvious problems before conducting your tests. You want your usability testers to tell you about problems that you can't discover on your own. Two, take a good look at what you already know about user experiences with your site and use that knowledge as a starting place for designing your testing protocol.

Good clues can lead to good research questions, which set the stage for user tasks that will generate usability data from which you can redesign your site. The more specific your clues, the more specific your research questions will be, and therefore the more actionable the results will be. On the other hand, there is also tremendous value in more general research questions, because the answers they elicit can then be the starting place for the next iteration of usability testing. Within a few generations of testing, a vague usability problem can turn into very specific design solutions. A good usability testing protocol includes a mix of specific and general research questions.

Table 1: Formulating user tasks

Clue to usability problem Sample research question Sample user task
From the web site server statistics, the "most popular pages" viewed by visitors to the site do not include what you consider to be the most important pages in your site (such as the page that gives the technical definitions for the indicators you publish).* Is the 'Definitions' link sufficiently visible? How many blighted houses are in the Holy Cross neighborhood?(In order to answer this question, users must use the 'Definitions' link to learn the difference between blighted and vacant houses.)
Functionality that you spent a great deal of resources to create doesn't get used much (such as a feature that allows users to create custom neighborhood boundaries). *, ** Is the 'Define your neighborhood boundaries' link visible? Once people get to the feature for defining their own neighborhood, is it clear what to do? Is the tool for selecting the custom neighborhood geography intuitive? Are there other barriers to using this feature? Use the web site to create a map showing homeownership rates in the neighborhood your nonprofit serves. (To answer this question, users must use the 'Define your neighborhood boundaries' feature.)
People ask you how to find information that should be easy to find on the site (e.g., "Do y'all have data on teen births?"). Is data on teen pregnancy in a predictable category? What is the rate of teen pregnancies in St. Bernard Parish? (To answer this, users must click on the category that contains the teen pregnancy data.)
The site seems to generate the same questions in people's heads, and those questions aren't answered by the site (e.g., "What Census tract am I in?"). Do the maps provide enough geographic detail to help users choose their area(s) of interest? Download the data profile for the Census tract in which you live. (This task requires users to find their Census tract on the map.)
Server statistics show that one of the most common exit pages is a key navigation page (such as a required registration page). What's happening when people land on the registration page? Is usability a barrier? Is the form too long? Are users suspicious of our intent? Any user task that requires users to register would also answer this question. (You don't want to directly task people with registering because that lends false motivation; instead you want to see what happens when registering is a means to another end.)
User characteristics (domains, browser versions, operating systems, etc.) that show up in the server statistics don't match what you would expect for your target audience. How do our pages look on the computers of our users? Do our pages download quickly enough? Do the pages print well on their printers? These questions are answered a little bit by every task. (In order to be complete, conduct some basic "web site calisthenics" on the user's computer.)
Design decisions that you debated during the production of the site, or that you have a 'weird feeling' about. Will people expect to find voter registration information under the "community participation" category? How many registered voters are there in St. Tammany parish compared to the state as a whole? [This puts the search term 'voters' in the user's head and will test whether they expect to find 'voters' in 'community participation.']
* When you're trying to determine if a feature is getting used (or, a page is being viewed) make sure that you filter out internal users. A programmer testing a feature, or another staffperson demonstrating it at workshops, will look like regular traffic unless you filter them out.
** Depending on the type of feature this is, you may have to look at records of database queries, server statistics, or other indicators of "use."

The user tasks are printed and taped onto index cards. These cards help minimize cueing by the interviewer, and provide some degree of standardization across testing sessions.

2. Recruit users to test the site, and then conduct the tests

This composite test protocol has the following major elements (more detailed testing protocols and sample scripts and release forms are available for download at www.gnocdc.org/usability/):

  • Participants are members of the target audience, but ideally naïve ones, meaning that they have spent little or no time at your web site. (They, or their organization, are compensated for their participation.) A sample of 3-5 users for each round of usability testing is enough to get actionable data from testing.

  • Usability testing is conducted in the field (rather than in a usability lab) at the place where the user would typically access your site.

  • Two staffpersons (or consultants) conduct the testing. One is the interviewer, the other is the notetaker. Two hours is a good amount of time for a field usability test.

  • The interviewer has the user fill out a questionnaire, and interviews them briefly about their work. Concurrently, the notetaker records the specifications of the user's computer (OS, browser, bandwidth speed, screen resolution, bit-depth) and the browser's default home page setting.

  • The notetaker visits key pages on the site being tested from the user's computer and notes (subjectively) if the pages download in a reasonable amount of time and whether they display well. The notetaker also prints out samples of pages to see how they print on the user's printer.

  • When the notetaker is finished testing the computer, they log the computer into a tracking system that sets a temporary cookie so that all pages clicked on the web site are recorded for later analysis. (One could note each page visited manually, but there is a great risk for lost data, especially when a user hits a page and backs out quickly.) The primary analysis for this data is "number of clicks to target" which is a measure of efficiency. ("Time to target" is a common usability metric for testing that occurs in a controlled environment. This metric does not work when testing occurs in the user's environment, though.)

  • When the usability testing begins, the interviewer explains how the test will work. It is emphasized that the web site is being tested, not the user. The interviewer explains that she will hand the user a note card with a task written on it. The user is then to use the web site to perform the task, thinking aloud as they go. The interviewer will not answer questions during the task, and can't help the user find the answer. (The notetaker takes copious notes about what the user says and, especially behaviors that will not be captured with the tracking system.)

  • When the user is performing a task, the interviewer prompts them to continue thinking aloud if they get quiet, and may ask non-leading questions to elicit explanations and motivations for the user's behavior.

3. Analyze the results of testing and make design changes accordingly

Usability testing will generate a combination of qualitative and quantitative data. You'll want to craft the analysis so it answers the initial research questions and leads to recommendations for redesign. For each research question, consider the data gathered for all of the user tasks addressing that question. From the quantitative data generated by user tracking, you can determine the number of clicks it took to get from the home page to complete the task. (This number can be compared to the minimum number of clicks required to complete the task; a greater number of clicks in the user testing may indicate lack of efficiency in the design.) When you combine that with notes taken from the user thinking aloud as they attempted to complete the task, you may gain insight into where they encountered troubles, and whether they were frustrated at specific design features.

Table 2: Sample analysis of results and design recommendation

Research question
User task
Analysis of results
Design recommendation
Will people expect to find voter registration information under the "community participation" category? How many registered voters are there in St. Tammany parish compared to the state as a whole?

3 user took an average of 7 clicks to find the target data (compared to only 3 clicks minimum required from home page).

All users went to the page with "People & Households" data rather than "Community Participation" data.

One user commented, upon finding the data on the "Community Participation" page, "Hmm… I was expecting to find information on neighborhood watch groups and church activities here, not voting."

Create a link especially for "Voting," since nobody expected "Voting" data to be in the vaguely-titled category of "Community Participation."

After redesigning the site based on feedback from usability testing, you'll want to test the site again, using the same tasks but new, naïve, users somewhat matched to the users in the first cohort. This way you can determine whether your design change was indeed an improvement. Also, compiling results that show a positive effect from usability testing help justify its continued role in your organization (and budget).


Usability testing is an essential technique in the continuous improvement of community data and mapping systems. As described in this document, users benefit because they are able to access the information they need more efficiently and with less frustration. The organization responsible for the web site benefits from added credibility. Additional side benefits are that the web site development team develops a greater understanding of the audience, making future development efforts more efficient and better targeted. And, the development team can more confidently make design decisions with the right information in front of them. Users involved in usability testing often turn out to be enthusiastic advocates of your site and can accelerate word of mouth marketing to reach out to new visitors.

Return on investment (ROI), the metric typically applied in commercial web sites to judge the worth of a usability initiative, is difficult to measure in a community web site that is a public good. However, the cost of not conducting usability testing is unarguably too high - users are likely to feel disrespected, not trust your site, and might not come back.


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