Last weekend, I drove down to Corvallis to meet up with the VISTAS project team for a set of meetings with our scientific collaborators. I had the pleasure of driving an official State of Washington vehicle, which made me feel like a Senator or something.
We managed to cover a lot of ground in the span of two days worth of meetings. Of primary interest to my UI-enhancement project was a user session we ran with Bob McKane from the EPA. Bob is a major collaborator on the project, and a big part of what the application does is support creating visualizations for a hydrology model he helped develop called VELMA. Observing him using the application gave me a good sense of the sticking points & hurdles to a casual VISTAS user. Specifically, there are two main sticking points:
- Correctly loading data files is tricky.
- Creating a visualization requires too many steps.
We also had a consultation session with Dr. Margaret Burnett from OSU. Margaret gave us some great insights on user perspective. One point she brought up that I found particularly interesting was the notion of “information foraging.” This is the theory that humans evolved to have built-in “foraging” behavior to enable sifting through quantities of information in order to find the cues most likely to lead to food. You can think of a user of an application as being a predator, searching for prey in the form of desirable usage outcomes. So when a user looks at a new application interface or website they’ve never visited before, where is the eye drawn? What stands out to the user as being most likely to lead them to their prey? Right now, in VISTAS, it is difficult to find the prey without preexisting knowledge, and I hope to change this.