School of Engineering Works with U.S. Department of Homeland Security on User Experience Testing


MACON – The Department of Technical Communication in the Mercer University School of Engineering worked with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) during the recent spring semester to conduct user experience (UX) testing on the recently redesigned website.

Mercer is the first school with which DHS Web Operations and Communications has worked on a project of this type. Mercer Law School graduate Maria Odom, who serves as Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman for DHS, connected her alma mater with Matt Harmon, director of web operations and communications in the DHS Office of Public Affairs.

Harmon was amenable to working jointly with Mercer to conduct web usability testing on DHS's public website. He and his staff worked directly with Dr. Pam Estes Brewer, associate professor and director of the Master of Science in Technical Communication Management program, and her students. Based on the information the students received from DHS, they developed tests, recruited participants and conducted testing in the School of Engineering usability lab.

The usability lab was constructed in 2007 as part of the Science and Engineering Building. The lab was renovated this year to create a private waiting area to better accommodate testing participants. The testing room includes two computers, a table and chairs. Cameras mounted to the wall and a two-way mirror allow students to monitor testing from the room next door.

“We have the only university usability testing center in Middle Georgia,” Dr. Brewer said.

For the DHS testing, students observed participants using four sections within the DHS website – Cybersecurity, See Something, Say Something™; Homeland Security Careers; and Science and Technology. The participants were selected based on the DHS's target audience for those pages, and any problems, comments, or suggestions the target audience had using the pages were reported to Harmon and his staff.

“The data says that if you have three to five participants, you can capture 85 percent of the problems, if you've designed the study and picked the participants well,” Dr. Brewer said.

The DHS testing was supported in part by a grant from the University's Research that Reaches Out Quality Enhancement Plan.

DHS is one of several high-profile clients for which the Department of Technical Communication has performed UX testing.

Also this past semester, students tested a patient tracking app for Global Emergency Resources, an Augusta-based provider of web and mobile, near real-time tracking and situational awareness information systems for use by healthcare, EMS and governmental organizations.

Mercer Engineering Research Center (MERC) provided the referral for the testing, and Navicent Health provided the paramedics who participated in the testing of the technology, which is primarily designed for use in the case of a large-scale emergency situation such as a natural disaster.

Last year, students tested the Georgia Interoperability Network (GIN) training system with 911 call center employees who would need to use the system to quickly direct callers to other jurisdictions in an emergency situation.

Usability, which came into fashion in the 1970s, is the extent to which a product can be used by specific users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use. Over the past decade, this field of study has transitioned to UX, which also takes into consideration the emotions of users in order to determine the overall experience created by a product.

“User experience professionals are in very high demand,” said Dr. Brewer. “Companies like Amazon and Google will pay six figures to people who can conduct usability assessments of their products and collect reliable data.”