CX Insights

The ABC of Usability Part 10

6 min read

The latest installment in our monthly list of User Experience terms and our first milestone as we hit our 10th edition!

Each month, we are adding new terms to our existing glossary of Usability and UX definitions; terms we deem useful, interesting or – hopefully – a mixture of the two!

Discover new terms, learn more of the ones you thought you knew and find out interesting, little known, details.

November’s five new terms are as follows:



Just as usability studies study the interactions between a person and technology; ethnography studies the interactions between a person, other people and their environments. With little hypothesis, ethnography is largely a case of observing people’s interactions and journeys through their own environment. A qualitative form of research, aimed at exploring and representing these cultural phenomenon on paper.

You would be right to ask quite how does this fit into UX?

Though pioneered in the social branches of anthropology, ethnography has found use in a plethora of fields. From History, to communication studies, to – of course – UX.

Ethnography allows us to better understand our users, before they are users. It allows us to understand how their cultural habits will shape and affect their experience. Once we understand how a person or cultural group will spontaneously interact with their environment, it allows us to design with these interactions in mind – to better design around our users, essentially forming the basis for User Centered Design (UCD). In the words of Ethnographer Tricia Wang:

“While usability tests and focus groups are useful for specific phases of app development, they aren’t as useful for understanding cultural frameworks and practices because by the time an app is being tested, it already has accumulated so many cultural assumptions along the way in the design process that users are asked to test something that functions in the programmer’s world, not the user’s world.”

There’s a great Intro/Example of Ethnography here.

Responsive Design

The past 7 years have seen web browsing habits change dramatically. Where before the vast majority would visit websites via desktop – due to little other option – now we browse using all manner of devices. From PC to Tablet, iPhone to Blackberry. There are a plethora of devices and resolutions that websites must be adapted to in order to ensure our visitors are always having an optimal experience. Building individual websites, optimized for each device however would be nigh on impossible. How then, do we ensure our site is always optimized, regardless of device?

Responsive Design is an approach whereby the site’s design adjusts to the user’s behaviour and needs, based on: Platform, Screen size, Resolution, and Orientation. The site should respond to the user’s needs. If they move from their desktop to the iPad, their experience should not suffer. It works both ways: Your visitors have a greater user experience, and it saves you from developing multiple sites for each device.

This is achieved using an intelligent mix of CSS media queries and flexible grids, layouts and images. A great introduction to Responsive Design can be found on Smashing Magazine.

User Flow


This could be described as the backbone of web design. It is often forgotten that amongst all of the great styling and design, the core is your users. The whole point of having a website is to provide something to visitors, else why would they visit?

User Flow studies both where you plan your users to begin and end on their journey through the website. It is a diagram of states. Not only is it about what you wish your user’s journey to be, but about their expectations. With input from your users, you can design their journey to meet their needs, as intuitively as possible.

User Flow helps you to better understand where your users are going, what their end goal is, and how this will be achieved. It serves as the framework of your site, much like an underground or metro map – on top of which the fancy stuff can be added.

Wizard of OZ experiment

This experiment’s name offers a good clue to what it entails to anyone who knows their films. To those few who have not seen The Wizard of Oz, nor read the original book then there are spoilers incoming… (You’ve been warned!).

In the titular story, the land of Oz is ruled over by a malevolent, powerful wizard. Dorothy, a young Kansan girl, finds herself trapped in this world and must find the wizard and ask for his help to get home. At the end of her journey in Oz, she finds this great wizard; only to discover he is just an ordinary man, hidden behind a curtain and pretending to be a powerful wizard through the use of ‘amplifying’ technology.

The Wizard of Oz experiment borrows from this idea, using a ‘man behind a curtain’ to fake a user’s interaction with a computer system. This causes the person to think the system is completely autonomous, when it is actually being controlled by a human.

Conceived in the 1980’s by John F. Kelly, the Wizard of Oz experiment utilized one-way mirrors to enable the tester separation from the participant. The original use was in the development of natural language processing algorithms. The Examiner originally took the place of the machine as the participant fed in natural language. The experiment bypassed the need for an extensive algorithm to already exist, and allowed the examination process to be much shorter – due to the sub-par processing ability of machines at the time.

Over time, the algorithm was built up to respond for intuitively with the natural language until a point was reached whereby the man behind the curtain needn’t be there. Today, the experiment still sees effective use in the testing of Speech and Handwriting recognition.

Web Analytics

The internet is big business, you don’t need to be told that. With so many visitors, so many websites, and so much money floating about, websites have to understand what their users are doing. They have to understand their visitor’s behaviour.

In the early days, everything was about hits. Remember the counters you’d see on hosted on just about every site? Hits were the primary measurement of success – the logic went that if a visitor likes something, they’d request it more (give it more hits/visits).

As technologies have become more complex, it has become necessary – and possible – to better measure user’s behavior on a site. Studying User Flows, geographic locations and the success of call to actions. Analytic help designers to understand their user’s needs, and judge how design decisions shape their experience with the site. Though it is nearly impossible to exactly understand behavior, analytics allow for us to collect and refine a tremendous amount of data which can be analysed for clues.

Google analytics and Kissmetrics are both examples of Analytics software.

Oliver McGough
Passionate UX Designer and Marketer.