Usability Study Tips for Distance Education Students


laptopI wanted to share a few tips I learned from doing a usability study for my final project in graduate school as a distance education student.

This summer I graduated from the University of Illinois with a Certificate of Advanced Study in Digital Libraries. I was interested in connecting with end users for my last undertaking as a graduate student after spending two years focusing on the technical and administrative side of things. I developed a protocol to test a government public access database using the cognitive think-aloud method followed by a survey based on the System Usability Scale (SUS).

While my study was a usability one, the tips here could be applied to almost any study done as a distance education student that requires the approval of a university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB).

First of all, doing a study as a distance student is going to be harder. You are cut off from most of the research services your school provides. Connecting with advisors is more challenging without the face-to-face interaction and relationships on-campus students have with their professors. On-campus students might have an easier time finding participants from fellow students who better understand the stuffy research procedures you have to use during recruitment and might be more sympathetic because of their own projects. As a distance student, you need to come up with a whole new recruitment plan.

The good news is that while you’ll face more difficulty as a distance student, it’s certainly not impossible. Plan right (and early) and you’ll see progress toward graduation in no time. I aimed to have 20 participants in my study and was delighted to have 12. Of course, a smaller number might work for normal iterative development teams, but is unacceptable by professors judging a research study.

Four Tips for Distance Education Students

1. Give your study flexibility

I added multiple sites and multiple recruitment methods for my study. When my original plans were not working out as expected, I had alternatives already thought out and approved.

2. Do your legwork ahead of time

Sites who knew me personally prior to asking for permission to conduct my study there were more likely to and faster at granting me permission. Even before you’ve narrowed down the details of what you want to do, visit potential sites and talk their management.

3. Prepare for lots of “nos”

This sounds obvious, but still merits saying. You will experience lots of rejection. You will have long periods of time between scheduling participants. Be ready for the frustration you are going to feel.

4. If you need to recruit on social media…

  • Set your advertisements to run on days when you can monitor your accounts. I only had to block one person – something I view as a positive checkmark for society – but I needed to be ready to take down any inappropriate comments.
  • Facebook won’t allow you to have an image with more than 20% text on a promoted post. This was an issue for my recruitment ads. Facebook would notice a few hours after I put my post up and then would remove it.
  • Facebook requires you to have a public page for advertisements. You can easily create one using your personal account, but you should also add some content to it to put a face and personality to the dry recruitment ads.

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