The science of user experience (UX) design

Using eye-tracking technology and website user data, researchers can better understand user experience of apps and websites, to help companies and other organisations design more effective interfaces. This technology can also improve learning outcomes in diverse groups, including children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or improve electronic learning platforms for school learners.


The field of digital design is changing rapidly as new technology and tools become available. Human-computer interaction (HCI) is changing in parallel as the platforms we use to interact with technology change and become more accessible.

This means that traditional intuitive approaches to design don’t necessarily provide an optimal user experience on modern apps and websites. The field of User Experience (UX) looks at new ways to address these issues.

In South Africa, UX is not considered during the design process, or it is given only cursory attention towards the end of a design project where it will not be useful. Participatory design - UX as well as working with end users for better design - holds the potential to improve usability in websites and apps designed in South Africa.


Prof Helene Gelderblom, who runs the Informatics Design Labs at the University of Pretoria (UP), is looking to address some of the challenges in the field of UX and participatory design in South Africa. Gelderblom and her colleagues have worked with companies such as Deloitte, ABSA, EpiUse and others to improve the UX of their websites and apps while advancing the use of UX in design in South Africa.

The team uses eye-tracking technology in combination with interviews and other qualitative data to help these companies improve their websites, and aims to start using big data to build on this approach.

The ISEMLR will incorporate sports physicians and other medical practitioners from various UP departments.
Eye-tracking technology helps researchers gather data about a user’s experience of a website or platform.

Designing a better e-learning platform

Prof Machdel Matthee, Prof Gelderblom and colleagues are using eye-tracking technology and participatory design principles to understand how certain private high school learners and teachers in Gauteng are using a new tablet-based learning platform.

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Designing for Autism Spectrum Disorder

Ms Ilse de Bruin is working using eye-tracking technology to develop guidelines to design better learning applications for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder(ASD).

Read More (page 5)

Design for kids, by kids

Prof Helene Gelderblom has recently formed KidsTeam-SA, a group of children who collaborate with designers and researchers in designing education websites and applications. They are designing a social media platform that connects children who need homework assistance with high school learners willing to help out.

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Are SA companies taking customer experience seriously?

Just how seriously do local companies take customer experience? Mr Jacques Brosens of the Department of Informatics at the University of Pretoria is on a mission to find out.

Read More (Page 4)

Designing for Autism Spectrum Disorder

Ms Ilse de Bruin is working using eye-tracking technology to develop guidelines to design better learning applications for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder(ASD).

Read More (page 5)

Better design may boost uptake of e-learning platforms in schools

Researchers at the Informatics Design Labs at the University of Pretoria (UP) are using eye-tracking technology to improve an e-learning platform currently being rolled out in several public and private schools.

In some Gauteng schools, textbooks are so last season. Instead, teachers and learners are using tablets to keep textbooks and notes in one place. But it’s not clear how well this system works for the teachers or the learners.

Prof Machdel Matthee, Prof Helene Gelderblom, Dr Lizette Weilbach, and Dr Marie Hattingh of the Department of Informatics are using eye-tracking to understand and improve use of the e-learning programme. This platform, developed by a company called ITSI, is used by about 7 000 students at 175 schools in South Africa.

The system allows learners to keep all their books in one place, provides support for teachers, and encourages the use of modern technology in a blended learning environment. Using the platform, teachers can turn normal e-books into interactive e-learning environments by providing assessments and linking the textbooks to websites and multimedia content.

Using eye-tracking and participatory design through interviews with students, Matthee and her research group are trying to better understand the attitudes people have towards this new learning platform. To this end, they asked users to engage with common procedures like viewing and annotating e-textbooks or generating chapter and section summaries.

The research is not conclusive yet, but Matthee hopes that their findings will improve the use and uptake of the innovative learning platform.

The researchers are about to start on a pilot study at public schools in the Western Cape to provide feedback to the Western Cape Education Department on whether ITSI’s high-tech teaching platform can improve learning outcomes in schools. If successful, the programme may be rolled out to a wider group of South African schools.

See related photos in gallery on the right sidebar.

App design for kids, by kids

Prof Helene Gelderblom of the Department of Informatics at the University of Pretoria (UP) has recently formed KidsTeam-SA, a group of children who collaborate with designers and researchers in designing education websites and applications.

Sometimes, designers aren’t the best people for the job when building apps and websites. When designing e-learning platforms for high school pupils, the end users are learners; Prof Gelderblom thinks they should be the designers as well.

“Participatory design with school children holds several advantages,” she says. “They are naturally inclined towards new ideas, they don’t worry about an idea being silly or bad, and they do not have preconceived notions about good or bad design.”

Recent researchsupports this idea: a study has shown that “ideas from young children are significantly more original, transformational, implementable and relevant than those from the adults” when studying a sample of 800 mobile app concepts. Prof Gelderblom believes that it is important that this resource is put to good use and with that in mind, she formed KidsTeam-SA.

One KidsTeam-SA project, a collaboration between Gelderblom and Mrs Bester Chimbo at UNISA, is a social media platform called TitanTutor. The TitanTutor platform is a network with a Skype-like interface and a digital whiteboard for drawing and sharing ideas. The researchers have completed and evaluated the prototype and are now testing out the platform in a pilot project.

The system connects junior school children who need homework assistance with teenagers from privileged schools. This can help with reading, mathematics or any other kind of tutoring, and focuses on primary school-level development. Prof Gelderblom hopes to one day use the system to connect the learners to senior citizens as well.

Gelderblom and Chimbo worked with orphans in grades three and four who may not have adequate homework support, as well as with high school learners from privileged backgrounds.

KidsTeam-SA is also working on other web-based design projects, which will be made public in the coming months.

See related photos in the gallery on the right sidebar.

Are SA companies taking customer experience seriously?

Just how seriously do local companies take customer experience? Mr Jacques Brosens of the Department of Informatics at the University of Pretoria (UP) is on a mission to find out.

Born and raised in Pretoria, Brosens has always been intrigued by the possibilities of technology. Unlike many enthusiasts however, he is particularly interested in how humans interact with computers.

It did not take much to get him hooked: he completed an IT degree in Computer Science, Informatics, and Information Science at University of Pretoria. “I also did a postgraduate course in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI); and from then I was exposed to the science behind the human side of computing”.

The field of HCI has a lot to do with the concept of user experience, or UX, which refers to how intuitive, easy to use and useful a technology is to its target users. In terms of the current state of UX design in South Africa, Brosens is excited about where the tech industry could be headed in the country.

He says that one unwritten rule about human interaction with technology is that it should be unobtrusive. “You interact with technology without knowing you are interacting with it. It becomes second nature to you,” he explains.

With the increasing trend and acceptance of UX globally, Brosens wonders if Africa will follow suit and take advantage of the wave.

“Do we have the infrastructure in place to capitalise on these developments in technology, especially in HCI?” he asks. “Are we concerned as much as we should be about making the interactions as comfortable for people as possible?”

The basis of Brosens’ research stems from an observation that there seems to be a lack of maturity in the software development space in South Africa when it comes to UX. He explains that when developing an app, for instance, developers make a list of the requirements the final product must meet. “In general, at no point do we make UX a formal part of the development process. We seldom put ourselves in the shoes of the user.”

In addition to improving user experience by designing more intuitive and comfortable interactions, Brosens says digital products can and should be pleasant to use as well. He feels that this aspect of how enjoyable technology is to use remains too small a part of the process.

“It seems that UX is being recognised in industry and has become a buzzword to some extent, but instead of incorporating UX as part of their software development strategies, teams usually consider and apply it superficially just to tick a box towards the end,” he says.

His research is taking an in-depth look at the South African UX industry. “I want to talk to those people responsible for managing technology development projects,” he says. “I am assuming that usability and UX practices add value in these places, but is that necessarily true? What are their opinions on that? Is it even possible for them to implement UX practices in their development process?”

These questions form part of Brosens’ research at UP - he is conducting interviews with leaders at six major South African enterprises. He describes it as a wide, exploratory study “to understand the problem we have in South Africa”. His goals are to spark a deep discussion, to understand the contexts of the companies he would profile, and to understand what factors influence UX implementation.

The usual approach to a case study like this is for a researcher to focus all their attention on one company to gain insight. Brosens, however, decided to include six different entities to ensure that the study gains broader insights.“I want to see if there are common problem areas in the different industries. I targeted aviation, banking, insurance, education, IT consulting and telecommunications,” he explains.

Brosens hopes his research will spur technology development to become part of an overall customer experience strategy for companies, rather than being confined only to IT departments. “Many big companies have been getting UX right, and my thinking is that it is because their strategies are in line with a larger customer experience strategy.”

“I would like to see user-centered thinking and design as something that happens across the whole organisation, where each employee is focused on giving the best possible user experience,” he says. “This way it naturally flows across all the stages of development, to the point that you don't need to formalise it especially.”

See related photos in the gallery on the right sidebar.

Tech design breaks barriers for children with Autism

Researchers at the University of Pretoria (UP) are developing guidelines to design better learning applications for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Ms Ilse de Bruin, who works with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) children, explains ASD children’s relationship with technology through the example of Gus, the boy who has made friends with Siri. “Children with ASD find it easier to interact with technology than with people because a computerised voice like Siri’s doesn’t have emotion,” she says. “They can find emotions overwhelming.”

Research shows that children with ASD have a particularly hard time learning language, with some never learning to speak; at the same age, those with ASD use fewer words in everyday speech than their counterparts without the condition. They also have difficulty in understanding the nuances of social interaction and this often leads to learning difficulties.

Access to tablets and the internet has led to a sort of revolution in ASD learning, enabling children with the disorder to absorb and process information more easily than conventional education systems allow. In fact, a 2013 study showed that speech-generating apps help ASD children learn language faster than traditional methods. This makes it incredibly important that designers working on ASD learning apps have guidelines to ensure the apps are designed for optimal learning.

De Bruin is conducting research with ASD children at the Johannesburg Hospital School Autism Unit to develop these design guidelines. As it is difficult for the learners to express themselves, eye-tracking technology is very useful in this context to gather information without the children needing to talk.

Using a specially-designed eye-tracking system, she gives the children free reign to play and learn with several of the most popular language apps. She then looks at what they paid attention to and for how long, compares attention given to words versus objects, and tries to determine which elements of the games were most attractive or interesting to them.

The study is still at an early stage, but by understanding what holds the learners attention and comparing that to how non-ASD learners interact with the app, de Bruin hopes to find patterns in the interactions between learner and technology.

These findings will eventually be compiled into a design guide that can be used by designers when creating language apps for ASD children. With new and better ways to learn language and social skills, children with ASD stand a better chance at a happy and normal life.

See related photos in gallery on the right sidebar.

Prof Helene Gelderblom, Dr Ilse de Bruin, Prof Machdel Matthee, Dr Ronel Callaghan, Jacques Brosens, Dr Lizette Weilbach, Dr Marie Hattingh

January 30, 2017

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