In 2003, when I was responsible for the local user experience team of Sun Microsystems, I began looking for HCI colleagues in the Czech Republic. I discovered that Pavel Slavik (my former university professor) was in the charge of local SIGCHI chapter. After a meeting with him I found out that the chapter was small and had just a few members (mostly from academia). But the meeting had another outcome: we agreed to start a cooperative venture between Sun and CTU in the area of semester-long student projects. Our cooperation has continued since then. The student projects are mainly focused on usability and accessibility, for example: usability studies of NetBeans IDE and NetBeans.org website, prototyping, and Open Solaris usability testing.
Other aspects of our cooperation included building the first usability lab in the Czech Republic, organizing the local World Usability Days and opening the local SIGCHI to the public; these are described in more detail below.
The cooperation between Sun and CTU has had multiple benefits. It opened the door to including Sun technologies (Java, Solaris, NetBeans) as part of CTU’s curriculum. Also, student projects have proved a fruitful tool for recruiting HCI talent.
In 2004, our xDesign team in Prague faced a problem: the number of usability studies we needed to do in Prague kept growing and growing. Since we had no usability lab, we did all of our testing in two Sun meeting rooms. One room served as observation room and the second one as testing room. It worked… but there were two major problems. The first problem was that we had to “build” the lab from scratch for every study—it was a process that took a day’s worth of running wires, setting up computer and camera equipment, and moving furniture. The second, more major problem was that we were running out of space. Sun had started its expansion in Prague. We were hiring a lot of new people, and the building was crowded. It became harder and harder to find two meeting rooms that were next to each other and available for consecutive days. Nor could we solve the problem by building a dedicated lab: there simply was no room.
So I started a discussion on this topic with the Department of Computer Science at Czech Technical University. Then in 2004, we reached an agreement and made a deal: Sun would supply the equipment and know-how, and CTU would supply the space and construction. Both institutions would share the facility, and, after three years, CTU would keep all usage rights and equipment. To construct the lab, we worked closely with the manager of Sun’s U.S. usability labs at the time, J.O. Bugental, and we outsourced the equipment and configuration work to a vendor.
The lab was designed and built to contain both standard analog technology (a scan converter and DVD burner) as well as fully digital technology, which is currently mostly running on Morae. There is no one-way mirror—we observe the tests using monitors and video cameras.
The lab officially opened on November 15, 2004, and the Czech Minister of IT, Vladimir Mlynar, attended. It was the first usability lab in the Czech Republic and, most likely, in all of Eastern Europe!
After the lab opening, we also supplied the promised know-how in two ways. First, we arranged for an external company, Relevantive, to provide a four-day training for teachers and Ph.D. students, which covered usability basics including usability evaluation. Second, we cooperated on ongoing projects, coaching and mentoring students as well as teachers.
Since 2005, CTU added usability to its standard curriculum and became the Czech Republic’s leading university in this field. Hundreds of students have access to the lab every year and use it to run their accessibility and mobile device projects.
The NetBeans Accessibility Plugin is another outcome of Sun’s cooperation with CTU. Our cooperation on the plugin took place in 2007. The plugin allows Java developers to develop accessible Swing GUIs in NetBeans, without needing any specialized knowledge of accessibility. The plugin has had a year of development: there is now a version 1.0 for both NetBeans 6.0 and 6.1.
Here is how to use it:
1) If you don’t have it already, get NetBeans 6.0 or 6.1 from www.netbeans.org.
2) Download the a11y plugin from a11y.netbeans.org, or use the AutoUpdate (Beta) functionality built into NetBeans. If you’ve downloaded it manually, start NetBeans, select the Tools menu and then click the Plugins menu item. On the dialog, select the “Downloaded” tab, click on the “Add Plugins” button, then browse your disk for the downloaded plugin (the file ends with the .nbm extension).
3) Now, start the NetBeans GUI Builder (for example add a new JFrame file into an existing Java project.)
4) Go to the Window menu and select “A11Y Result Window”. That’s it!
Now, when you edit the GUI it is automatically be checked for accessibility. The findings are sorted into 3 categories: Errors, Warnings and Infos. Each error is described and has suggestions on how to fix it. By double clicking on the findings, you automatically accept the suggested fix (for example, double clicking a “Name” error would add an appropriate accessible name). More details, e.g. checking of tab-traversal, are described in the documentation.
The first World Usability Day was organized in 2005. I decided to join this world wide initiative, and crafted an agreement with Czech Technical University and Dobry Web to organize a local event. We invited the Senior Director of Sun Branding—Rhodes Klement—to give the keynote speech. The remaining presentations focused on a general introduction to usability and accessibility. We were surprised and delighted by the attention we got from the media and from the public: the event was sold out in a few days. Since then, we have been organizing World Usability Day events every year:
Based on the success of the first World Usability Day, we started organizing public meetings of the local SIGCHI. The structure of the meetings was guided by discussions with my Sun colleague Nicole Yankelovich (a participant in BostonCHI) and with Don Patterson (a participant in BayCHI). We created a similar model for ourselves: regular, free public presentations. Since than, we have hosted numerous talks from various speakers, including Aaron Marcus, Giuseppe Riccardi and companies like Sun, Google, Adobe and Microsoft. The audience size ranges from 30 to 250 people—depending on the topic. Czech SIGCHI has been an officially registered non-profit organization since April, 2008.
When Sun’s Prague office became too small, we all moved to a new building. During the space planning, we made sure that we got a room there for a usability lab. Even though we still had the lab at CTU, we felt we needed to have a lab in the same place as the engineering team. That way, they could easily attend the test sessions.
This time, we decided to do everything on our own: one of our interaction designers, Rudolf Bock, selected the equipment. Based on our experience with the labs at CTU and at Sun in Silicon Valley, we created blueprints and made sure to have a big one-way mirror. Despite the fact that some participants feel less comfortable in this environment, we feel that the cost is outweighed by the benefit to the observers: they feel more connected to the participants.
The labs were completed in the summer of 2006. Here is what we have now:
The lab is fully digital, and is partly based on Morae. The equipment is:
The first usability study was conducted in this lab in November 2006. Since then, we have used this new lab for the majority of our studies.
During 2003, I talked to the usability experts from the major open source projects (KDE, GNOME, OpenOffice.org) in order to understand how to do usability in the open source environment. Those discussions led to a presentation which I gave at the KDE conference in Nove Hrady (where I first met Jan Muehlig) and at LinuxWorld in New York City. I also wrote a paper with Matthias Müller-Prove from OpenOffice.org and Calum Benson from GNOME for the CHI 2004 conference.
I also have some projects from my university studies. I developed a Palm OS application which provides a timetable of buses and trams in Prague. It has become quite popular; people have contributed timetables for other cities. The project ended in 2003, when new data was no longer available. The project homepage (in Czech) and the source code are still available: http://www.mzourek.org/mhdpha/.