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Editor’s Note: A Gourmet Meal of Content, Context, and Analysis Awaits You

The worldwide economy is suffering greatly. Consequently, many corporate, government, educational, and organizational budgets have become diminished. That situation always affects new product development and, with it, the decisions to undertake a variety of usability and user-experience activities—from ethnographic observations, contextual and task analyses, to usability tests, remote testing, and many other usability evaluation and research tasks that are the life-blood of our profession. Not everyone is affected, but enough so that I’ve noticed an impact on the professional lives of many colleagues with whom I have spoken in the past half-year. I am hopeful that the economy will pick up in the latter part of 2009.

Despite these challenges, our theory and practice in terms of professional curiosity, organization of observations and analysis into cogent theory, and dedication to evaluating the world’s products and services and producing better ones, is alive and well. This scope of activity is reflected and observable in this issue of UX. Unlike some other issues devoted to a particular theme, this is an eclectic “meal” for your reading pleasure, a tasty sampler, so to speak, of some key directions and issues in usability and user-experience practice today.

For those interested in the digital divide and/or with strong ethical motivations to do good in the world, Matt Jones and his colleagues discuss the challenges of bridging geographic distances and taking on projects in remote locations. They examine projects linking UK developers to users/consumers in India, Chile, Kenya, and India. Their projects oriented to the next billion users of the Internet are powerful reading.

Addressing the universal accessibility needs of web users, Lisa Pappas and Linda Roberts investigate the challenges of making web forms for screen-reader users. As advocated through the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative, new tools make rich, dynamic forms possible that are accessible to people who require assistive technologies such as screen readers. They analyze the impact of new coding formats that make ever-present web forms more usable, not only for people with disabilities but for all users.

Continuing on a forms-related theme, Tania Lang explains users’ expectations regarding the location of help in forms and documentation in general. Most practitioners are aware that it should be present. The question is: where should it be located? They examine users’ expectations as a step in providing design guidance.

McKenzie and Edgell take on the subject of a novel method of usability testing. In evaluating the learnability and memorability of a complex planning application…can you imagine? For part of the test, they asked the participants to “teach” the facilitators a task learned earlier in the session. In this way, they learned new information they could not have acquired through the standard protocols, with a negligible increase in cost.

Agile development techniques are of interest to, and in use by, interaction designers in the UPA community. Larry Constantine explains another reversal of traditional methods: model-driven inquiry starting with a model rather than using data and analysis to imply one. Quick, exploratory modeling (quickness being a hallmark of agile methods), leads to insight about issues that add up to inform later development. He compares this approach with contextual inquiry.

Continuing on the subject of user research, Michael Hawley shares a tool developed to track interviewers’ technique during sessions. The one-page summary of basic guidelines, with code numbers, provides a means for constructive feedback and enables a forum for discussing potential improvements in evaluations.

In my role as a provider of perspectives from graphic design, visual design, and visual communication to our multi-disciplinary publication, organization, and field, I review some classics of information design, information visualization, and information graphics that may have escaped your attention over the past half-century. You might find that a few of these books belong on your individual or organization’s book shelves.

Gregg Vanderheiden closes out the issue with a daunting challenge related to universal design and access: he proposes creating open-source tools that provide free public access of many features of our communication-technology infrastructure. Such innovation would provide a real chance of success for serving all populations from all socioeconomic levels internationally.

While waiting out the storm of the worldwide recession, we have prepared a diverse, nutritious, and savory selection of morsels for you to digest. Enjoy your meal of ideas, emotions, and actions.