Thanks to Google Alert, this morning I received my weekly "e-government and usability" alert. This time it contained a story about how the Warwickshire county council's web developers spent time with real users at an agricultural Town and Country Festival:
This was the fourth year that the web department has exhibited at the festival. Phil Parker, corporate webmaster, says there are two reasons. First, for a fraction of the cost of hiring usability consultants, the team get a chance to watch how ordinary people use the site. By discreetly keeping an eye on how visitors tackle questions, and judicious use of the "back" button, developers find out which bits of the site are awkward to use. Secondly, appearing in public promotes the council's online services, from renewing library books to applying electronically for a job, to people who would never find them on their own.(from: http://politics.guardian.co.uk/egovernment/story/0,12767,1560030,00.html)
I love this story. It's all about guerrilla usability, something I wrote about in A piece of IA pie: little, micro, lite or guerrilla?. The fact that they simply use the back button to find out where people navigated is so simple, I wouldn't have thought of that. Then again, when I designed e-goverment websites at EzGov, it was mostly complex applications where the Back-button was "fixed" (the website determined where you would go) and using it might disclose personal information, so it would be impractical and unethical to use that as a research device.
One thing that struck me though is that the people doing this are called developers, not designers. I assume it was the Guardian's journalist that implied this based on the fact that these people could change the website after these tests. I can only hope that a user experience designer was there too...