You might have missed celebrating (or even knowing) that November 12th was World Usability Day (WUD).

Usability is about making life easier for people, and that's what World Usability Day — now in its 5th year — is about. This year's theme was sustainability. Usability professionals in Canada and around the world combined usability and sustainability in a variety ways this year.

Vancouver isn't a stranger to the idea of sustainability, and maybe that's why our activity supporting this year's theme came together so quickly for Vancouver's WUD activity's organizers.

Caterina Sanders (Director, User Experience, Habanero Consulting Group), Selma Zefar (Senior Interaction Designer, OpenRoad Communications) and Gordon Ross (Vice President, OpenRoad Communications) came up with the idea of combining a team of usability professionals and a local community garden over a morning coffee and by evening the plan was in place with a board member of Vancouver's Pine Street Community gardens.

Goals of World Usability Day 2009

The organizers wanted to work with World Usability Day's theme of sustainability as a first step in establishing a vehicle for more volunteer user experience work that Vancouver-based usability professionals can participate in. The ideal outcome would be a recurring "UX Practitioners Without Borders" type of model.

So the goals for the WUD event were:

  • Contribute to sustainability
  • Promote usability (making life easier — i.e. better — for people)
  • Promote the usability profession
  • Build community within the Vancouver usability community
  • Pilot a method for usability specialists to contribute to the local community
  • Offer practical, actionable recommendations and solutions to the community garden

Vancouver Team

Caterina, Selma and Gord recruited six other usability professionals to join them for a sunup to sundown "design slam" at the community gardens on November 12th.

The team had a range of individual skills:

  • Project management
  • Visual design
  • Business analysis and strategy
  • Information architecture
  • Marketing and branding

And more importantly, the team shared expertise in user research and a philosophy of focusing solutions around a user needs and environment.


The World Usability Day community garden project was an accelerated version of a typical user experience project. Nine professionals contributed 90 hours of expertise in user research and design over the day, and worked over the weekend to prepare a presentation to the Vancouver User Experience Group (VanUE) the following week.

Immersion in the community garden experience took place over the morning where we applied a variety of user research techniques. In the afternoon we identified and prioritized problem areas and worked to offer solutions to help the Community Garden continue doing what they are doing well and strengthen areas for improvement.

The day looked like this:

  • 8am - 9am — Meet for coffee
  • 9am - Noon — Information gathering mode. Community garden visits, online survey, interviews and online research
  • 12:30pm — Analysis of data collected
  • 1:15pm - 2:15pm — Brainstorming session
  • 3:15pm - 7:30 pm — Solutions created

Findings and outcomes

After the brainstorming phase, and during a period of a certain degree of lack of direction, the break-through moment came when we decided to focus solutions and efforts around "engaged member" personas. This was very effective because:

  • Our findings indicated that while there is a sense of community, there is room for more
  • The garden is 100% volunteer managed and volunteers have full-time jobs and limited free time. Creating ways for members to be more engaged, feel ownership over the garden and take initiative themselves would increase the supply of time available to devote to the garden.
  • Almost all the issues noted in the research and analysis — such as the need for maintenance in communal areas, some untidy plots, desire for more social and education activities — would almost spontaneously be improved if members were more engaged.

Because of volunteer time constraints, we wanted our solutions to be low effort, low tech and low risk (if they aren't successful, they can be removed without much time or expense lost).

Based on our constraints and goals, some of the solutions we created were:

  • Simple, individual signage of plots to increase a sense of ownership, pride and a mechanism for gardeners to know a bit about their neighbours and what they are growing
  • Simple demarcation of plots so members are clear where responsibility begins and ends and there is no confusion between members where individual plots are
  • Mechanisms for members to communicate with one another and share ideas and knowledge, such as a bulletin board where an expert gardener willing to help can note his or her availability to help others and some minor web site recommendations
  • More signage for the garden, such as welcome and informational signs to encourage more neighbourhood engagement, knowledge and respect of the garden (i.e. to reduce littering)

You can read more details about the process and our findings in the presentation we made to the Vancouver User Experience Group (VanUE). You can also see a 3 minute video clip of the day.

Two members of the Pine Street Community Gardens attended the presentation. We are looking forward to presenting to a wider range of garden members in the new year to get a better idea of the value of the time spent and the presentation for them.

Future of Vancouver UE professionals in the community

We hope we have taken a first step in establishing a venue and model for more volunteer UX work that more VanUE members can participate in and we'd love to hear your feedback about our activity and the potential you see for more activities like this one.

Vancouver WUD 2009 Participants

  • Barbara Richards, Information Architect, Habanero Consulting Group
  • Ben Ng, Interaction Designer, Habanero Consulting Group
  • Caterina Sanders, Director, User Experience, Habanero Consulting Group
  • Chris Masterton, Optimal User Interfaces
  • Gagan Diesh, DesignStamp
  • Gordon Ross, Vice President, OpenRoad Communications
  • Katja Macura, Independent Consultant
  • Selma Zafar, Senior Usability Experience Designer, OpenRoad Communications
  • Theresa Putkey, Keypointe Usability Consulting