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Web usability evaluation with screen reader users: Implementation of the Partial Concurrent Thinking Aloud technique

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Web usability evaluation with screen reader users: Implementation of the Partial Concurrent Thinking Aloud technique

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A verbal protocol technique, adopted for a web usability evaluation, requires that the users are able to perform a double task: surfing and talking. Nevertheless, when blind users surf by using a screen reader and talk about the way they interact with the computer, the evaluation is influenced by a structural interference: users are forced to think aloud and listen to the screen reader at the same time. The aim of this study is to build up a verbal protocol technique for samples of visual impaired users in order to overcome the limits of concurrent and retrospective protocols. The technique we improved, called Partial Concurrent Thinking Aloud (PCTA), integrates a modified set of concurrent verbalization and retrospective analysis. One group of 6 blind users and another group of 6 sighted users evaluated the usability of a website using PCTA. By estimating the number of necessary users by the means of an asymptotic test, it was found out that the two groups had an equivalent ability of identifying usability problems, both over 80%. The result suggests that PCTA, while respecting the properties of classic verbal protocols, also allows to overcome the structural interference and the limits of concurrent and retrospective protocols when used with screen reader users. In this way, PCTA reduces the efficiency difference of usability evaluation between blind and sighted users.
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RESEARCH REPORT
Web usability evaluation with screen reader users:
implementation of the partial concurrent thinking aloud
technique
Federici Stefano Simone Borsci Gianluca Stamerra
Received: 17 May 2009 / Accepted: 28 October 2009 / Published online: 15 November 2009
Marta Olivetti Belardinelli and Springer-Verlag 2009
Abstract A verbal protocol technique, adopted for a web
usability evaluation, requires that the users are able to
perform a double task: surfing and talking. Nevertheless,
when blind users surf by using a screen reader and talk
about the way they interact with the computer, the evalu-
ation is influenced by a structural interference: users are
forced to think aloud and listen to the screen reader at the
same time. The aim of this study is to build up a verbal
protocol technique for samples of visual impaired users in
order to overcome the limits of concurrent and retrospec-
tive protocols. The technique we improved, called partial
concurrent thinking aloud (PCTA), integrates a modified
set of concurrent verbalization and retrospective analysis.
One group of 6 blind users and another group of 6 sighted
users evaluated the usability of a website using PCTA. By
estimating the number of necessary users by the means of
an asymptotic test, it was found out that the two groups had
an equivalent ability of identifying usability problems, both
over 80%. The result suggests that PCTA, while respecting
the properties of classic verbal protocols, also allows to
overcome the structural interference and the limits of
concurrent and retrospective protocols when used with
screen reader users. In this way, PCTA reduces the effi-
ciency difference of usability evaluation between blind and
sighted users.
Keywords Asymptotic test
Human computer interaction Thinking aloud
Usability evaluation
Introduction
The spreading of the universal design idea has required
users with disabilities to be include in the usability evalu-
ation process. This for two main reasons: first, since the
accessibility is a primary step in order to share information
with disabled users and since it ‘‘opens up many opportu-
nities for people with disabilities’’ (Coyne and Nielsen
2001), by adapting internet technology to the users’ needs
means to improve the usability accordingly to disabled
users’ evaluations. Second, disabled users tend to have
‘unique and different computer interactions compared with
their able-bodied counterparts’’ (Chandrashekar et al.
2006), opening up new issues for designers, for usability
practitioners, and for researchers.
The researchers, pushed by this new approach on the
usability evaluation, began to rethink some consolidated
usability evaluation methods (UEMs), as the thinking aloud
protocol (TAP), and started to adapt these techniques to the
disabled users involved in the evaluations.
In the human computer interaction’s (HCI) field, TAP,
known as verbal protocol analysis, had a large application
in the study of consumer and judgment making processes
(Bettman 1979; Bettman and Park 1980; Biehal and
Chakravarti 1982a,b,1986,1989; Green 1995; Kuusela
et al. 1998).
Electronic supplementary material The online version of this
article (doi:10.1007/s10339-009-0347-y) contains supplementary
material, which is available to authorized users.
F. Stefano
Department of Human and Education Sciences,
University of Perugia, Perugia, Italy
S. Borsci G. Stamerra
ECoNA, Interuniversity Centre For Research on Cognitive
Processing in Natural and Artificial Systems, University
of Rome ‘La Sapienza’, Via dei Marsi, 00186 Rome, Italy
123
Cogn Process (2010) 11:263–272
DOI 10.1007/s10339-009-0347-y
In describing this users-based evaluation processes,
Hannu and Pallab (2000) state: ‘‘The premise of this pro-
cedure is that the way subjects search for information,
evaluate alternatives, and choose the best option can be
registered through their verbalization and later be analysed
to discover their decision processes and patterns. Protocol
data can provide useful information about cue stimuli,
product associations, and the terminology used by con-
sumers.’’ Accordingly to this, we have split up the TAP in
two different experimental procedures: the first one is the
concurrent verbal protocol, collected during the decision
task; the second procedure is the retrospective verbal pro-
tocol gathered after the decision task (Hannu and Pallab
2000).
By analysing the concurrent verbal protocol, Ericsson
and Simon (1980) show that ‘‘verbal reports, elicited with
care and interpreted with full understanding of the cir-
cumstances under which they are obtained, are a valuable
and thoroughly reliable source of information about cog-
nitive processes’’. In this sense, the cognitive processes that
generate verbalizations are a subset of the cognitive pro-
cesses that generate the behaviour or the action. Ericsson
and Simon (1993) have also identified three criteria that
concurrent verbal protocol needs to satisfy:
‘(1) Subjects should be talking about the task at hand,
not about an unrelated issue. (2) To be pertinent, verbal-
izations should be logically consistent with the verbaliza-
tions that just preceded them. (3) A subset of the
information heeded during the task performance should be
remembered.’
Guan et al. (2006) in their analysis have identified three
main limits to the concurrent model: first, the act of
speaking concurrently to the action may have a negative
effect on the user’s task performance. Second, the effort
that the user makes to verbalize information while per-
forming tasks might distract the subject attention and
concentration. Third, the effort to fully verbalize the steps
of the work might change the way that the user attends to
the task components.
On the other hand, the retrospective thinking aloud
collects the verbalization of a user’s performance after the
performance is over. The verbalization could take place
without stimuli, which is likely to have a negative effect on
the exhaustiveness of the comments produced, or with
stimuli, i.e., supported by a recording of the performance
(Guan et al. 2006; Van den Haak and De Jong 2003). In the
stimuli-condition, after performing a web navigation
silently, the users are asked to watch the recorded video of
their performance and to verbalize the problems occurred
during the interaction. Differently, in the without-stimuli-
condition the users are asked to verbalize the problems
occurred during the interaction without a support of the
recording of their previous performance.
The introduction of the retrospective thinking aloud
allows to overlap some of the limits of the concurrent
protocol, even if it does not take into account the most
specific property of concurrent model, i.e., the verbaliza-
tion of thoughts based on working and short-term memory
without the influence of long-term memory process and
perception (Johnstone et al. 2006). In order to better
understand these issues, we have to analyse both the
comparative studies about verbal protocols and their
applications with disabled people that we are going to
discuss in the two following sub-sections.
Comparison of verbal protocol techniques
There are a few comparative studies on concurrent and
retrospective verbal protocols (Hannu and Pallab 2000).
The differences in findings of these studies are due to
different measures adopted by the researchers to assess and
compare the two kinds of TAP. Indeed, in order to compare
different TAPs, researchers can consider a large number of
factors, such as: the number of problems found (Hoc and
Leplat 1983), the time of the users’ performances (Bowers
and Snyder 1990), the pertinence of users’ verbalizations
(Ericsson and Simon 1993; Van den Haak and De Jong
2003), the users’ workloads (Van den Haak and De Jong
2003), and the degree of reactivity (i.e., when using the
thinking aloud protocol, the reactivity of the participant
might be different from usual—e.g., such a phenomenon
occurs when subjects alter their performance due to their
awareness of being observed by the technique adopted by
the researcher).
Albeit the debate about the validity of concurrent and
retrospective thinking aloud is still going on (see Guan
et al. 2006 for the retrospective technique validity), in
general, researchers claim that there is not a significant
difference between task performance and task completion
time; therefore, concurrent protocol analysis is usually
preferred in usability evaluations, since it outperforms the
retrospective one (see Hannu and Pallab 2000 for a com-
parison of methods). The retrospective TAP condition
resulted in considerably fewer verbalizations in respect to
the concurrent ones (Bowers and Snyder 1990; Hoc and
Leplat 1983). Moreover, Van den Haak and De Jong
(2003), comparing different users’ task performances,
show that participants in the concurrent TAP condition
perform less successfully than the participants who work
silently and verbalize in retrospect; the difference between
the two TAPs is considerable both in terms of numbers of
observable problems per participant and in the overall
success rate for the tasks. On the other hand, as Ericsson
and Simon (1993) show, retrospective data are less accu-
rate than concurrent ones, and users’ verbalizations in
264 Cogn Process (2010) 11:263–272
123
retrospective condition are more focused on explanations
and less on procedures, therefore resulting less pertinent
than the concurrent verbalizations (Bowers and Snyder
1990). Hannu and Pallab (2000), comparing the effective-
ness of concurrent and retrospective TAPs, show that
concurrent analysis provides ‘‘a more insights into deci-
sion-making steps occurring between stimulus introduction
and the final choice outcome’’ even though more state-
ments about the final choice are provided in retrospective
TAP (p. 387). Finally, Van den Haak and De Jong (2003)
hypothesis is that the performance difference noticed
between the two TAPs is mostly due to the different degree
of reactivity and workload needed to the participants.
According to our opinion, the solution of the debate
about validity and reliability of the TAPs cannot be found
neglecting the different cognitive processes involved in the
concurrent vs. retrospective technique. Indeed, the con-
current thinking aloud protocol and the retrospective one
are driven by different processes and categories of thought:
the verbalization of the first one (concurrent) is focused on
problems and strategies of a single surfing step; the ver-
balization of the other one (retrospective) is focused on
descriptions influenced by the user’s experience on the
entire evaluation process. Subjects use certain cognitive
processes when they analyse and verbalize what they have
done or why they have taken a certain decision 20 min
before, and other processes when they verbalize while
performing tasks, or just 5 s later. In the retrospective
thinking aloud, with or without stimuli, by using the long-
term memory and making a cognitive reconstruction of
their experience, users tell a story of their actions, strate-
gies, and problems. In the concurrent thinking aloud, users
express their problems, strategies, stress, and impressions
without the influence of a ‘‘rethinking’’ perception. In this
sense, these two verbal protocols detect very different
users’ points of view: the retrospective TAP seems to be a
more subjective measure—i.e., conscious mediated or
frame-based represented (Minsky 1975)—than the con-
current one.
The think-aloud with screen reader users
Even though these comparative studies have different
points of view on verbal protocols, their attention is
focused mostly on users’ task performances and verbal-
izations, and on the TAP efficiency and efficacy in
describing these two aspects. However, these studies do not
consider the different cognitive processes activated by
these two kinds of verbal protocols.
In general, in the usability evaluation both retrospective
and concurrent TAP could be used according to the study
aims and goals. Nevertheless, when a usability evaluation
is carried out with blind people several studies propose to
use the retrospective TAP: indeed, using a screen reader
(an assistive technology software that attempts to convert
text displayed on the screen in speech, sound icons, or a
Braille output) and talking about the way of interacting
with the computer implies a structural interference between
action and verbalization (Guan et al. 2006; Strain et al.
2007; Takagi et al. 2007). Indeed, as Strain et al. (2007)
have noticed, the use of a screen reader ‘‘leads to a sig-
nificant challenge for the moderator, since the screen
reader audio interferes with any dialogue between moder-
ator and participant. Perceptual studies have shown that it
is possible for humans to deal with two voices at once (the
so-called ‘‘cocktail party effect’’); however, due to cogni-
tive limitations people often have a difficult time talking
and listening at the same time’’ (p. 1853). These authors
are referring to the Kemper, the Herman, and the Lian’s
study about the costs of doing two things at once for adults
(2003).
Undoubtedly, basic cognitive studies provided a lot of
evidence supporting the idea that individuals can listen,
verbalize, or manipulate, and rescue information in multi-
ple task condition. As Cherry (1953) showed, subjects,
when listening to two different messages from a single
loudspeaker, can separate sounds from background noise,
recognize the gender of the speaker, the direction, and the
pitch (cocktail party effect). At the same time, subjects that
must verbalize the content of a message (attended message)
listening to two different message simultaneously (attended
and unattended message) have a reduce ability to report the
content of the attended massage, while they are unable to
report the content of the unattended message. Moreover,
Ericsson and Kintsch (1995) showed that, in a multiple task
condition, subjects’ ability of rescuing information is not
compromised by an interruption of the action flow (as it
happens in the concurrent thinking aloud technique) thanks
to the ‘‘Long Term Working Memory mechanism’’ of
information retrieval.
Even if users can listen, recognize, and verbalize mul-
tiple messages in a multiple task condition and they can
stop and restart actions without losing any information,
others cognitive studies (Kemper et al. 2003) underlined
that the overlap of activities in a multiple task condition
have an effect on the goal achievement. Kemper et al.
(2003), analysing the users abilities to verbalize actions in
a multiple task condition, showed that the fluency of a
user’s conversation is influenced by the overlap of actions.
Adults are likely to continue to talk as they navigate in a
complex physical environment. However, the fluency of
their conversation is likely to change: Older adults are
likely to speak more slowly than they would if resting;
young adults continue to speak just as rapidly when
walking as when resting, but they adopt a further set of
Cogn Process (2010) 11:263–272 265
123
speech accommodations, reducing sentence length, gram-
matical complexity, and propositional density. Just by
reducing length, complexity, and propositional density
adults free up working memory resources (ivi, p. 189).
We do not know how and how much the content of
verbalizations could be influenced by the strategy of ver-
balization (i.e., the modification of fluency and the com-
plexity in a multiple task condition). Anyway, we well
know that users in the concurrent thinking aloud verbalize
the problems in a more accurate and pertinent way (i.e.,
more focused on the problems directly perceived during the
interaction) then in the retrospective one (Bowers and
Snyder 1990; Ericsson and Simon 1993; Hoc and Leplat
1983; Van den Haak and De Jong 2003). The pertinence is
granted to the user by the proximity of action-verbaliza-
tion-next action; this multiple task proximity compels the
subject to apply a strategy of verbalization that reduces the
overload of the working memory. However, for blind users,
this time proximity between action and verbalization is
lost: the use of the screen reader, in fact, increase the time
for verbalization (i.e., in order to verbalize, blind users
must first stop the screen reader and then restart it).
Strain et al. (2007), in order to overcome the problems
due to the screen reader use, suggested three different TAP
methodologies with visual impaired users:
1. Traditional Retrospective Think-Aloud.
2. Modified Stimulated Retrospective Think-Aloud: The
participant interacts with the interface without inter-
ruption. After attempting or completing the task, the
moderator would ask the participant to slowly walk
through the interface, and explain what he/she felt.
During the walkthrough, the moderator could pause the
screen reader as needed to probe for additional
information. This technique was frequently used when
testing prototypes.
3. Synchronized Concurrent Think-Aloud: The partici-
pant could choose to pause the screen reader audio in
the middle of an interaction. The participant then
discussed what was happening on the page and what
they were experiencing. This method resulted in no
conflicts with the screen reader audio since it was
paused when dialogue was occurring. However, the
natural task flow was interrupted. Synchronized
method was preferred by participants who were
comfortable thinking aloud and who were confident
in stopping and starting the screen reader.
The use of retrospective TAP (and also of the Modified
Stimulated Retrospective Think-Aloud) with disabled users
remains only a functional solution, for two main reasons:
first, it permits to overcome the user’s cognitive limita-
tions, but it fails to analyse the user’s performance during
an interaction, as the concurrent TAP does. Second, since
the efficiency of concurrent technique greatly decreases
when used with blind people in comparison to sighted
users, practitioners prefer to use the retrospective model
over the concurrent, even though, in this way, the number
of verbalizations remarkably decreases.
The Synchronized Concurrent Think-Aloud technique is
a good solution, because it is focused on verbalization. This
technique has been developed in order to avoid the screen
reader interference and grant possibilities of verbalization
to screen reader users. Nevertheless, the lack of a time limit
for the user’s verbalization allows avoiding the multiple
task condition that is typical of concurrent processes; for
this reason, in our opinion, the user’s verbalization in
Synchronized Concurrent condition is more similar to the
retrospective than the concurrent one. Therefore, we expect
that Synchronized technique, as the retrospective one, will
provide a less effectiveness of data and a less pertinent
users’ verbalizations (Bowers and Snyder 1990; Ericsson
and Simon 1993; Hannu and Pallab 2000).
Our hypothesis is that it is possible to reduce the screen
reader influence (structural interference) without losing the
advantages of the proximity within action, thinking, and
identification of the problems (pertinence of users’ ver-
balization). In order to do so, we have used and improved a
new TAP technique, called Partial concurrent thinking
aloud (Borsci and Federici 2009), that unifies the advan-
tages of both concurrent and retrospective models. Then,
we will discuss PCTA properties, improve its setting, and
will estimate the number of users needed for a PCTA web
usability evaluation with an asymptotic test.
Properties and setting of the partial concurrent
thinking aloud
Our aim is to build up a usability assessment technique
eligible to maintain the advantages of concurrent and ret-
rospective protocols while overcoming their limits.
Therefore, we have analysed the PCTA technique’s effi-
ciency with both blind and sighted users. In order to do so,
we composed the PCTA method into two sections, one
concurrent and one retrospective (see the Fig. 1).
The first section is a modified concurrent protocol built
up according to the three concurrent verbal protocols cri-
teria described by Ericsson and Simon (1993).
The first criterion is: Subjects should be talking about
the task at hand, not about an unrelated issue. In order
to respect this rule, the time between problem retrieval,
thinking and verbalization must be minimized to avoid
the influence of a long perceptual reworking and the
consequent verbalization of unrelated issues. Blind
participants, using a screen reader, increase the time
266 Cogn Process (2010) 11:263–272
123
latency between identification and verbalization of a
problem. To minimize this latency, users are trained to
ring a desk-bell that stops both time and navigation.
During this suspension, users can create a memory sign
(i.e., ring the bell) and restart immediately the naviga-
tion. This setting modification allows avoiding the
cognitive limitation problem and the influence of
perceptual reworking, also creating a memory sign
for the retrospective analysis.
The second criterion is: To be pertinent, verbalizations
should be logically consistent with the verbalizations
that just preceded them. For any kind of user, it is hard
to be pertinent and consistent in a concurrent verbal
protocol. Therefore, the practitioners could generally
interrupt
1
the navigation and ask for a clarification or
stimulate the users to verbalize in a pertinent way. In
order to do so and stop navigation to screen reader
users, we propose to negotiate a specific physical sign
with them: The practitioner, sitting behind the user, will
put his hand on the user’s shoulder. This physical sign
grants the verbalization pertinence and consistence.
The third criterion is: A subset of the information
needed during the task performance should be remem-
bered. The concurrent model is based on the link
between working memory and time latency. The
proximity between the occurrence of a thought and its
verbal report allows users to verbalize on the basis of
their working memory.
The second PCTA section is a retrospective one in
which users analyse those problems previously verbalized
in a concurrent way. The memory signs, created by users
ringing the desk-bell, overcome the limits of classic ret-
rospective analysis; indeed, these signs allow the users to
be pertinent and consistent with their concurrent verbali-
zation, thus avoiding the influence of long term memory
and perceptual reworking.
As it also happens for the Synchronized protocol (Strain
et al. 2007), PCTA’s main disadvantage may consist in the
fact that it interrupts ‘‘the natural task flow’’; still we must
consider that the main object of TAP evaluations consists
in verbalizing problems, and not in the ‘‘natural flow’
analysis. Even classic TAP evaluations are affected by this
same PCTA problem: the concurrent verbalizations
requested to users, in fact, are far to be ‘‘natural’’ to the
interaction and they also tend to modify the ‘‘task flow.’
On the other hand, the retrospective model, since it is
centred on the ‘‘natural task flow,’’ is generally influenced
by a strong perceptual reworking of problems and
strategies.
As stated before, we are proposing three steps for PTCA
evaluation:
First: in order to minimize proximity between action,
thoughts and verbalization, visual impaired users
interrupt the navigation ringing a desk-bell next to the
mouse (i.e., memory sign).
Second: practitioners can touch users’ shoulders with a
hand as a physical sign (negotiated during training) in
order to interrupt the navigation and ask about the
action performed.
Third: the retrospective session analysis is focused on
those memory signs created during the concurrent
session analysis.
Methods
Participants
Eighteen volunteers were selected, from students of Uni-
versity of Rome ‘‘La Sapienza’’, as a sample group: 8 blind
and 12 sighted users. All blind volunteers needed to be
experienced in the JAWS screen reader, and they have to
set Jaws in order to read all graphic elements.
This sample of volunteers was tested using Sect. 7 of the
European Computer Driving License (http:\\www.ecdl.com
, [ECDL]) test that evaluates users’ web navigation skills in
??
STEP 1
Where’s the link?
USER
Recording
screen reader
and memory
signs
Observe
and ask
STEP 2
Here, I found
a problem
I couldn’t find
the link
Expert collects the problems
EXPERT
Fig. 1 Evaluation process of the partial concurrent thinking aloud.
The PCTA technique is composed of two sections, one concurrent and
one retrospective with different characteristics. In the first step [see
below the frame ‘‘STEP 1’’], the screen reader users, during a website
interaction, create a memory sign (i.e., ringing a desk bell) each time
they find a problem. In this concurrent step, the memory signs and the
screen reader actions are audio–video recorded. In the second step
[see below the frame ‘‘STEP 2’’], the memory signs and the recorded
stimuli facilitate users to recall those problems they previously
identified. In this second step, users are involved in a retrospective
analysis where they are invited to verbalize the problems they found
1
Even if any interruption of the natural task flow is avoided in the
Thinking Aloud, the moderator can make questions to the user in
order to obtain pertinent verbalization of the problems.
Cogn Process (2010) 11:263–272 267
123
a score range from 0 to 36 points (even though some
international studies use self-questionnaires in order to
recruit information on users’ skills. We choose ECDL test
because it is a valid and reliable international instrument
that guarantees an estimation of users’ navigation skills).
The sample mean obtained by the ECDL test is 24 points
(SD =3.39). Our goal is not the estimation of users’ skill
level per se, but the selection of blind and sighted users by
the means of an ECDL test score one point under and one
point over the mean of our sample.
International studies show that a sample of 5 users is
enough to get an evaluation able to find out about 80% of
usability problems (Virzi 1992; Nielsen and Landauer
1993; Nielsen 1994a). Adopting this criterion, we com-
posed a final sample divided into two groups: an experi-
mental one with 6 blind participants and a control group
with 6 sighted participants.
Apparatus
The apparatus of the experimental setting was set up as
follows:
Target web site: www.carabinieri.it (see Appendix 1a
of Electronic supplementary material);
Training web site: www.serviziocivile.it
Browser: Internet Explorer 6;
Internet connection ADSL 4 MB;
Computer: PC AMD Athlon 64 (3,200 MHz)
Monitor: Philips 190S LCD 19’’;
Screen reader: Jaws;
Screen recorder: CamStodio 20;
Audio: Two amplifiers;
Audio recorder: Digital Zoom h2
Digital Camera: Nikon L2;
Time: Stopwatch
Support tools: Desk bell.
Procedure
The control group
Each participant of the control group was tested in the
Psychology & Cognitive Lab of the University of Rome
‘La Sapienza’’. Each user was involved in a 20-min
training session, with an explanation of the study goals,
and in a simulation of a TAP website evaluation with 5
scenarios. The http://www.serviziocivile.it was used as a
training interface. Then, the participants started the eval-
uation of the target website: http://www.carabinieri.it.
Five tasks were presented as the experimental scenario
(see Appendix 1b of Electronic supplementary material).
Both the training website (i.e., http://www.serviziocivile.it)
and the target website (i.e., http://www.carabinieri.it)
are declared accessible by the Italian National Center
for Informatics in Public Administration (http://www.
pubbliaccesso.gov.it/logo/elenco.php). Once the TAP
analysis was over, participants were invited to watch their
concurrent evaluation recording (by screen recorder and
video camera) and to start with the retrospective analysis
adding any needed verbalization.
The experimental group
Each participant followed the same steps as the control
group participants, just with two differences: First, in order
to guarantee the blind users’ efficacy in the navigation,
they were tested at home with their own technologies and
their own screen reader (JAWS) set in order to read all the
text and graphic elements. Second, the users in TAP
analysis were trained to ring the desk-bell any time they
would have found a problem: this tool was used in order to
create the memory signs needed for the subsequent retro-
spective analysis. In the retrospective steps, users were
invited to listen the screen reader and their memory signs
recorded in the concurrent step (by audio recorder) in order
to verbalize the problems.
The data were analysed by comparing the kind of
problems identified by the participants of both groups and
estimating the PCTA efficiency between blind and sighted
participants with the Nielsen and Landauer (1993) mathe-
matical model.
The expert analysis of problems severity
Five experts, with more than 5 years of experience in
usability evaluation of websites, were involved in an
independent analysis of the problems found by the two
groups of users, in order to rate their severity. The rate
ranges from 1 (minor problems) to 3 (high problem) fol-
lowing the indication of Sears’ comparative study (1997),
in which a quite similar scale of problems severity is used
to compare different cognitive walkthrough techniques.
Data analysis
All the data were processed using SPSS 16.0 for Windows,
as follows:
Descriptive analysis—frequency analysis of the usabil-
ity problems found by the two groups. Then, all
problems were weighted according to the expert rating
scale of the problem severity.
Spearman’s correlation analysis—the score obtained
by each user in the ECDL test was correlated to the
number of user’s verbalizations.
268 Cogn Process (2010) 11:263–272
123
Then, an asymptotic test based on the Nielsen and
Landauer (1993) mathematical model, was carried out on
the problems identified by the users in order to esteem the
technique efficiency, or cost effectiveness. Nielsen and
Landauer (1993) show that, generally, the least number of
users required for usability evaluation techniques ranges
from three to five: adding users over this number does not
provide an advantageous discovery of new problems in
terms of costs-benefits. The author estimates the number of
users needed with the following formula:
FoundðiÞ¼Nð1ð1kÞiÞð1Þ
In (1), N is the total number of problems in the interface, k
is the probability of finding the average usability problem
when running a single average subject test (i.e., individual
detection rate), and iis the number of users. Some inter-
national studies (Nielsen 1994b; Virzi 1990,1992; Wright
and Monk 1991) have shown that a sample size of 5 par-
ticipants is sufficient to find approximately 80% of the
usability problems in a system, when the individual
detection rate (k) is at least .30.
Using this mathematical model, it can be found the
range of users required for a usability test and therefore it
can be calculated the increase of problems found adding
users to the evaluation. As an example, if for a 5 users
evaluation kequals .30, applying the formula (1), practi-
tioners can estimate whether these 5 users are enough for
an efficient assessment or, otherwise, how many nusers are
needed to increase the percentage of usability problems, as
follows:
Found 5ðÞ¼1ð10:3Þ5¼:83 ð2Þ
The problems rate obtained in this example with 5 users is
.83 (i.e., 83% of usability problems). Afterwards, it can be
estimated the increase of problems detection rate adding
more users to this sample of five, as reported in Fig. 2.
The analysis of this hypothetical sample shows that
almost 100% of usability problems can be found with 15
users, considering that: with just 5 users the likelihood of
problems discovery is equal to 83%, and in order to discover
less than 20% more of usability problems, not yet identified,
at least ten more users need to be added to the evaluation.
We applied this mathematical model to PCTA in order to
estimate its efficiency, and then we compared the number of
users needed for PCTA with the number needed for classic
concurrent protocol evaluation. In the end, we estimated the
PCTA efficiency both with blind and sighted users.
Results and discussion
Analysis of the problems found
The experimental group found out 31 usability problems in
total, while the control group users only 26; the two groups
shared 12 highlighted problems. In the control group, 16
usability problems were detected by only one participant
(i.e., 61% of total problems found), in the experimental
group one participant detected 22 problems (i.e., 70% of
total problems found).
Fig. 2 Shows the asymptotic
behaviour of discovery
likelihood in relation to our
hypothetical sample with
k=.30
Cogn Process (2010) 11:263–272 269
123
The expert analysis of problems severity shows that
90% of problems found have a medium or high severity in
line with the Nielsen (1992) and Virzi (1992) idea that
users involved in TAP tend to find first the high-severity
usability problems rather than the less relevant ones. Both
the two groups found the same 3 minor problems. The 5
problems identified only by experimental group have an
expert rate of severity equal to: medium for 3 problems and
high for 2 problems. The difference between the number
and the typology of problems found by the two groups
seems to underline the importance of evaluations with
disabled users, who tend to widen the number of problems
found, thanks to a divergent process of navigation and
different strategies of exploration, compared to users
without disability (Chandrashekar et al. 2006).
Our interest is not to show that with PCTA screen reader
users find more problems then sighted users, but that these
problems have medium or high severity as in the classic
concurrent technique and that screen reader users might
find problems that sighted users did not find, enlarging the
analysis.
It is interesting to note on a side that there is an inverse
correlation (P\.05) between the score obtained by each
blind user in Sect. 7 of the ECDL test and the number of
his/her verbalized problems (Table 1).
In the experimental group, the participants with higher
scores in Sect. 7 of the ECDL test (those with a greater
expertise of navigation) verbalized a lower number of
problems compared to the participants with a lower score
in expertise of navigation, who, on the other hand, exceed
in the verbalizations. This correlation between more and
less expert users was not found in the control group. Such
result nevertheless could be due to bias of the ECDL test
with this type of disability.
Efficiency analysis
In order to improve the efficiency of PCTA with blind and
sighted participants, we calculated the probability of find-
ing the average usability problems running a single test
(i.e., k). For the experimental group, kwas equal to .25,
while for the control group was .27. Applying the formula
(1), we estimated that using PCTA with the 6 users of each
group, we could find out over 80% of total problems: 82%
for the experimental group of blind participants and 84%
for the control group of sighted participants. (Although
sighted users have got a slightly higher ability of identi-
fying problems (84%) than the blind ones (82%), such
difference is negligible). We calculated that with a group of
15 participants we could have reached the 99% of usability
problems for the control group and 98% for experimental
one. Obviously, in this way we would have increased
significantly the analysis costs in order to discover less than
20% more of usability problems. These results are
expressed graphically by the Figs. 3and 4that show the
proportion of usability problems found with increasing
numbers of participants up to 15 users.
The proximity of kvalue obtained by both the two
groups (.25 for experimental and .27 for control group) to
the average TAP kvalue (.30), estimated by Nielsen with
experimental studies involving large samples of users,
provides evidence that PCTA guarantees the same effi-
ciency properties of the classic thinking aloud. Moreover,
the PCTA is a useful technique to assess usability with
blind users, because it overcomes the structural interfer-
ence imposed by the classic TAP that forces the user to
concurrently think aloud and listen to the screen reader; at
the same time, the PCTA also allows to avoid the influence
of long term memory and perception unavoidable in the
retrospective thinking aloud technique. PCTA seems to
have a good efficiency with at least 6 users in both groups,
rather than only 5 as Nielsen pointed out. Finally, both the
Table 1 Shows Pearson’s correlation coefficient between problems
verbalized by each screen reader user and the score obtained in Sect. 7
of ECDL test
Problems found
by each blind user
ECDL test
score of each
blind user
Pearson correlation -0.839
a
Sig. (two-tailed) 0.037
N6
a
Correlation is significant at the 0.05 level (two-tailed)
Fig. 3 Experimental group: proportion of usability problems found
with increasing numbers of subjects (k=.25) up to 15 users. The
experimental group was formed by 6 participants who found the 82%
of the usability problems
270 Cogn Process (2010) 11:263–272
123
experimental and the control groups seem to respect the
tendency of data showed in international studies on the
classical verbal protocols with 15 users (Nielsen 1994a;
Turner et al. 2006; Virzi 1992).
Conclusion
The growing need in the HCI field for involving disabled
users in the usability evaluation process has brought us to
elaborate an integrated technique, the PCTA. This tech-
nique shows good analysis’ properties and efficiency
compared to the ones of classical verbal protocols.
Even though the present study is based only on a sum-
mative evaluation (i.e., the analysis of already published
websites) rather than on a formative one (i.e., the analysis
of an interface during the user centred design process), our
results still show that PCTA could be used in the usability
evaluation with mixed samples of users, allowing disabled
people, and in particular blind users, a partial concurrent
analysis. We showed that, using PCTA, blind users’ ver-
balizations of problems could be more pertinent and
comparable to those given by sighted people who use a
concurrent protocol. In the usability evaluation with blind
people, the retrospective thinking aloud is often adopted as
a functional solution to overcome the structural interfer-
ence due to thinking aloud and hearing the screen reader
imposed by the classic thinking aloud technique; such a
solution has yet a relapse in the evaluation method because,
as it stated before, the concurrent and the retrospective
protocols measure usability from different points of view,
one mediated by navigation experience (retrospective) one
more direct and pertinent (concurrent). The use of PCTA
could be widened to both summative and formative
usability evaluations with mixed panels of users, thus
extending the number of problem verbalizations according
to disabled users’ divergent navigation processes and
problem solving strategies.
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