CUA of the Month – August, 2008

Jim O'Brien
"Get with users. Get with users. Get with users. Use the knowledge in practice by interviewing and observing your users."

"Try never to get too attached to any one of your designs because it might just change."
Jim O'Brien
Senior Interaction Designer
Lon Hetrick
Interaction Designer

Usability in the Driver's Seat

by Susan Seifert

CUAs of the month, Senior Interaction Designer Jim O'Brien and Interaction Designer Lon Hetrick, have helped make the largest online automotive marketplace. The site has won numerous JD Powers Awards and received accolades from the New York Times.

Jim and Lon are part of a growing design team in a company that takes usability seriously.

When Lon came to AutoTrader in 2005, the company had a visual design team of seven people, the result of "one pioneering usability analyst who got on a bandwagon to get a whole department," explains Lon.

"Throughout 2005 and 2006, the team grew with the addition of the interaction design discipline. Our successes gained recognition for the department," Lon continues. "Each success built on another and we were hearing, 'Oh we need more people like you to do some more stuff like that'."

Lon describes the launch of in 2006 as a major milestone. "That was our first big project involving a full user experience team," Lon explains.

It was extremely successful and very, very highly reviewed, with a write up in the New York Times.

"The company's attitude towards user experience has evolved to the point that user research and high-level design activities are often built into project timelines up front. They have given us a blank slate for the project I'm working on now," Lon says. "Right now we are a group of about 45 with our own usability lab."

Lon's introduction to usability came in 2000 when a friend hired him to build labs in focus group facilities. "Then he threw me to the lions and had me running usability tests when I felt I was in no way, shape, or form qualified to do so," Lon says. "But somehow I stuck to the process and started learning. After several years of testing websites, web apps, software, cell phones, and hardware, I came to know a little about good design, and a lot about bad design."

Lon received his HFI training in 2006-2007. "It filled in a lot of holes in my knowledge," Lon says. "And more importantly, it has filled in the holes in my confidence. The class taught me that I already had a pretty good understanding of how I could represent user needs and seek ways to align these with our business objectives."

Jim O'Brien came to usability through a different route. "I literally woke up one morning nearly 11 years ago and said 'I'm going to start designing websites'," Jim says. That decision turned out to be a good one. Jim's websites and designs have won numerous industry awards, including Best of Show in Internet World.

Jim completed his HFI training and certification in 2005. For him, too, the training confirmed much of what he had already learned through his work experience.

"The certification served as a reinforcement for what I'm doing, so I am more confident in presenting a concept or design," Jim says.

"The usability part of it was eye-opening," Jim adds. "Because I had not focused so much on that. I've always been more on the design side."

To those considering working in the field of usability Jim advises, "Try never to get too attached to any one of your designs because it might just change."

Jim had cause to take that advice to heart recently. His team encountered some surprises while designing a new vehicle comparison tool.

"We created an intro page on which the user chose criteria for their comparison set," Jim explains. "They would make vehicle selections from the left. After each selection, a thumbnail with the year, make, and model appeared in a buffer zone to the right. When done, they'd click a button to display a new page with the full side-by-side comparison."

"In our original wireframe design, the criteria selection and buffer were more proportional and did fairly well in the initial usability testing," Jim continues. "But the page came back from Visual with the criteria selection area spread way out, compressing the buffer into a tiny sliver on the far right."

The team knew things on the far right tend to be ignored. To draw the user's attention, they tried adding transitions. Jim explains, "When a model got added to the buffer, a little flash would go off, to show them, 'Here's where you'll stockpile your models before you compare them.'

Jim's team got a surprise when the design went into testing. "We expected users might have some problems with that buffer being that thin and that far right, but we had no idea how bad it would be," he says. "They weren't even seeing the buffer area, even with those flashing transitions. Only one user could even complete the task. It was just mind-blowing."

Lon has also had his share of surprises when redesigning AutoTrader's vehicle search results page. His experience underscores the importance of testing.

"Our main objectives were to make the page easier and faster to scan," Lon says. "Using the psychology of chunking information from the HFI training, I proposed taking the three most important pieces of vehicle information to users – vehicle thumbnail photo, price, and mileage – and stacking them vertically in very close proximity. This was a real innovation, because search results for car sites have always been organized in horizontal columns."

The resulting design did extremely well in wireframe usability testing. The surprise came in the test with visual comps.

"We had a slight orange gradient behind those pieces of information," Lon explains. "And all of a sudden, users were screaming 'Where's the information? Where's the mileage? Where's the price?" They literally could not see the information when it was not on a white background, as in the wireframes.

"At that point, there was some fear about departing from the traditional columns, but calmer heads prevailed. We simply removed that orange gradient," Lon says. "That was all we needed to do. In the next test, users were all over it, saying, 'Oh, yeah! The most important stuff, it's right there!' User satisfaction and timed tasks were all solidly in favor of the new design, which was tested head-to-head against our old design.

"No one would ever discover that without usability testing," Lon says. "No one would believe that a very slight, pale orange gradient would make the information invisible to the user. Never. You could talk about it in a meeting, propose it, think about it out loud, and no one would ever believe it."

Lon's advice: "Get with users. Get with users. Get with users. The course work alone is not enough. Use the knowledge in practice by interviewing and observing your users. It is always enlightening."

CUA of the Month

Each month we highlight the successes and achievements of a different member of our CUA community. If you are a Certified Usability Analyst and would like to be considered for CUA of the Month recognition, please send a brief professional bio to

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