User Experience Centers, often referred to as UX Labs, are specialized testing facilities where products, services, and software are tested to see if they are appealing and can be used safely, efficiently, and effectively by potential users and customers.
A UX center brings products under development from real-world clients in industry, government, and other areas into a lab setting, where various market and usability testing procedures are conducted. This helps to ensure that a client’s products will not only launch successfully, but also meet the needs of its users, customers, and other stakeholders.
Harrisburg University just opened a User Experience Center of its own, dubbed the HU-UXC for short, where students will develop UX testing, product development, project management, and marketing skills on real-world projects.
“The center will play a role in helping to further the university’s mission to train our undergraduate and graduate students for family-sustaining, professional science and tech careers, while bringing world-class user research, usability, and market insight services to HU and the greater Central Pennsylvania community,” said Dr. Adams Greenwood-Ericksen, who heads the HU-UXC Lab and is a Game Studies and User Experience Professor at HU. “In addition, our international client list will help build the university’s profile around the world as a world-class player in the user experience domain and could help to open up doors for our faculty and graduates worldwide.”
Greenwood-Ericksen arrived at HU last year from Orlando’s Full Sail University, where he taught Game Design and developed a user experience lab. While there, he and a colleague noticed that graduates of the university’s game design program couldn’t find jobs following graduation, in part because, even though they were well-educated, they were often undertrained and inexperienced.
The two hatched a plan to build a lab that would help students improve their skills and build their resumes by bringing in real professional video games and other products under development for usability and user experience testing.
They started by borrowing empty classrooms and dragging their equipment around in rolling bags. But after a few years passed, they were doing so well that the university built a state-of-the-art 3,300-square-foot UX lab.
By that point, they were conducting 100 tests a year on professional and indie video games, sports team websites, movie trailers, and educational and simulation software. Their clients included Boeing, SAIC, Wargaming.net, CD Projekt Red, THQ Nordic, Orlando City Soccer, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the US Air Force, and even a few political candidates.
“Now, we’re going to build on that experience and client list to establish a center here at HU tailored to the needs of our faculty, students, and the wider Central Pennsylvania community,” Greenwood-Ericksen said.
HU’s temporary HU-UXC Lab is up and running, but Greenwood-Ericksen and other faculty are working to develop a permanent site at 10 S. Third Street, where top-tier testing services will take place in a world-class facility. The facility is expected to open for business by late spring.
The center is affiliated with the undergraduate Interactive Media program under the direction of Professor Charles Palmer, who Greenwood-Ericksen said has loaned the start-up space for the center in the university IMED lab. With the assistance of Dr. Tamara Peyton, a new undergraduate User Experience Design (UXD) concentration under the Interactive Media program also has been created and is aimed at training students in the art and science of interactive system and service design.
Students following the UXD concentration will learn how to use experimental and archival research skills to develop insights into the needs, wants, and expectations of product users and customers, which they can then apply in practice to application or service development on real-world products in the User Experience Center.
HU’s Human Centered Interaction Design MS program also is affiliated with the center and is designed to provide those who already have an undergraduate degree in the arts or humanities with the skills and tools to apply their perspectives and experience to research, design, and test appealing, efficient, and effective interactive products and services.
“We’re also looking to build bridges to a wide array of faculty and programs on campus,” Greenwood-Ericksen said. “User Experience research and testing is a great addition to a lot of the core skills taught in any number of the undergrad and graduate programs on campus, and we’re looking for opportunities to partner with other groups on campus to bring in student researchers and projects.”
Greenwood-Ericksen said the HU-UXC would not exist without the invaluable support and vision of HU President Dr. Eric Darr, Provost Dr. Bili Mattes, Chief Operating Officer Duane Maun, and several other faculty and administrators here at HU.
Lab Manager Marc Schodorf is handling most of the vital work of organizing, scheduling, and overseeing data collection while Greenwood-Ericksen said he is focusing on recruiting student researchers to support HU’s projects, identifying and building up physical lab space, and recruiting new clients from the region and beyond.
Students and recent graduates already have begun working with the HU-UXC, specifically on a project involving elementary and secondary school teachers use of informal assessments to figure out how well their students understand the material they’re covering in lectures. It’s sponsored by a major international publishing company, which will use the findings from the study to develop a line of more effective educational support products for teachers, he said.
Students also have helped on a new game project through the UX center that can be found at darksiders.com, and both graduates and undergrads have worked on several other unannounced projects for customers in the educational game space. A new AAA game project is scheduled to get underway this month that Greenwood-Ericksen hopes will be the first study we run mostly or completely on campus.
In the short term, the HU-UXC team plans to beef up its local testing capabilities and its staff so they can simultaneously work on more projects. The team also is working with HU students and recent graduates to conduct analysis and develop reports on research data collected elsewhere, but the hope is to make Harrisburg its primary data collection and experimental facility starting this spring.
“Aside from the benefits to students who want to develop skills in the areas of user research and usability, while beefing up their resumes by working on high-profile projects with known, professional clients, we also expect that the faculty of HU and other members of the central PA business and tech community could benefit from access to the professional and reasonably priced usability, user research, and market insight services that we will be offering here in Harrisburg,” Greenwood-Ericksen said. “Long term, the HU-UXC team is excited to work with local partners, startups, and other members of the community to bring affordable user experience research, usability testing, and marketing insights to members of the Central Pennsylvania business community and to faculty and partners of HU.”