GLOSS RA Research Diary: Usability study of building controls in the Unidad de Posgrado, U.N.A.M, Mexico City

By Jack Baker

A summary of key points, opinions and thoughts whilst undertaking research in U.N.A.M, Mexico City for three weeks.

Arriving in Mexico City

The arrival in Mexico City was incredible. Staring out of the window as the plane landed, I have never seen a city so big. The buildings sprawled for miles into the horizon, huge volcanic peaks rise up from within the city – a truly unique landscape.

Landing over Mexico City. It has an altitude of 2,240 metres and a population of over 20 million people.

I was met at arrivals by three huge smiles and a ‘University of Sheffield’ sign with my name on. Arturo, Lilliana and Fanny have been brilliant ever since I have arrived, they have instantly made me feel at home.

A friendly Mexican welcome at the airport.

The city itself is a lot greener than I expected. Perceptions of Mexico from within the UK seem to be that the country is a very dry and hot place, almost desert like. When in fact, it is nothing like this at all.

I was aware that the city was very high up (over 2.5km) and that means that the weather here is fairly temperate, it’s not humid either and can sometimes feel like Europe. It is often cloudy and overcast in the morning, burning sunshine by 3pm and then in the evening humidity increases before the rain comes and the storms reset it all again.

12.jpgThe Frida Kahlo Museum, or La Casa Azul. A museum dedicated to dedicated to the life and work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

I travel everyday to the university via Metro-Bus, a mode of transport that offers relief in a city that has bad traffic problems. Although I am the only “Guerito” (Blondie) on the bus in the morning, I feel relaxed and comfortable and that is due to the great people I am here with. I have a particularly favourite spot on the daily commute and that is at the foot of the steps leading to the bus stop. Here, there are informal food stalls, tacos, churros, quesadillas – quick and fresh street food. There are elderly men gambling, policemen buying tacos, women with their children sat around talking. Within the space of 10 metres my senses explode with smells and sights and it’s a perfect example of what this city is like.

Impressions of the building

My first impressions of the building in which I will undertake the research, the Unidad de Posgrado, is that it is very large with a very simple design. Many elements are repeated, the materials used are basic. When Arturo told me that the building was only five years old I could not believe it. Perhaps it’s the overwhelming use of concrete, that has begun to weather considerably, that makes it looks older than it actually is.

The simple, circular plan is actually very hard to navigate, as many areas look the same. The external skin does not change on the south or north side of the building. The whole building has large external walkways that provide solar shading, I am sure though that some rooms will have problems with direct sunlight. Inside the building, the rooms are actually very pleasant to be in and are well ventilated. In most cases you can achieve some cross ventilation and if not the rooms are small enough to achieve sufficient ventilation from one side.

The Unidad de Posgrado. The postgraduate facility at U.N.A.M for most courses and the study of our research.

A view from the roof of the Unidad de Posgrado.

Changing the questionnaire to suit

The first task was to alter the questionnaire to suit the postgraduate building. It had originally been developed for domestic buildings, so this was the first time it was being used in a non-domestic setting and outside of the UK. It was clear that the Skype conversations Fionn & I had with Mexico prior to my arrival in the country had not been effective in communicating what needed to be done in order to adapt the questionnaire suitably. So upon my arrival there were many changes to be made. However, this was the advantage of travelling to Mexico to undertake the research- by physically inhabiting the building it became quickly apparent what changes needed to be made and I had carried with me the advice and knowledge from Fionn on how to do this.

The domestic version of the questionnaire obviously contained questions about controls such as the mechanical extract for cooking. But there was only one of these systems in the building and it is used by a handful of people out of hundreds of occupants. Therefore, we felt it necessary to identify key touch points and controls that a typical everyday user would come in contact with. This was done by several walks around the building. Interestingly there is no mechanical ventilation, or air conditioning so a lot of the controls were very simple, so it would be interesting to see how user friendly they actually are.

The last few tweaks being made to the Usability Questionnaire before it was rolled out.

Another major change to the questionnaire was the addition of photographs which proved extremely effective as it allowed the participants to instantly identify the control and place it in their heads. This was particularly useful when it came to the emergency controls that people may not be used to using everyday. This also helped clarify when there were several versions of each controls e.g. there were different types of fingerprint recognitions systems around the building.

We also simplified the layout by asking the participant to give a general rating of the controls from 1-7 and then answer a series of questions in relation to individual systems.

Piloting the questionnaire

After we made the changes to the questionnaire, we translated it and piloted to two people – Liliana the student I was staying with, & a member of administration staff. Liliana had already seen the previous drafts of the questionnaire so we used her to monitor the changes and make sure the layout and questions were easy to follow. The other lady was a random member of staff – so we used her to test the delivery of the questionnaire and how long it may take to fill out. She proved to be a tricky one, spending the majority of time complaining to Fanny that I should not have been awarded a scholarship because I could not speak Spanish and I am therefore no use to the research. This was accompanied by her thoughts on the English education system and things that were above and beyond the piece of paper in front of her. She did not read it properly and rushed through it.

Despite this negative experience, I think it showed Fanny & I exactly what was required when introducing the questionnaire and helping guide participants through it. The questionnaire itself was working well, we just had to adjust our delivery of it. We shortened our introduction and put more of an emphasis that the research was being done to contribute to the buildings of U.N.A.M. We decided to slow participants down where possible by asking questions and not allowing them to just steam-roll through the questionnaire.

In the end, we turned a very negative initial experience into something a lot more positive. This is something that I have learnt with field research is that you have to adapt quickly and prepare for the unexpected.

The concept of ‘usability’ in Mexico

When translating the questionnaire from English to Spanish, Arturo and Fanny alerted me to the fact that the concept of ‘usability’ does not exist in Mexico. For example, the Spanish translation we used was ‘usabilidad’ which many people found confusing when we delivered the questionnaire. There was a particular question that read “does it show response to your actions?” For example, when you press the button for the lift and it lights up, it has communicated with you that is has been pressed. Arturo and Fanny highlighted that this would not be understood by many of the occupants so we had to find an alternative. We changed this to “Does this user control item tell you whether it is actually working properly or not?” and was understood a lot better.

Convincing people to take part

When we initially delivered the questionnaire, we encountered a few set-backs. We handed out six to the staff in an office that co-ordinates services such as security and cleaning. When we returned the following day to check progress, we had discovered that their boss had removed all of the invitations and questionnaires as he did not want his employees to take part. We could not find an explanation for this, perhaps they saw it as something that would expose faults in organisation or how the services are organised. However, this is not the case and the research was not there to assess anything on an organisational level, it was simply there to assess the controls in the building and how easy they are for everyone to use.

Eventually, the staff completed the questionnaire as the boss had allowed it to go ahead, although one member of staff was still reluctant and made someone else fill it in on their behalf instead of just telling us they did not want to take part. This was therefore not an accurate result, as the person who filled it in for them had already completed one earlier that day.

When we delivered the questionnaire, Fanny introduced the project and introduced me. Sadly, we encountered a few sarcastic replies – “why should I be impressed that a student has travelled from a university in England?”. We were just providing the background to the project and introducing the foreigner that was stood before them, not trying to impress anybody. It was a shame to receive responses like this, but out of 100 people we were bound to come across a few tricky characters.

Often the academics that we interviewed examined the questionnaire and began to pick it apart, questioning our methods of interviewing etc… In fact, we actually received one response that was full of notes and annotations with advice for how to improve it. This will be translated and should hopefully prove useful as we move forward and continue to develop it.

Our first interview taking place with an academic from the architecture department.

There are many security staff in the building who are only present to unlock and lock doors for classes and meetings and meanwhile they sit in an adjacent room and wait for it to finish. I was informed that employees of the university are allowed to study anything they want for free and it is a great shame that most do not take this opportunity. This kind of attitude was exemplified when many security staff turned down the questionnaire despite the fact they were doing nothing, they simply were not interested.

On the other hand, many of the users were extremely interested and thoughtful when providing answers. They took their time and really thought about the times when they use the controls. They have asked about the results and if they will be able to receive a copy. In fact, we actually had an instance where a member of staff had heard about the questionnaire, made themselves a photocopy, filled it out and handed it in to us.

We have made contact with a member of architectural staff who sits on a committee that manages the building who is very keen to see the results and is interested in adapting the questionnaire to address other buildings on the campus. This positivity was very encouraging as we undertook the research.

Overall, there was a range of attitudes towards it and that is to be expected and something that would occur in Sheffield or in any other location. I guess the key to dealing with it is being friendly and personable and quickly adaptive to situations. In a situation where many students were not on campus and staff were busy preparing for the end of term, we did very well to collect over 100 opinions.

The problems of not speaking Spanish

There were many times when I felt frustrated at not being able to speak the language, and if I were to go back again to undertake research that involves interviews and human interaction I would make sure I could speak a good level of Spanish. That way the research really becomes your own and you can dictate it how you like.

When a lady ticked ‘yes’ when answering if a light switch allows sufficient adjustment, I wanted to ask why. Yet I was not able to as I could not hold a conversation in Spanish and she could not hold one in English. This is not to say that Fanny was wrong in not questioning this, after all when you are interviewing, the things you pick up on and question are a matter of your personal opinion. Throughout the interviews, Fanny will have picked up on things that I would have missed or ignored, and there is no problem with that. The answers given in the interviews will be as a result of Fanny’s opinion.

However, there were benefits to having to take a back seat as it allowed a detailed observation of the interview taking place. I often observed people feeling how many pages were left when they had reached the penultimate page and this gave me an indication that the questionnaire may be slightly too long.

I believe that the lady that ticked ‘yes’ did this because she sees the yes and no answers as simply answering positively or negatively about the control. In this case, it was a simple light switch and she can operate it perfectly so she believes that all answers must be positive and ‘yes’. However, the light switch in question does not allow adjustment. It cannot move up and down the wall, you cannot adjust the height or the angle of the switch etc…Had I discussed this matter with her, she may have changed her mind and examined the question more closely.

Reflections on the questionnaire

The questionnaire that we distributed was of course a first attempt at adapting it to a non-domestic situation and there are improvements that can be made for next time. After witnessing many being filled out, there were some stand out points that can be considered:

  • For the ‘Emergency Equipment’ page, a question needs to be included that reminds people whether they have used the equipment or not – could simply be: Have you operated this control? As many people have not ever had to use the fire alarm and have not been trained how to. Many stated it was clear and easy to use however the instructions on how to actually operate it are in English and from my experience, many may not be able to understand this.
  • The questions could have been adapted better to suit the individual controls. However, we chose to respect the original questionnaire. The question “does it allow for suitable adjustment?” did not apply to many of the controls and was a stumbling block for many of the participants.
  • When people rated the ventilation controls 1-7, they sometimes complained about the lack of ventilation and the internal temperatures and so gave a low rating. When instead they should have been rating the physical controls to open a window. This could be made clearer in the future. This could also be the reason why the access and security controls came out with a very good rating, there are maybe excessive security and access measures in place but often the controls themselves are not used because they’re complicated and frustrating and there are many examples where users have adapted their environment to combat this by adding informal signage and removing door handles etc…

19One of many instances where users adapt their environment due to unusable controls. In this case a sign has been wedged between doors to prevent the magnetic security system closing as there is no way to temporarily disarm the system.

Another instance of user adaption. This exit button is not only very small and discreet; its instructions are in English. ‘Oprima’ means press and the gold tape is there to alert people of it’s location.

I want to go back

From a personal point of view, I have learnt so so much from the trip to Mexico. This is the first time I undertaken a piece of research ‘in the field’. Going forward with my own studies or further collaborations between U.N.A.M and the University of Sheffield I have some experience under my belt on how to prepare and adapt research. The actual process of changing the questionnaire and seeing how different people react in different ways has been fascinating to watch. Hopefully the research will have an impact on U.N.A.M as well. I am currently in the process of writing a paper on the questionnaire results and I would like to see this as a stepping stone for further, larger and more ambitious projects between the two universities.

Mexico is an incredible country, and one that I wish to return to as quickly as possible. I miss the food a lot, it’s incredibly fresh and full of flavour. The city is so brightly coloured that returning to the UK made it look dull and de-saturated. But most of all the people are so positive and happy and made my time there so enjoyable and exciting. It’s a country that I think is overlooked by many and there is absolutely no reason why it should be. I am looking forward to going back already.









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