Accessing the Wisdom of the Techs

Using Observation, Conversation, and Survey to Identify Confusion and Pain-points

Client: AACE Lab at Cooper union

The Challenge

Conduct research to assess and improve the usability of the AACE lab, a digital fabrication lab.

The Outcome

Produced a document of recommendations based information gathered through heuristic analysis, informal interview, and survey.


5 weeks

The AACE Lab is a multidisciplinary digital fabrication lab at Cooper Union. It is a space that brings together students and faculty of various disciplines including Art, Architecture, and Engineering.

The lab opened in 2020 and operated remotely for the first year.

The 2022 Spring Semester marked the end of AACE Lab’s first year of operation with in-person usage.

I performed a usability audit on the space to identify pain points and areas of improvement that regular users may have become habituated to.

The Power of a Fresh Set of Eyes

I was hired to help manage the lab during the end-of-year rush, but I felt that it would be a great opportunity to conduct a usability audit since I was new to the space and could see it with fresh eyes.

The end-of-year rush was also a great chance to assess which aspects of the system break down under peak usage and try to identify bottlenecks and areas of confusion.

Structured Evaluation

Once I realized I wanted to conduct a usability audit through observation of the space, I decided to evaluate the space using Neilsen Norman’s 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design.

For the most part, AACE Lab does pretty well against Neilsen Norman’s Herusticis, however, there were a few violations of:

  • #2 Match Between System & the real world,
    • The Vinyl Cutter did not have its own job type in the job management system, students were told to enter it as a laser cutting job, which caused confusion
  • #6 Recognition Rather than Recall,
    • There was very little signage or information in the space; new users were often confused and either had to ask a tech or simply guess what they were meant to do
  • and #10 Help + Documentation
    • Documentation was in the process of being created, but not all of the machines/processes were covered and it was not yet available to the larger user base

Getting to Know the Users + the Space

During my time at the lab, I had a lot of great conversations with student techs and other users that helped inform my understanding of the space.

It was interesting to observe the ways in which students of different disciplines engaged with the various tools and processes. It felt like a very fertile and lively space with plenty of cross-pollination.

Accessing the Wisdom of the Techs

The Student Techs were the group that I was most interested to hear from since they field the majority of day-to-day user inquiries and requests.

I figured they would have a lot of insight into what works well and what is confusing, so I composed a brief, optional survey using Google Forms to get their feedback.

Click Here to View the Survey

Presenting the Findings + Recommendations

I didn’t want to make Harrison and Judy have to do more work on my behalf, so I condensed my findings down into a one-page list of recommendations and gave them access to the Student Tech’s responses to the usability survey. I divided my recommendations into two main categories, Information in Space, and Digital Fixes.

I also had ongoing conversations with Harrison and Judy throughout the process about how the Lab has been evolving and where it could evolve next.

Measuring Success + Reflection on the Experience

I have to check back with Lab Management at the end of this coming year to see how useful my recommendations proved to be, but by my informal measures, I consider this project successful.

As the semester came to a close, various students and co-workers told me that they really appreciated my presence in the lab and Harrison said he found the recommendations really helpful.

I found the whole process really satisfying and hope to do more work like it in the future.