No matter how well an IT system runs, if the user interface is wrong productivity will suffer. It is up to IT managers to put themselves in the users' shoes
Many instruction leaflets supplied with flat-pack furniture can be nigh on impossible to follow. Why can't manufacturers make such products as simple to assemble and use as a child's toy?
The same can be true of software. As IT systems become increasingly complex, the learning curve for users is getting steeper. In some cases, making the right software choice can mean the difference between success and failure. There are many facets to user interface design that IT departments must consider before deciding what software to use.
Whether a system is developed internally, is bespoke, or off-the-shelf, a key role for the IT director is to ensure that people in the organisation are comfortable using it. A well-designed, intuitive IT system means less training and support for end-users.
It is important that IT staff understand the end-user experience. "You should put yourself in the position of your users," said Robina Chatham, visiting fellow at the Cranfield School of Management.
She warned that many IT professionals are drawn to technically challenging areas of functionality, but this does not necessarily produce easy-to-use software. "Consider what your users really need rather than the features of the software. How much do they actually use?"
Chatham pointed to the development of Microsoft products as an example of feature bloat. "In reality, most of us use about 10% of a Microsoft product - the rest just adds cost and makes it more complicated to use."
In any software, whether commercial or bespoke, giving the end-user too many options is confusing. "If it is too complicated, many users will just give up."
Chatham said IT managers should ask users whether they have any problems while they are at their desks. Picking up on people's niggles and fixing them there and then could help to prevent such problems from becoming much worse later on. "It also helps build a better working relationship. End-users feel able to approach their IT department when there is a real problem."
Brian Oakley, an expert on the subject of usability at the British Computer Society's Human-Computer Interface Specialist Group, agreed. "Remember that the person is at the heart of the system. Many systems have gone wrong because people become enthralled by technology."
Oakley warned that most users hate delays. "Three seconds is manageable, but when a system begins to take more than 20 seconds, users start doing something else," he said.
Productivity is also affected if a system is too complex, or if end-users have been given inadequate training in how to use the software. Even something as simple as the colours used on your company's systems can affect how people work. "People do not like to be bombarded with bright colours - their eyes can get very tired," said Oakley.
He said application developers should avoid using garish hues such as bright reds and yellows and keep the number of colours to a minimum. Choose muted pastel shades such as green and blue when designing user interfaces, he said.
Daniel Dresner, quality and partners manager at the National Computing Centre, recommends that IT managers spend time and money on a usability survey to work out if their systems are suitable for their users.
"I believe that IT managers rarely look at or do a formal review on usability," he said.
Dresner feels that fantastically designed GUIs are not what users need if they are required to work in a particular way. He suggests designing the interface so that it is fit for purpose and satisfying to use. "Think about the information the user will need on their screen," he said.
So what exactly makes the definitive user interface? Microsoft is one company whose balance sheet relies on knowing what users want. It claims to have spent more than $3bn (£1.9bn) on the research and development of its Office productivity suite to build the most intuitive user experience in the product range.
One result of this research was a subtle change in screen colours. Daniel Bennie, Microsoft Office product marketing manager, said the research showed that users wanted text that was easier to read on screen. The result was that Microsoft introduced a grey border around e-mail messages in Outlook to make the message appear more prominent.
Besides colour changes, the formatting of text can have a huge impact on usability. Bennie said, "We have also included a feature that enables users to read the text in columns like they would read a newspaper, as this is easier for the eye to scan."
Beyond the GUI
The majority of people use a standard mouse and keyboard, but the GUI is not the only form of user interface. Speech, handwriting and even hand gestures have all been put forward as the next major development in human-computer interaction.
Chatham said that although voice recognition is one of the more natural progressions for users in this area, there is still some way to go before it becomes mainstream.
"Many people are used to dictating to a secretary but the software is still not accurate as it has problems with accents. When these errors are sorted out, voice recognition will start to take off," she said.
Handwriting recognition is an area more likely to have an immediate impact. Chatham said that while some users might feel more comfortable speaking to a PC, there are others who would prefer to write.
"I have noticed that younger people are actually more familiar with working with text on screen, and for them, handwriting recognition may seem more natural," she said.
One example where handwriting recognition has been deployed is at the Royal Brompton Hospital. The hospital recently ran a trial to discover the amount of time saved by taking patient notes on Tablet PCs.
When visiting patients on the ward, data such as angiograms and x-rays were available to doctors via Tablet PCs connected to the hospital's patient and clinical system via a wireless network. This gave doctors and nurses immediate access to patient records and from anywhere in the hospital. Using handwriting recognition, the staff were able to update and annotate patient notes, diagrams or hospital systems.
As well as voice and handwriting recognition software, some firms are working on more futuristic ways in which users might converse with their PCs. US firm iGesture has come up with a device that converts hand gestures into commands that can be interpreted by a PC. While the designers claim their system could spell the end of repetitive strain injury as a result of using a mouse, it will probably be a long time before you see users gesticulating wildly at their PCs to make them carry out everyday tasks.
Tips on usability
- Put yourself in the position of your users - analyse what they want to see on-screen and what they require from the system.
- Keep options to a minimum and make sure that frequently used functions are easy to access.
- Develop systems in a way that makes end-user interactivity intuitive. Users should not need instruction manuals. This should reduce the number of support calls to the IT department.
- Give users a simple trouble-shooting checklist to help them identify and solve common problems themselves.
- Observe how people in the organisation use the software. Visit users at their desks and ask them of their experiences.
This was first published in April 2003