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Ask Eric: Questions & Answers

Each month Dr. Eric Schaffer answers selected questions on usable interface design. Recent Questions
Archived questions and answers about ...

The Business of Usability and Getting Projects Started

December 29, 2004 – submitted by Rahul Sahasrabudhe of India

Question: Are there any comparison studies between "old gold, robust" text-based commercial applications and current GUI-based (ease-of-use) applications?

Eric's response: Yes, there indeed has been research on text-based vs GUI. If you look at task time alone there is an improvement with the GUI. But if you consider the time spent positioning, resizing, and closing windows ("window thrashing") the overall time can be LONGER with GUIs. GUIs do give a set of additional capabilities (direct manipulation, graphic display, popup error handling, etc). I think I enumerated 16 advantages some years ago. But if you are not using these, you will find that the old text-based interface can be better than the same interface just dropped into a GUI.


November 24, 2004 – submitted by Christopher Fletcher of Omaha, NE

Question: Will guidelines and standards be manageable for (IBM) portal and portlet development? Our company is planning on using portals & portlets for new systems development. Will the flexibility and user customization options create too many headaches for a Usability Engineer to manage?

Eric's response: The key is knowing what NOT to standardize. A purchased package should not be standardized. You are just buying it. So it is the developer's job to have standards for the package. Also any facility that is built only once need not have standards. Standards are only there to guide the design process when there are many pages of a single type to create. You need standards for the types of pages your staff will design.


November 22, 2004 – submitted by Akansha of Noida, India

Question: What is the role of human computer interaction in the biomedical field?

Eric's response: Saves lives, avoids lawsuits, and reduces time and training for expensive healthcare providers.


October 25, 2004 – submitted by Görkem Çetin of Istanbul, Turkey

Question: Is there a usability laboratories standardization effort?

Eric's response: There are indeed efforts to standardize usability testing processes and reporting formats. An example: ANSI has a Common Industry Format for testing.


October 20, 2004 – submitted by Michael ORear at Jasper, AL

Question: In Social Studies. Can there be questions without answers or answers without questions? What is a truly great question, and how do you recognize one when you run across it?

Eric's response: In the design world we want questions that guide us to improve our decisions. The great questions make fundamental shifts to our overall design prospective. For example, Don Norman recently asked the usability community what it takes to make designs that create a given emotional response.


October 7, 2004 – submitted by Cindy Line of Dallas, TX

Question: What prototyping tool do you recommend? I need something that will enable you to create screens quickly and easily, with an option to integrate interactive functions when needed.

Eric's response: We use two choices. If we are just mocking up wireframes we have a prototyping tool that is based on PowerPoint™. This allows untrained staff to mock up screens without getting the sizes of objects wrong and making something that is not codable. We also have templates keyed to our standards so you start with a standard page type.

If we need interactivity we simply code it in HTML. With our technical staff here in India it is no longer prohibitive. I have seen them mock up 20 plus screens in Chinese and have them ready for usability testing in just a few days.


September 28, 2004 – submitted by Susan Henson of Wichita Falls, TX

Question: Where can I find articles on usability of University Course Evaluation instruments?

Eric's response: I have not really seen research specific to university evaluations. However, there is a huge literature for survey design. I would suggest that this literature would generalize to your problem quite well. We typically use standard Likert and Semantic differential scales for such evaluations. There is plenty of research on this of course.


September 15, 2004 – submitted by Kelly Tucker of Fairfax, VA

Question: Dr. Eric, My company is about to build from the ground up a new user interface to our software. Where can I find a listing of usability, navigation, user experience standards or guidelines that our software development staff can access as reference. Our interface will be designed to be accessed via the web but could also have desktop functions. Thank You!

Eric's response: This is a sad question indeed. It is quite like asking if there is a one page crib sheet on how to do brain surgery! Usability is a challenging and complex profession. It requires a foundation in cognitive psychology, sensation and perception, and very specific usability engineering principles. There are numerous essential skills; many of whom take years to learn. If you intend to simply point your developers to some list you will have a horrible design for sure. This is very sad indeed!


September 13, 2004 – submitted by Jeff White of Charlotte, NC

Question: Eric, do you have any suggestions for a communications plan for a Web site redesign? The goal being to inform customers and internal staff of what has changed, new functionality, etc. For some context: the site is about 20,000 pages, targeted towards a diverse audience of healthcare workers at all levels of hospital systems, and the old version was bad. Really, really bad in terms of basic usability – IA, navigation, architecture, the works. Thanks!

Eric's response: Be clear about the role of the communication. If you want to just get people to TRY the new site (after abandoning the old) then it is appropriate to have an ad campaign. Announce the new revision with some specific killer hooks to draw people in. Try to avoid extrinsic rewards like raffles. This moves the interest from the site to the offered tea shirt.

Letting users know about the new content is tricky. The first question is, "Does the user CARE that it is new?". In many sites the users do not frequent the site enough to care about the details of what is new. In ANY case there is a universal phenomena that the developers are MUCH more interested and focused on what is new than the users. If the users must know what is new, then the site structure should really make this evident. In some cases there will be an area of the home page or a flagging system to highlight new material and functions.


September 2, 2004 – submitted by Marian Frymire of Fort Worth, TX

Question: Part 1: As business evolves, there is always a need to make functional changes on the Web site. These changes impact ongoing training and usability. How often do you recommend making these changes?

Part 2: If you see terminology or design flaws in your site, how often do you recommend making these changes since this also impacts training and usability?

Eric's response: Generally, the best practices for site maintenance is....

1. As required by strategy or nature of business, develop a new structure for the site. This should be years apart.

2. Tactical improvements. Addition of new functions and enhancements should be completed every six months or so. This will allow an organized and properly evaluated delivery. In no case should this be faster then quarterly.

3. Bug fixes and repair of small ergonomic issues can be more frequent.


August 31, 2004 – submitted by John of United States

Question: Hi Dr Eric. I have 3 questions, your answers are very important for me on both fronts, professionally and personally.

1. How to create personas? Especially when the product caters to international market? Maybe even 3 different continents and multilingual users!

2. I believe expert reviews & usability testing are better for a midsize organization than a complete revamping the SDLC (system development life cycle) process to a UCD (user-centered design) process.

3. We have started with concept prototyping & heuristics! Requirement gathering and other things are in same old-fashioned SDLC way. What will be the impacts to our new process?

Eric's response: Ok, Question One.
Personas are just simplification of your target user profiles. Real usability practitioners generally study the full profile. The persona is a convenient communication method. At HFI we routinely develop cross-cultural applications. So our profiles commonly have to accommodate many markets with many languages. This is routine. So if you are including middle class Indians in West Bengal you might have Satrajit Mujumdar (52 years old) who works for ICICI Bank as a loan manager. He Is fluent in English but strongly prefers Bengali. He uses computers for personal as well as business use, but has never purchased on the Net. He has two children in university and loves reading Tagore. [Editor's note: detailed persona development is taught in HFI's UCA course.]

Question TWO.
No! Don't DO THAT!!!!!!!!!!! ARGH!!!!!!!!! You put yourself in a wholly adversarial position. You just bring people bad news. Then you give no training, no methods, no templates, no standards, no staffing, and no support. The other employees will rightly be upset with you. Do the exact OPPOSITE of this. You might need a couple of reviews or tests to get people's attention. But use an outside consultant so the bad feelings don't attach to you. THEN, before you even consider feedback, give the staff the tools to do well. Be proactive!

Question Three (pant pant)
Well I assume in a normal SDLC you do some concept prototyping anyway. So really you are just adding heuristics. This will do a tiny bit. VERY tiny.


August 9, 2004 – submitted by Dei van Velzen of Norway

Question: In the company I work for as an interaction designer there is a lot of talk about usability and user-friendly design. Unfortunately when decisions are made it's the bosses' "feeling for design" or "common sense" that is the leading factor. So... how to get them to listen to the experts???

Then this, without going too much in detail: if you have to choose between a (small) learning curve for users using an icon, or start violating standard Internet guidelines (e.g., a shop's name which is linked should lead to that shop's Web site, not to a local page) WHAT WOULD YOU DO?? (I prefer the icon...)

Would be nice to hear from you! Greetz from Oslo.

Eric's response: Dei, you have a common and difficult problem. The very best solution is to LET the bosses design based on their intuition. THEN ask them to come and observe a usability test of their designs. A cruel but effective method.

The icon question depends on circumstances. Icons are useful for only two things. First, they save space for expert users. If someone uses the facility for a significant portion on their day; then they will learn a set of icons (perhaps). But you will be surprised how LONG the learning curve is. I have seen research on MS Word™ that showed users operating it regularly for two years, on average know about six of the icons. Second, icons are useful to support a brand, theme, or metaphor (but in this case they should be labeled).

Remember, even with a LOT of work, icon self evidency will average about 50% overall.


August 9, 2004 – submitted by Deepak Khodani of India

Question: What are the benefits a content development & elearning company can get by having a Usability Analyst on the staff.

Eric's response: Content development companies benefit very little from usability work. Basically the editor software is equipped to address issues of usability in text. Just so, the content of the training course benefits little from usability work. However, the operation and interactivity of online training DOES benefit greatly from usability work.

I recall a computer-based training package at a major auto manufacturer. It was so difficult to use the CBT package, that they were planning to develop a CBT package to TEACH people how to use the CBT package. Let's not do that again.


July 19, 2004 – submitted by Abhijeet Bhagat of India

Question: How to start a GUI standardization process in an organization where the projects are varying.

Eric's response: I have yet to find a company where the projects don't "vary". If the projects are within a single interface environment (e.g., Windows™ GUI interface, or browser, or cellphone) then a single standard can be used. This can cover quite a wide range of types of applications or Web sites.

In starting your standardization effort you first need to get management support to create a standard and then to support it. Never start a standard without a plan to disseminate and support it. I have occasionally seen organizations that asked someone to write a standard in their spare time. Even with specialists that know standards development well and have a full set of standards boilerplate, we take 6-8 weeks with a team of people to prepare a standard.


June 15, 2004 – submitted by Rolando Crions of India

Question: What are the things that one has to do in planning the portal for features RICH, services etc. Also what are the demographic and cultural factors that need to be looked into. And how & where "Usability" can play its crucial role there, for India targeted portal that would in near future be targeting some other countries as well.

Is there any book you would like to suggest for starting/planning and maintaining a Web portal. And what points are to be kept in mind as users from various background, fields and ages will be using the portal.

Eric's response: Is there any book you would like to suggest for starting/planning and maintaining a Web portal. And what points are to be kept in mind as users from various background, fields and ages will be using the portal.

You must have a clear target population and a clear focus for the role of the portal. Without this you will certainly fail. I would be much more impressed with a portal to communicate disaster relief information for residents of Maharashtra. Without a focus like this nothing you can read will help.


May 26, 2004 – submitted by David Hoard of Hollywood, CA

Question: I'm reading your book, and I'd like to clarify what you mean by the "Offshore model" for usability teams. Do you mean really offshore, like in Asia? Or do you simply mean outsourcing to a consultant that may be found locally.


Eric's response: When getting usability work done you can actually chose between...

  • Onsite
  • Near Site (same city, easy to drop in and talk)
  • Onshore (Not same city, but near timezone and same culture)
  • Near Shore (basically Canada)
  • Offshore (India and similar choices)

The price goes down, but coordination issues go up. However, we have indeed shown that true Offshore usability work is quite effective in many situations. At HFI we pick the global delivery model that makes the most sense. Personally, I am living in India most of the time now to further refine our five-year-old offshore delivery capabilities.


April 23, 2004 – submitted by Robert Allen of Orlando, FL

Question: If you were to start a world class usability/human factors department, what type of hardware and software would you first purchase?

Eric's response: First I will say that hardware and software are not at ALL your main concerns in developing a usability practice. You have to get the right management support. You have to get the right organizational structure. You have to find the right staffing mode and get the right people in place.

In terms of hardware you will just need basic computer and communication equipment. If you are going to do formal usability testing in a lab you will need UT equipment (and the main decision there is on portability. We have labs that fit inside a shoebox today. Very handy for travel intensive setups). If you are going to do remote testing you will need the hardware and software to support this. I am unfortunately still waiting for a software package that really does a good job of supporting remote usability testing.

I also suggest you might get a package (like HFI's Usability Central Gold™ which will provide a foundation of methodology, templates, tools, and standards. This can save a year or so of development work. Finally, if you are doing contextual inquiry consider Holtzblatt's "CD Tools" product. It can keep your materials better organized through that complex process.


March 22, 2004 – submitted by Rachael Fogarty of New Zealand

Question: When I argue for greater emphasis on usability and less on design, I'm told that I'm old – I don't understand the youth market, but the contracted Web designers do. Is there any evidence that youth (15-19 year olds) respond differently to Web sites?

(See www.drivesmart.co.nz)

Eric's response: Of course youth respond differently! There is the obvious elements like better vision and reflexes. But more importantly there are cultural differences. It is a LOT like designing for users in a different country. They have different practicalities (may not have credit cards, like Japanese users). They will like different colors, use different language, have different priorities etc. But like user's everywhere they are sensitive to poor ergonomic design and their needs are well met by user-centric design processes.

I often find graphic art firms and such that claim they really understand this market. They take this excuse as license to create horrible designs with lots of gratuitous graphics and obscure navigation. This works poorly. Based on their sloppy and all-intuitive approach, they often add functionality that is not used. I have seen MILLIONS of dollars wasted providing functions that are derisively rejected by this population.

Creativity will be important in designing for youth. But the answer is applying user-centered methods. It is NOT NOT NOT hiring a few people (usually young themselves) who will completely forget the maximum "Know Thy Users; for they are NOT you".


February 21, 2004 – submitted by Jerick Labayog of Philippines

Question: Hi. If you don't mind, I just want to ask on what is your view regarding Cyber ethics?

Eric's response: The laws of karma apply online. You can be unethical in bulk mail. You can be unethical with spam. The technology may amplify your actions. But there is no substantial difference. Being unethical in any form is simply bad business. It is also a poor way to live a life. There are so many useful things we can do that help others, express our creativity, AND make enough money to live well.


February 20, 2004 – submitted by Sukhada Agashe of Chicago, IL

Question: I am a Human-Centered Design Planner from the Institute of Design Chicago. Its been three years since I have been working in the field of Design... especially user-centered design. I have learned a lot about this approach and feel like it has become an integrated part of my design thinking. Words like design, usability, user centeredness, testing, prototyping... all these terms and methods make a lot of sense to me, yet at times I get confused about design, usability, and desirability. All these three words play a very important part in giving dimensions to a product. My question to you is "How does one bring the right balance to usability and desirability in the product development process?" Haven't there been times when you have felt that you can measure usability but not desirability to a user? How does a designer tackle this aspect? How does one measure intangible aspects of the user experience such as "fun," "enjoyment," or whether the product is desirable enough to purchase?

Eric's response: In the first day of my FIRST software ergonomics class in 1976 Bob Bailey told us that we care about "speed, accuracy, training requirements, satisfaction, and safety". It is still true today. "Desirability" is simply one facet of the challenge of overall subjective perception and satisfaction in using the product.

We have made huge strides in understanding the subjective aspects of design. Don Norman has pushed the field to pay more attention to the emotional aspects of design and there is a whole area now of "persuasive technology". Look to this area and you will find that perception of a product can be understood. Our very old ideas about motivation apply. These newer insights add additional value.

The thing you may be seeing is the issue of tradeoff. I might make a Web site that has very low error rates, but in the process slow the data entry. That may be a good decision. I can also make a design that LOOKS good at the expense of being easy to use! In fact many graphic artists do this spontaneously. This type of tradeoff needs to be conscious. But today, the real focus of design is to create products that are both attractive (inspiring, persuasive, desirable, brand-supporting) and at the same time ensure that the actual use is fast, accurate, and self-evident.


February 1, 2004 – submitted by Savvie R. of Singapore

Question: I am currently doing a masters degree in Human Factors Engineering in Singapore. I came across your intriguing site and thought you would probably be the best to answer the question I have.

We have to put together a thesis in a few months and my mind is inundated with loads of ideas, most of which have already been researched. For example: usability studies on various public information systems (self service automated machines), traffic information systems, traffic control systems, taxi booking systems, paperless office initiatives, e-learning initiatives, comparison between Mac and Windows OS, etc. I would most certainly wish to conduct research in a relatively untouched area in the usability / ergonomics arena.

What would be your advice regarding the kind of projects that would be most suitable for me?

Your contribution would be very valuable.

Eric's response: Well Savvie, you will have a very hard time finding a domain that has not been researched. From mainframes to interfaces implanted under the skin, there is research already in place. It is more important to research specific questions that need work. This may be in a focused domain, or it may be more pure research. I think it is best to understand the issues that developers are currently struggling with. Sometimes it adds real value to provide a solid study to show something that is obvious. For example, it is pretty obvious that horizontal scrolling is bad. But we are looking right now for a study to prove it to a client. If you are doing research into new areas some of the most interesting work is on persuasive technology and emotional reaction to interfaces.


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