Judge computer systems by usability

November 10, 2009

Your computer system can be easy to use – and to utilize.

Want to turn off your PC? Just press the “start” button, and navigate to “shutdown.” Does this make sense? Perhaps to a system designer (who understands that it’s about starting the shutdown process), but not to most of us.

How many times have I been told by a clerk taking my order, or in some other way trying to serve me, “the computer won’t let us do that.” Well, the computer should.

With all the advances in computer technology, unusable systems are still with us. Perhaps more problematic are the systems that appear to work just fine, but that really don’t provide the assist that is needed.

What can you do as a manager who wants technology to serve your organization, to assist your staff in performing their jobs, and to make it easier for your customers to interact with your organization during every order, fulfillment and customer service functions?

Here are some basic steps you can take, and principles that will help create usable systems that serve your organization and its people:

  • Understand that how your staff, your customers, and your prospects interact with your computer systems (either directly, or on the Web) is at least as important as the business functions that those systems provide. The “interaction design” must facilitate usability.
  • The look and feel of your computer systems must be based on a social – not a technical – specification. Of course, how that look and feel gets achieved may be a complex technical challenge.
  • Don’t let your staff build newer systems that just mirror the interactions present in the older systems. Rethink the tasks that staff are doing, and how the computer can help with that. Here’s a dramatic example: Years ago I was asked to rework an order processing system that displayed exactly what was on hand for any given item. The problem was that goods weren’t sold from on hand, but from the supply pipeline. A more functional system would calculate what is available to promise (e.g., what’s on hand, plus what’s expected in, minus what’s already promised for delivery). Because staff weren’t thinking in those terms, they were overly accepting of their current system, and not asking for the more powerful tools that they really needed.
  • Emphasize functionality and usability, and not technological wizardry. I’m reminded of the programmer who exclaimed, “If the users understood how I wrote this system, they’d use it right!” The problem, of course, was that users really didn’t care how the system was written – they just wanted it to make sense in terms of concepts they used in their work.
  • Pay careful attention to the system after it’s put in place and appears to be working. Often the users won’t complain, even though the system may require lots of extra effort on their part, entering data in ways that seem arcane or unnatural. Observing the users, just as an anthropologist might observe another culture, can provide a vivid story of what works and what doesn’t.
  • User affect is just as important as user performance. Do users appear confident, engaged, energized and comfortable using your systems, or are they tense, nervous, anxious? Using a well-designed system that has been tuned to their needs, users will understand exactly what they have to do, and how to do it in a safe and straightforward manner.
  • Finally, remember that the technology is the means, and should never be the end. When asked, “What are you doing?,” we don’t want to hear, “Well, we’re running the function as required by our system.” Instead, we’d like a response like, “Now the computer is checking our order to make sure that all options are consistent, and we’re getting ready to model a financial program that will help the customer really understand the benefits they will be getting.”

Yes, it’s true that your system may be built of relational databases, packet switched networks, and robust APIs – but note that none of that jargon enters into this discussion. In talking about usability, we’re addressing the social side of computing, and not the technical underpinnings. Both of these are very important, but it appears that the social side is much too often neglected.

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5 Responses to “Judge computer systems by usability”

  1. Sonia said

    Arthur, Well said. Often times the end user is not considered and the bells and whistles are the focus. What I’ve found is that folks don’t end up using the bells and whistles because it may not seem easy to use, the end users were not part of the process or training fell short. When rolling out new technology end users must be given the time to train and learn the new system. Thanks for the post. Sonia

  2. Michael Wilber said

    I wish they taught this kind of stuff in Computer Science programs. Human factors engineering is really underappreciated.

    I was lucky to have an internship where I learned about the kind of issues you write about here. I was writing small apps for individual users inside a corporation and I learned a tremendous amount about human behavior and human / computer interaction. I think every programmer should have that kind of experience in order to experience firsthand the real human consequences of their design choices.

    Regarding the Start menu, I liked Microsoft’s aim of simplifying the Windows interface down to a single button. It really was a tremendous improvement over the Windows 3.1 interface, though, perhaps still more complicated and maybe a little more confusing than it could be. In Windows 7, it doesn’t even say “Start” anymore, it’s just the Windows logo, and I think they call it “The Pearl” now. (Removing the text probably saves Microsoft some internationalization hassles.)

    Of course, with all computers these days, you can just shutdown the computer by pushing the physical power button on the computer. But, I’m actually afraid to use the power button because I don’t know if it’s configured to sleep, hibernate or actually turn off the machine. So, I just end up using the Start menu to turn off the machine. Still though, I think this is an improvement over the days when the power button instantly killed the power to the machine, because lots of computer users were not aware that it was a bad idea to kill the power right in the middle of your Windows session.

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