Do You Know Who Your Users Are?

Originally published: Apr 01, 2001                        icon_Archive Articles Archives

By Aviva Rosenstein, Ph.D.,
Usability Services Manager

avivaPart 1 in a series on Getting to Know the “U” in GUI

In software and web design, we’ve all seen examples of user interfaces that are supposed to make our work easier, but which are actually so frustrating to use that we avoid them whenever possible! For example, a web page that is designed to look great on a full screen, 21″ high, color display might be impossible to read if your office computer is only equipped with a 15″ monitor. Or, perhaps the menus and commands are organized in a manner that doesn’t match up with the way that you’re used to approaching a task.

Unfortunately, the ways in which graphic designers and developers sometimes choose to organize an interface might not make sense to the end users of a particular system or product. Even when a system works as it was designed, users may have difficulty using the system to accomplish their goals if the design doesn’t provide a good match with their existing work practices or processes, or the way that they generally think about those tasks.

To design a truly usable GUI, you need to understand your users — their ways of working, the environments they work in, and the way they conceptualize the tasks automated by your system. Discovering their actual work practices — not just the documented, “by the book” procedures replicated in manuals, but the actual workarounds, information flows, and artifacts people routinely employ as they do their jobs — is essential to designing usable systems. Asking users about their work habits is a good way to start gathering the requirements for creating or improving a UI system. But, sometimes people’s working patterns are so ingrained that both the users and the designers might overlook key details during interviews.

There are many techniques that you can use to help discover information about your users’ work environments and working patterns. One easy approach is setting up a tour where developers can visit the actual working environments to observe potential users going about the kinds of tasks that will be automated by the system under development. You can also videotape your potential users as they do those tasks and review the tape for evidence of relevant processes, practices, and tools. Another effective technique, “shadowing”, involves matching up individual workers with observers who “shadow” them as they go about their tasks and who can ask them questions about their work practices. The information gathered through these techniques can be used to create a clear model of task flow in the finished system that matches the users’ expectations. It can also be used to set requirements and guidelines, which will ensure that the system will perform well in the users’ actual work settings.

Asking questions and observing isn’t hard. But before you and your team head out on a site visit (or settle in with a stack of surveillance tapes and a VCR), it’s a good idea to get an experienced researcher to give you some pointers on what to look for, how to listen, and what questions to ask to ensure that you are collecting information that’s accurate, objective, consistent, and relevant to your project.

Next month, we’ll talk more about understanding the specific characteristics of your user population, and how those characteristics contribute to the GUI development process.

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