What Kind of Users Use Your GUI?

Originally published: May 01, 2001                                icon_Archive Articles Archives 

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

avivaPart 2 in a series on Getting to Know the “U” in GUI

In our last newsletter, I wrote about some basic techniques for learning about the working environments and working patterns of targeted end users. However, paying attention to working environments and working habits only provides some of the background needed for creating usable systems. For example, a touch screen or mouse-driven navigation system is appropriate for novice computer users with poor typing ability. But that same interface would slow the productivity of keyboard-savvy workers performing repetitive data entry tasks. Getting accurate and specific details about the characteristics of your target user base is also critical for setting the usability requirements of a graphical user interface, because different types of users demand different interaction styles.

Discovering the fundamental characteristics of target user populations is called ‘user profiling’. The user characteristics relevant to each system may vary, but they generally include factors such as:

  • Job function
  • Demographics such as age, gender, and education
  • Computer (and/or web) related attitudes, motivations, and expertise
  • Business skills and experience (including language skills, typing ability, and knowledge of specific business rules pertinent to the application being designed)
  • Physical characteristics (such as visual acuity, color-blindness, dexterity, or other special needs).

Ordinarily, user profiling is conducted by formally surveying a statistically representative sample of the user population. Interviewing a few “expert informants” who are familiar with the needs and characteristics of a range of users can also provide valuable data in a fraction of the time needed for distributing and analyzing a survey instrument. However, “experts” on design teams occasionally hold mistaken beliefs about users, so the resulting user profiles may not be as reliable. Choosing the right approach for your organization should balance the costs of conducting a user profiling survey against the risks of developing a system based on false assumptions about the users.

We recommend profiling your user base even before you collect data about your target users’ work environments and tasks. Creating user profiles allows you to identify the categories of users who will be using the system most frequently or who may have high risk use cases, thus concentrating the most efficient allocation of your development resources. However, it’s a good idea to reassess your user profiles periodically, because demographic or economic shifts may alter the requirements of your user population.

Assistance from an experienced researcher will help ensure that the user profile data you collect will be accurate, objective, and relevant to your project, whether by aiding you with the design, administration, or analysis of a user profiling questionnaire, or by conducting interviews with user representatives.

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