Magazine Article | June 25, 2008

Beware Of User-Friendly Software

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Jim Hopkins

User-friendly software is great for the infrequent user, but when software is used eight hours a day, such as in production, efficiency is what matters.


Integrated Solutions, July 2008

User-friendliness is characterized by the use of menus, icons, drag-and-drop interfaces, on-screen directions, and pop-up messages that guide users through the features and capabilities of a software package. These tools allow someone unfamiliar with the software to accomplish their tasks without memorizing commands or reading user manuals. For infrequent users, such as system administrators, these features are very helpful. For example, remembering exactly how to configure a database connection is unlikely when the task is performed annually or even less frequently.

Occasional users rely on visual prompts, menus, tool tips, online and on-screen instructions, as well as reminder pop-ups to use software successfully. However, software that is used continually throughout the workday, such as an integral business tool, does not need to be friendly; it needs to be efficient. Despite the inconvenience of a longer learning curve, efficient software will result in significantly improved productivity.

Frequent users depend on their software every day to complete their job duties. For example, in an insurance company, a claim indexer may use document management software for several hours each day. After the first day, does this user need a pop-up as a reminder of how to index a document or to confirm each setting? This type of user will not want to navigate through even the best-designed menus to execute frequent functions, but will want to keep their hands on the keyboard to utilize shortcut keys and execute a command, or a series of commands, instantly.

Be Wary Of Efficiency Traps
Efficiency and ease of use seem to be at odds with each other, but the best software accomplishes both. Lotus 123 was one of the first software packages to provide the best of both worlds with its slash menu system. Each menu item could be accessed by pressing "/" and then the first letter of the menu item. Frequent users simply typed the commands while infrequent users could navigate their way through menus. With these combined capabilities in mind, frequent users must be wary of losing efficiency by getting caught up in user-friendliness.

Common efficiency traps include dependance on the mouse, menus, and modes. A mouse is great for drawing, but it can slow down production work when you have to switch back and forth between mouse and keyboard. Likewise, menus often take focus away from your work, sometime requiring alternation between using the mouse and the keyboard. A best practice is to look for shortcut keys to execute menu commands. For example, if you want to make a word bold in Microsoft Word, you can highlight it with a mouse, select Font from the Format menu, select bold from the pop-up window and finally click OK. Your hands have left the keyboard and your eyes have left the word. Alternatively, you can press ctrl B, type the word, and press ctrl B again, and your hands never leave the keyboard and your eyes never leave the word. Finally, switching between modes, such as draw and erase functions, takes time and mental gymnastics to keep track of which mode you are in. Sometimes modes are unavoidable, but you should evaluate how they affect frequent tasks.

Conducting client software usability tests and counting keystrokes can reveal subtle issues and can significantly affect productivity. For example, if a user indexes 500 documents a day and the developer can remove two clicks required to index each document, that equates to 5,000 less clicks per week and over ¼ million fewer clicks per year. The efficiency gain translates into increased productivity, directly improving the bottom line, as well as decreasing the frustration and fatigue for the user, indirectly improving job satisfaction.

Sometimes changes to software, such as reducing the number of required clicks, can go against accepted user-friendly conventions. As an example, at OIT we recently made a choice in our latest version of DocFinity software to avoid having users click on a connector icon to draw a line between business process boxes. Drawing lines is accomplished by dragging the mouse from one box to the other box without switching from box drawing mode to line drawing mode and back again. Though not initially intuitive it is far more productive. That's our goal - building productive software.

A flashy demo can make software use look easy, but will it meet your end users' needs? Who is evaluating your next software purchase? The executive sponsor will make sure the feature set is right. The IT administrator will make sure it works with existing systems. But who is going to make sure the software is efficient in daily use? Before diving into your next purchase, make sure you know which features need to be optimized for ease of use and which need to be optimized for production level efficiency. Identifying your users, the functions you expect your users to perform, and the frequency of each task will ensure you choose the best product for your organization