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What is "usable" software?

Usable software is the kind of software you can use effectively and understand easily -- where it is clear what you can do, your goals and tasks are supported, controls are consistently presented, the view is pleasing to the eye and uncluttered, feedback is relevant and helpful, and your questions are answered simply and immediately -- in other words, something that helps you be successful, and that you would enjoy and find easy to use.

Usability and user-centered design (UCD) are finally moving to the forefront of the software development community's thinking, in many ways because there is a huge demand from users for better software interfaces and applications. Benefits are appearing in:

  • More successful user interactions with organizations and each other
  • Better user acceptance and motivation
  • Faster, more error-free development
  • Reduced training and help desk costs
  • Reputations for simplicity that leads to greater commercial sales

The ideal is to enhance a software application's ability to integrate effectively with overall organizational performance goals as well as the user's immediate goals. Such applications typically aim to help inexperienced or infrequent users complete tasks successfully -- as if they were experts -- and to increase the overall quality of work products. The interfaces are easier to learn and use because they clearly match the goals and work processes of their users, point the way clearly to the desired outcome, and provide timely online information/training along the way. However, better interactions are not just for inexperienced and infrequent users -- experienced people gain as much from the support of well designed applications, and appreciate the ability to focus on success (in their terms), particularly in complex environments.


Want to know more about usable design?

Interacting with the Semantic Web Summary and Sample Presentation

After collecting examples and demos of interaction design for the Semantic Web over recent years, it was time to collate that information into a summary page and an online presentation. This "guided tour" has been done at the Usability Professionals' Association conference since 2004 and at other venues since early 2007, updated every year. It provides an overview of the current innovations related to user interaction and user-centered design for the Semantic Web, as well as serving as a reference for practitioners as they consider the role of Semantic Web opportunities and offerings in their work. Examples and interesting web sites are listed in this paper and presentation.

The Usability Professional as Visionary/Strategist (pdf)

Have you had insights and observations that go beyond the scope of a particular system or site? Are you talking with business leaders, sharing how things could be better for users overall? A quality user experience is important for organizations and their customers, citizens, and staff. User advocates can take on a "thought leadership" role within organizations and projects. How do we do that?
Presented at User Focus, the Usability Professionals' Association DC Chapter conference, October 2006, Washington, D.C.

Semantic Web User Interaction (SWUI) Workshops

2009: Sharing Ideas for Complex Problems in User Interaction at ISWC, Washington, DC, USA. 2009 Proceedings.
2008: Exploring Interaction Challenges at CHI2008, Florence, Italy. 2008 Proceedings.
2006: SWUI "Grand Challenges" at ISWC, Athens, GA, USA.
2005: End User Interaction workshop (demos and discussion) at ISWC, Galway, Ireland. 2005 Proceedings.

A series of workshops focused on the human interaction frontier. How do we bring value to users from the power of the Semantic Web? If exploited effectively, the rich markup and processing of information promised by the Semantic Web can provide much more capability to meet user needs. However, if it is to be valuable to users (rather than just computer-to-computer interaction) its benefits have to be made tangible through the quality of the user experience.

Coming to Terms with Keywords (slides and discussion paper)

In the practice of User-Centered Design and Information Architecture, we often need to identify key words and phrases for the subject domain and the content in order to support navigation, search optimization, faceted browsing, and labeling. This session presents a brief overview of automated tools that can help. Keyword generators, semantic parsers, and concept extraction software do not remove the need for the individual and group design activities, but they can make it quicker to get started by identifying important terms which you can then discuss with subject experts and users.
Presented at User Focus, the Usability Professionals' Association DC Chapter conference, October 2007, Washington, D.C.

The Usability Imperative Inherent in the Semantic Web (pdf)

A tremendous amount of hope – and hype – has been attached to Tim Berners-Lee's concept of the Semantic Web, where machine-readable "meaning" enriches the promise of the web. Creating a positive, successful, trust-worthy experience for users is crucial to its success. What does that mean? What is imperative for it to become the "next generation" web? Most importantly, why must the usability community play a leading role to shape the Semantic Web in a positive, user-centered way?
Presented at the Usability Professionals' Association conference, June 2004, Minneapolis, MN.

Usability and UCD for XML and e-Government (pdf)

What does "usability" mean in the context of the government's adoption of XML, and the exploration of emerging and component technologies? A high-level overview of the considerations and value of user-centered design concepts to organizations and projects working with XML.
Presented at the XML Working Group, March 2004, Washington, D.C.

The Role of User-Centered Design in e-Gov and the Federal Enterprise Architecture

The October 2003 Universal Access Expedition Collaboration Workshop provided a one-day forum for case studies and guidelines related to usability and user-centered design (UCD). The workshop explored the role of usability in e-Government, highlighting success stories and best practices from across the U.S. Federal government. Presenters included IRS, Library of Congress, National Cancer Institute, usability.gov, NIST, SSA, Treasury, and USDA. The UA workshop series provides a valuable common ground for specialists from many disciplines.

Can Topic Maps Provide Context for Enterprise-Wide Applications?

Topic maps provide exciting opportunities not just to make information easier to find, but to increase the usability of software. In order to provide users with the information that applies to their particular situations, in forms that they can use, software must be aware of a user’s context (in a broad, multi-dimensional sense). Topic maps can serve as the language for linking information to software applications and for sharing information about context among applications. Using topic maps in the design of user-centered software applications for the U.S. Social Security Administration, we have encountered several interesting issues that are not necessarily found in the design of stand-alone information resources.
Presented at Extreme Markup, August 2003, Montreal, Canada.

Sharing the Vision = Designs that Get Built (pdf)

For designs to be successfully implemented, it is necessary that the different stakeholders and members of a multidisciplinary project team reach a shared understanding of the problem and the solution. In large-scale projects we are increasingly finding that the technical team members are using object modeling techniques based on the Unified Modeling Language (UML). Our goal is to share our links between UML and User-Centered Design (UCD) disciplines, by exploring similarities and differences in approaches, goals, and techniques. We explore our integration of these methods and deliverables, based on our experience with projects where both UCD and UML are used.
Presented as a poster session at the Usability Professionals' Association national conference, June 2003, Phoenix, AZ, and then for the Montreal Canada UPA local chapter, August 2003.

Around the Interface in 80 Clicks

As more people gain access to computers and the Internet, it has become increasingly important for designers to meet the needs of a diverse international user population. "One-size-fits-all" is no longer accepted by users. There are so many different things to think about, and so few resources to turn to for thorough checklists. This article outlines many of the things that the designer needs to consider for both internationalization of software (making an interface understandable in many cultures) and localization (changing aspects of the interface, such as language and icons, to match the local cultural expectations and experiences).
From the Performance Improvement Journal, ISPI, 40(7), August 2001.

Case Study: KnowledgePlanet KP2000 Learner Interface Redesign

KnowledgePlanet provides a learning and performance management application used by a number of Fortune 100 companies to support their organizational learning. IPGems was asked to look at the opportunities to improve the interface that hundreds of thousands of people use to plan and keep track of their learning and performance activities. The goal was to increase the user's ability to be in control without having to learn the application, and for KP's customer companies to simplify and reduce implementation time and cost.
The result received the Award of Excellence at the 2001 Performance-Centered Design Competition.

Case Study: "Eventful" Event Management Application

IPGems developed a prototype application to support the management of large public retail events. The application allows both regular and temporary staff to manage large volumes of sales inventory, suppliers, guest lists, and press communication from a simple, easy to understand, flexible interface. The goal was to increase the user's ability to respond quickly to the needs of different groups of people, often at the same time, in a chaotic environment.
The result received the top honor, the Platinum Award of Excellence, at the 2000 Performance-Centered Design Competition, one of two awards won by IPGems that year.

Case Study: Hurley Medical Center - Guru Wizards for Invision

Hurley Medical Center implemented a mainframe system to support hospital admissions administration. Epiance (formerly Guru) was contracted to pilot a support solution that integrated pop-up "wizards" and instructional guidance. IPGems carried out the design and development. The goal was to provide a wide range of support to new users, simple "reminder" support to experienced users, and at the same time allow users the ability to work directly in the mainframe application or via a guided GUI interface.
The result received the Gold Award of Excellence at the 2000 Performance-Centered Design Competition, one of two awards won by IPGems that year.

Knowledge Management in Pursuit of Performance: the Challenge of Context

Knowledge management has an increasingly visible profile within organizations. Much of the current focus is on the acquisition and storage of knowledge resources. Unfortunately, because most knowledge management solutions are developed to stand alone, the context of a person's need for information when using business applications is often left to the individual. Performance-centered design, on the other hand, focuses on interactions between people and the tools they use to achieve outcomes. Many current designs provide context through task-based interfaces and link existing information to predefined tasks. This works as long as the knowledge base is relatively static and the tasks clearly specified. However, it does not work as well when designing for today's knowledge workers whose responsibilities are less structured. This article discusses ways to merge the best practices of knowledge management and performance support, so that knowledge can be integrated more seamlessly within working applications, and applications can be used to solicit knowledge as a by-product of people's work.
From the Performance Improvement Journal, ISPI, 39(6), July 2000.

Case Study: EPSS for TimeCorp's VLM Application

TimeCorp, providers of Visual Labor Management (VLM) software to assist retail organizations in staff scheduling, identified the need to improve the usability and interactions of their product. They approached the problem in two steps: first, to build an external support tool that allowed current clients to improve the use of the existing product; then second, to take the lessons learned from analysis and customer feedback and apply that to the design of the next generation product. It is a superb illustration of how an incremental design can minimize the impact on existing software while at the same time significantly improve the user's experience and performance, and provide an overall consistency to the product.
The result received the top honor, the Platinum Award of Excellence, at the 1999 Performance-Centered Design Competition. The EPSS was designed by Lisa Battle and her team at WPI, and Metta Johnson as Project Manager at TimeCorp. Duane Degler of IPGems assisted WPI in analysis, design review, and devising tactics for supporting ongoing client customization and maintenance of the performance support application.

The Relationship Between Distance Learning, CBT and EPSS - Common Checklists

Using interactive exercises and checklists to help people understand the design principles required to create "future-proof" multimedia and computer-based training (CBT) that can more easily be used as an information resource in online and electronic performance support (EPSS) environments.
Presented at Performance Support '99, October 1999, Los Angeles, CA.

A Role by Any Other Name: the Availability of Skills in Project Teams

Although there is a recognition of the value of project teams in the development of performance improvement interventions and technology, there are increasing problems in the communication within such teams. One of the reasons appears to be that there is a growing cross-over of skills among specialist members of project teams. A paradox lies in the dynamic way that these skills both overlap and leave gaps in the team’s understanding of performance needs. This article attempts to outline the balance between traditional team roles and the skills that are actually available to support successful project completion.
From the Performance Improvement Journal, ISPI, 38(7), August 1999.

Why Am I So Tired When I Get Home?

A "thought piece" looking at some possible reasons we all get so worn out simply working at a computer. A personal look at what is called more formally "cognitive overload" -- which means that our brains are trying to do too much when we operate computer software!
Written originally for private circulation, 1997.


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Duane Degler 1999-2010