have been several reasons given over the years to explain the success of Microsoft's
software products. Rarely has usability featured in these discussions.
Many of us would recall how painful it was to draw a table in WordStar
or WordPerfect. Microsoft Word made it simple, intuitive and fun to
draw tables. The same goes for text formatting, mail merge, envelope printing,
and so on.
Extra wide screens in many software packages force users to scroll horizontally.
As a result, speed suffers because users need to lift their hands from the keyboards
and keep reaching for the mouse. On the other hand, some packages have thoughtfully
laid out their screens in such a way that horizontal scrolling is not needed
and users can instead concentrate on their keyboards.
Many of us have come across web sites that take up several paragraphs to explain
how to perform a certain tasksay, check contents of shopping cartwhen
a hyperlink placed right there would have done the job easily. The Search
feature on different web sites result in wide-ranging hit lists: some web sites
provide matches only if the search term matches exactly with the way the web
site has stored it; others are smart enough to present a hit list of approximate
matches. Some on-line shopping web sites even lack a shopping cart feature and
force you to keep entering the same information (for example, name, address
and credit card details) separately for each item you want to buy.
Poor usability leads to irritation and fatigue, even if users do not their feelings.
It has an adverse impact on the usage experience. In an on-line shopping web
site, it can lead to loss of revenues. Poor usability of business applications
leads to increased help desk costs.
On the other hand, better usability makes our usage experience more fun and
can increase productivity. A highly usable on-line shopping web site tempts
repeat visits, builds customer loyalty, and increases its revenue-earning potential.
For a company developing a software product, better usability plays a significant
role in defining the brand appeal and conveying a certain positive brand experience.
The enjoySAP initiative of SAP AG is a case in point. Owing to enjoySAP,
the previously difficult-to-use screens of SAP software were completely re-designed,
making them much easier to use.
As more and more
software products tend to become commodities, traditional functional criteria
will take a backseat to usability aspects. Says Mark Rolston of frog
design, "In future, the behavior of controlling elements can be
configured in an objective or playful way, and thus become part of the brand
experience." Operating elements such as zooming or scrolling menus may
ultimately determine whether a product is accepted or rejected by the market.
a broader context that is equally applicable to software and web sites, C.K.
Prahalad, management guru and professor at the University of Michigan Business
School, recently unveiled a roadmap wherein companies will have to make a rapid
transition from product and consumer orientation to customer solution orientation,
and finally to the personal consumer experience viewpoint .
all of us have an intuitive understanding of what usability means, it is now
time we looked at some definitions.
usability is concerned with making systems easy to learn and easy to
use. The term is used to describe the quality of a user's experience when interacting
with a system whether a software package or a web site. A usable system
is one that enables users to perform their job effectively and efficiently.
International Standards Organization (ISO) defines usability as the
"effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction with which a specified set
of users can achieve a specified set of tasks in a particular environment."
relates to both form and content.
Word and Excel are two examples of excellent usability
among software products. The mail merge wizard in Word make it easy to create
form letters. Word has similar highly usable features for printing mailing labels
and envelopes. Excel provides an excellent paste function wizard (invoked through
the f* button) for defining complex formulas with ease, and a highly
usable chart wizard to quickly convert numbers to graphs.
and Expedia are examples of two web sites that display tremendous
commitment to enhance the total usage experience.
1-Click ordering feature improves usability by enabling the registered
buyer quickly order an item without having to enter shipping address and credit
card details during each buying session.
recently launched Search Inside the Book feature (see figure 1) allows
buyers to search millions of pages to find exactly the book they want to buy.
Figure 1: Amazon's Search Inside the Book
Now instead of just displaying books whose title, author, or publisher-provided
keywords match their search terms, buyers' search results will surface
titles based on every word inside the book (see figure 2).
2: Search inside the book results
When selling a used book, an obvious question in the mind of the seller is whether
the asking price is too high or too low. Amazon helps sellers by providing a
Used Price Guideline, which is computed not only on the basis of the
price of a brand new version of the same book on Amazon, but also on the condition
of the used book (see figure 3).
Figure 3: Used price guideline
Immediately after you have booked a flight ticket, Expedia asks you if you need
a hotel room, a travel insurance policy or a rent-a-car. If you do, Expedia
takes you directly to the respective web pages so that you can order them quickly.
There are many travel web sites where you can order a hotel room, travel insurance,
and rent-a-carbut only if you specifically remember to locate these links
and click them separately. Where Expedia scores is by prodding visitors to make
these additional purchases when they have completed the flight booking and are
most likely to be in the mood for buying other travel necessities. It will not
be a surprise if one discovers that Expedia sells more hotel rooms, travel insurance
policies, and car rentals for each flight ticket it sells on-line.
Why Is It So Often Lacking?
usability is so important, why do so many software packages and web sites lack
Usability requires empathythe ability to put yourself in the shoes of
users and think as they would while interacting with the system. Programmers
and systems analysts do not learn empathy during their technical education.
Another reason, to quote Gerd Waloszek of SAP Portals Product Design Center,
is "release schedules are tight and, as a result, usability is still too
often handled as an afterthought'" .
Standard software development methodologies include a stage that focuses on
gathering functionality requirements. That is, What
the software is expected to do. Little or no attention is paid to defining usability
requirements, which is How the software is expected
to do what it is expected to do. Faced with a "clean-slate" during
the stage of defining requirements, users are barely able to define the What
aspects accurately. Without actually seeing the software, they are just not
in a position to define the How aspects. For example,
a business user who has not yet seen a to-be-developed customer order screen
may at best be able to specify what pieces of data he or she would like to see
in a customer order screen. It is virtually impossible for the business user
to specify at this stage how the screen should be laid out and whether he or
she is willing to accept horizontal scrolling, and details like that.
To the extent that usability has to do with things such as fonts, and color
schemes may fall in the realm of graphics design. However, wizards, screen navigation,
number of mouse-clicks required to perform a certain action, and so on, belong
entirely in the domain of software engineering.
While better usability may sometimes call for more features, it can often be
achieved within the framework of existing features. What it really takes is
to make the features available to users when they are most likely to want them
and in a form that they find easiest to use, as the Expedia example illustrates.
Steps to Improving Usability
us see what steps could be taken to improve usability in the course of a software
development or implementation project.
One, software engineers could build repositories of usability best practices
from previous projects and earlier product versions. As we have seen from our
various examples, basic elements like wizards, rightly-placed hyperlinks, shopping
carts, and navigation schemes can lead to significant improvements in usability.
During the early stages of the project, these best practices could be used to
guide users instead of expecting them to define usability requirements without
seeing a single screen of the software.
Two, prototyping could be used more frequently to give the user a "look-and-feel"
of key screens before they are fully developed. Prototyping is used to eliminate
misunderstanding and verify a solution at an early stage of design. Based on
user feedback, mid-course design corrections could be made, if necessary. There
are many tools available in the market that help the software engineer develop
prototypes rapidly. Many of these tools allow re-usability so that the prototypes
developed at the early stages can be used as part of the actual software being
developed during the later stages. In other words, the prototypes need not be
Three, screen navigation and workflow could be demonstrated and signed-off before
coding actually begins. Here, use could be made of a structured methodology
like the Delta Method for better results.
Four, users volunteering to test beta versions of software could be encouraged
to provide feedback not only on functionality and performance issues, but also
on usability. While it may be too late to make changes to the software at this
stage, the next release can benefit from this feedback.
Five, look for usability tips available on the Internet for specific areas.
For example, SAP Design Guild for SAP developments and add-on products.
It is important to note that usability should be built in at the design stage.
Once software is developed, the cost of making changes to enhance usability
is prohibitively high.
With increasing attention being placed on improving user experience as a means
of promoting software branding, usability is gradually becoming "must-have"
rather than "nice-to-have". Users can finally start looking forward
to a time in the not too distant future when software and web sites are not
just useful but also usable.
About the Author
Ketharaman has seventeen years of work experience in the IT industry
in various roles in sales, marketing, delivery, and general management and across
a wide range of markets like India, USA, Europe, Asia Pacific, and the Middle
East. Apart from solid experience in SAP, PeopleSoft, Oracle, and Ramco ERPs
over the last eight years, S. Ketharaman has strong expertise
in other IT products and services like e-Business and custom-developed solutions,
Unix-based super-mini computers, Wintel servers, desktops, notebooks, WAN, and
IBM mainframe gateways.
He has developed frameworks and models in areas such as identification of differentiators,
price forecasting, and innovative service delivery. Ketharaman has also authored
many articles on topics like ROI of ERP and ERP customization.
currently heads the SAP and PeopleSoft Practices at a globally active software
services company headquartered in Pune, India. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.