Title Page
List of Figures
List of Abbreviations
What is usability anyway?
Importance of improving usability
User centred design
Case Study

Appendix 1

Appendix 2



The Windows GUI

Introduction Next Section

In chapter 3 I stated that guessability was a measurement. Moyes and Jordan [1993] defines guessability as being "..the measure of the cost to the user involved in using an interface to perform a new task for the first time". She notes cost "in terms of time, errors, or effort". Jordan et al [1991] would conclude that "the less time and effort required [the cost] the higher the guessability"

The amount of time and effort taken, however, may not actually occur all at once for all situations. Consider the following case:

A door knob, for example, will enable the opening of a door where as a finger plate and handle will indicate which way the door actually moves too. Consequently the amount of thought (mental effort) required and the time needed to come to a decision, as to which way the door opens, is therefore reduced. It could be demonstrated therefore that the system of finger plate/handle is more guessable.

However it could be argued the main factor that makes this solution guessable is that the user is already aware of it. The time taken in guessing the system has therefore not actually been reduced, but spread out, since this learning time has been taken up in the past. As a result the system only seems to be more guessable.

Either way consideration must be given when a system is designed to make it more guessable, thereby reducing the time and the effort needed to use it. By using the preconceived ideas of users and understanding their perception of other systems, a designer would be able to use this expectancy to increase the guessability of a system. This will ultimately accomplish a greater usability. User perception is a large topic in its own right and is further discussed in User Perception.

MAQUIS Previous SectionNext Section


MAQUIS is the Mines And QUarries Information System and is accessed via a soft function key interface. It is used by HM Inspectorate of Mines, a division of the Health and Safety Executive. MAQUIS is now over 11 years old and was developed at a time when usability was only just becoming an issue for the IT industry. The system is due to be replaced in the near future. However I have included it in this dissertation because it gives both good and bad examples of guessability.

High Guessability Interface

Among the numerous advantages of such an interface, as described by Mayhew [1992], the system of using on screen keys is, "self-explanatory... easy to use ...[and]... requires little human memory...". As a consequence the guessability of this dialogue style is high. Indeed figure F clearly demonstrates that the on screen keys will give the user a clear indication of what action can be taken by the mere click of a button. Unfortunately there is no mention of which button on the screen relates to which function key on the keyboard.

Figure F

There is also a fail-safe return to menu button allowing, in effect, an undo to be made if this screen had been selected incorrectly. Mayhew [1992] points out that "users may adopt a trial and error approach" if error recovery is "not costly". MAQUIS on this screen, at least, serves the users well in this respect.

Low Guessability Interface

Consider the same system but at a different menu location shown at figure G. Conversely guessability at this point in the program is quite poor. The user, this time, is given no clue; after following the screen instruction what does he do to further the enquiry?; there is no message to help. Here the screen keys do have keyboard identifiers but their actions are not labelled (I know by experience that they don't function at this point in the program anyway). Also what does 'exit program' mean? It in fact returns the user to the main menu if selected as opposed to ending the whole session but why could it not state 'return to menu' as in figure F thereby keeping the whole system consistent?

Figure G

Now consider the subsequent screen to be encountered by the user (Figure H). The user is told to Press F0 to continue but there is no F0 on the keyboard. Also the reference to 'form' will make no sense to a user. The form is programming parlance for an individual screen but how would the user know this. Also the user may be confused by the unlabelled screen keys. What are they for? Contrast this with the previous screen that displayed keyboard identifiers. Inconsistency can be confusing to a user who is trying to guess the system logically.

Figure H


Similar inconsistencies of guessability can be found throughout MAQUIS. However the current operators of the system are experienced users and so guessability is not a concern. Guessability would only be an important factor in a system that is unfamiliar to the user. Once a system is learnt, a user does not need to guess its operation and as already discussed in Reducing Stressful Feedback on screen feedforward aiding guessability may actually have a detrimental and stressful effect for experienced users anyway.

The Windows GUI Previous SectionNext Section


I couldn't justify writing a dissertation that evaluates usability without mentioning, in more detail than in Future, Present and Past Feedback & Reducing Stressful Feedback , the Windows interface when considering the tremendous effect PC's, using windows, have had on the world. When taking into account the amount of users worldwide I couldn't envisage a wider test area for software. I suggest that for a software to sell so well it must have its fair share of satisfied users; marketing hype would not have stretched over so wide an area or length of time. This makes Windows an ideal subject for review because there must be some good points in usability design which can be considered. What better interface is there for such a review?

Windows' Menus

I have concentrated my research into Windows on its menu system. It gives an excellent example that can demonstrate how usability is enhanced. This is achieved for two main reasons. Firstly the effectiveness of the system's learnability is enhanced because it exists throughout the software applications and packages that use the Windows GUI. It, in effect, becomes the standard way for a user to select options in various packages . Once the user is able to operate the selection method, he may transfer his skill to any other Windows based product without the need for more training. Secondly the guessability of selection is increased in the way the menus are constructed and defined as detailed in Standard Window Menu Option Indicators.

Menus Generally

As the name suggests a menu lists options for selection. The first improvement that can be noted from this method is that the user is presented with a choice to choose from rather than a command line system, for example, in which he has to remember the command words. According to Mayhew [1992]

"menus rely on recognition... rather than recall memory ...Recognition memory is faster and more accurate... and menus exploit this fact".

Menu options are self explanatory and thus cognitive workload is reduced allowing the user to concentrate on the task rather than how to battle with the system.

Also Mayhew [1992] suggest that a menu system "requires fewer keystrokes than other dialogue styles". She continues, stating that a menu gives "less opportunity for user error" and when errors are made, there is only "a limited set of valid inputs" enabling easier error handling.

Unfortunately there are disadvantages to menus too. Menus are only effective in small simple structures. A complicated series of menu selections may become tiresome especially if the task is a commonly used one. In this case a command line method may be more effective and less "tedious" [Mayhew 1992]. Mayhew [1992] also suggest that menus are "impractical for numerous choices" and that they are "inflexible ...[and]... is system rather than user controlled". However, as usability awareness evolves, some applications such as AmiPro now allows users to customise their own menus [Lotus 1996].

Standard Window Menu Option Indicators

The way in which menus are designed can have a significant effect on the guessability of option selection. There is a standard set of menu indicators which most Windows compatible products adhere to. These have been designed to overcome specific problem areas.

One problem, initially discussed in Technophobes Born of Marketing Constraints , is that people tend to be generally weary of new technology. For example there is a real fear that if they press the wrong button on a PC it may well become damaged in some way. Norman [1988] highlighted this too by proposing that "people have a tendency to blame themselves for difficulties with technology". Assuming that generally usability is not perfect, every user will have a problem with IT at some stage which will result, for some, in almost fear when they interact again with IT. A self perpetuating circle of blame, fear and confusion is thus created.

One aim of a menu system, therefore, should be to make the interaction as unfrightening as possible for the user and to break this cycle of self blame. If a user knows what is going to happen if he makes a certain choice, as opposed to even the unrealistic chance of a damaged PC, he is more likely to try it out, guess it in other words. The self induced sanction against trying out a system is wiped away encouraging the user to try other options that he would not have ventured into otherwise.

Figure I

I will now discus the menu indicators using the sample view of an AmiPro screen shown at figure I. The menu bar shown near the top of the screen gives the title of each menu option, from which "drop-down (sometimes called pull-down) menus" [Feldman et al 1993] are spawned. This edit menu tends to be common to many packages, again improving learnability and guessability. Consider figure J which gives a screen view of Write (the Windows word processor). If a user hadn't used Write before, but had used AmiPro he would be able to guess, and correctly so, that the edit menu will contain the 'paste' option.

Figure J

Returning to the AmiPro screen, you can see that some options have a triangle (>) associated with them. This indicates to the user that the selection of this menu option will "invoke cascading menus" [Feldman et al 1993]. In the example, figure I, selection of 'Power Fields' will cascade another menu giving options associated with power fields.

An ellipsis (...) following a command is used to indicate that "a dialogue box appears when you choose the command" [The Microsoft Corporation 1993b]. A user is safe in the knowledge that if he guesses an option, and it's the wrong one, he can exit from the dialogue box before any action is processed by the computer. This ability to 'try before you buy' encourages users to explore the menu structure without fear of changing the current situation of the task being undertaken.

Some of the menu options in the example are "dimmed" [The Microsoft Corporation 1993b] or greyed out, which is the more common term used. These options are "unselectable" according to Mayhew [1992] and are displayed in grey indicating that they are "currently inactive... due to temporary and minor changes in the system state". In other words options not relevant to the current state of the task being undertaken cannot be chosen. Greying out thus removes the need for error handling for incorrect choices.

For instance, in the sample AmiPro screen view figure I, the 'cut' command is greyed out because no text has been highlighted for cutting. There would be no point in allowing the option to be taken only to display a message stating that the command was not relevant anyway. In turn this would also begin to annoy the user.

Mayhew [1992] considers the alternative of deleting the currently inactive menu item from the menu itself so that only the relevant items are displayed. This would initially seem the best solution however she concludes that "since menus as a dialogue style are intended for the novice ...user... it would seem sensible to choose greying out". I would suggest that too many changes to the structure may prove to be counterproductive in terms of guessability.

Other guides or indicators adding to the users' knowledge of what is happening within the system includes; check marks to indicate that a specific option has been chosen, e.g. that highlighted text has been emboldened (which is not always obvious from simply viewing the screen) and "separator bars that break up long menus" [Feldman et al 1993] helping in grouping associated selections, which in turn aid guessability.


Even in this small area of review I have demonstrated that Windows guessability is high in comparison to a command language for instance, which relies upon remembering specific commands. Avoiding cognitive overload is therefore one essential if a system is to be offered as guessable. Introducing the option of an undo method, if a user is brave enough to find his own way through a system, is another way of improving guessability mainly because it will build up the confidence of the user, which in turn will aid in keeping a user's "stress low and satisfaction [with the system] high" [Mayhew 1992].

Conclusion Previous Section

In this chapter I have detailed good and bad examples of design in terms of a system's guessability. I have demonstrated that increasing the guessability of a system can be done inexpensively by introducing subtle enhancements to menus, buttons and messages or by using existing methods that have already been mastered and can be easily transferred across systems.

The role of guessability plays a vast part in the overall usability of a system and I have given only a few specific examples to help discuss elements of it. Effective mapping has a great effect on the usability of a system in terms of its guessability and this is further discussed in the next chapter.