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


User centred design

User Models & Mapping
User Perception
Aiding the User
Usability Assessment & Method of Evaluation
Interface Development

Introduction Next Section

Shneiderman [1992] suggests that the concept of a "participatory design strategy" where the user of a system is involved, iteratively, in its design and evaluation is a controversial one. It seems obvious that involving the user of a potential system in its development can only bring advantages. As noted by Baroudi cited in Shneiderman [1992] "user involvement brings more information about tasks, an opportunity to argue over design decisions... and the potential for increased user acceptance of the final system". Indeed Keen cited in Shneiderman [1992] recognised the problem of "counterimplementation" (basically a reluctance to welcome and adopt a system) and suggests that early participation of users will enable their concerns to be heard and resolved.

Basically the user should know what is wanted from the system so why should the designer try to second guess what he wants if he can just ask him in the first place?

Norman [1988] considers user centred design to be "a philosophy based on the needs and interests of the user, with an emphasis on making products usable and understandable". In this chapter I will detail the theory and practical implementation of this user centred design philosophy, giving examples where necessary to illustrate and aid my arguments.

Interaction Previous SectionNext Section


Interaction between the user and a system can be deemed to be the communication required to complete tasks. Grandjean [1988] suggests that these "points of interchange from man to machine and from machine to man -interfaces- are of paramount importance". I will, in this section, describe why the interface has such an important role to play in interaction and will also discuss various models of interaction that endeavour to aid the designer of interactive systems.

The Interface

Consider figure K in which Grandjean [1988] shows a simple "Man-machine system". He explains that the cycle involves the user reacting to the display control by operating the control of the machine to effect the required change. The control instrument informs the user of the result of his action "e.g. how much water has been mixed in with reagents" and the display instrument relays whether this action has been effective. In turn this information will aid the user in deciding whether further action is needed.

Figure K

Grandjean [1988] proposes that in the system "the man holds the key position because the decisions rest with him". It can therefore be demonstrated that the decisions he makes rests on the accuracy of the feedback he receives, and his "perception [and] interpretation" of it, from the interface (in this case the control and display instrument).

Display Instruments

Therefore display instruments are not just the end result of an action but the impetus for a new one to be made. The accuracy of the perceived and interpreted information is paramount and there has been much research into the effectiveness of display instrumentation to achieve this. Depending on the context of its role, a display instrument may prove suitable for one task but not for another.

Grandjean [1988] considers this in terms of two types of displays; firstly a digital counter and secondly a moving pointer against a fixed scale. The counter display is "very good" in terms of its "ease of reading" but "poor" in the "detection of change". Alternatively the pointer display is "acceptable" in terms of its "ease of reading" but very good in the "detection of change".

Thus there is need to consider appropriate display instrumentation when designing systems. The designer will need to take into account which is the most significant requirement of a system's design before choosing which type of display to employ.

Gulfs of Execution & Evaluation

When a user comes up against an interface, he may know what he ultimately wants from the system, such as moving a car, but he may "not know which physical variables to adjust, or in what way to adjust them" [Norman cited in Booth 1992], i.e. he may not know how to drive. When I started to learn to drive I just assumed actually moving a car was just an extension of natural movement (which it is once you can drive!), every other driver seemed to be able to move the car automatically without thinking.

Hutchins et al cited in Preece et al [1994] developed a framework which describes a "distance between the user's goals and the means of achieving them through the system". This gap is termed the "gulf of execution" [Norman 1988 and Hutchins et al cited in Preece et al 1994]. Dix et al [1993] recommend that "the interface should therefore aim to reduce this gulf".

Preece et al [1994] suggest that this should be done by "designing the input characteristics to match the users' psychological capabilities", effectively mapped in other words (mapping is considered in User Models & Mapping) improving guessability.

Similarly the user needs to be able to "interpret the physical state of the system and to determine how well [their] expectations and intentions have been met" [Norman 1988]. The amount of effort required to do this reflects the "gulf of evaluation" according to Norman [1988].

Preece et al [1994] suggest that by "changing the output characteristics of the system" this gulf can be reduced. This change may take the form of more effective or appropriate displays (or perhaps the introduction of them) or quicker feedback generally. The windows hour glass timer, for instance, sometimes indicates that the system is currently processing when it may have actually crashed.

The greater the size of the gulfs the harder it will be for the user to carry out the task. The onus should be on the designer, rather than the user to "bridge" both gulfs to achieve the smallest possible distances between the physical system and the goal.

General Framework for Interaction

Dix et al [1993] suggest that Norman's [1988] model "concentrates wholly on the user's view of the system ... and ... does not attempt to deal with the systems communication through the interface". As a result Abowd and Beale [1991] expand on this model in order to provide a "general interaction framework which will allow analysis". I only cite their paper in order to reinforce my views on the way in which users see the interface and to highlight the similarity between both models.

Abowd and Beale's [1991] unifying framework for interaction is shown at figure L where the oval in the centre of the diagram represents the interface, S represents the system and U the user. The "systems language" is referred to as "core" whilst the "user's language" is referred to as the "task". Despite the model having 4 "translation steps", to explicitly involve the system's own communication, it can be seen that progress from U to I to S still reflects the gulf of execution and completion of the interaction cycle from S to O to U can be considered to represent the gulf of evaluation.

Between each node on the model, the "translation steps" are "qualitative assessments" on the quality of translation between the languages. Abowd and Beale [1991] refer to them as distances. "The most important measure" of distance in the framework is the difference between the "semantics of intention (goal formulation)" and the "semantics of evaluation (goal assessment)" and this is referred to as the semantic distance. The distance is an assessment as to how effective the user can establish if his actions (the undertaking of the task) has achieved the desired result (the goal).

Figure L

It can therefore be seen that effective interface design will demonstrate the reduction of this semantic distance so that it is "as small as possible" [Abowd and Beale 1991]. This is in direct agreement with the notion that "bridging the two gulfs [of execution and evaluation]", as recommended by Preece et al [1994], is paramount to overcome the "mismatch between the user's way of thinking about their tasks and the system's representation [of them]".


In this section I have detailed what interaction is and how interaction models have given an understanding to the cognitive processes that take place at the interface. The models have stressed the importance of perception (User Perception) and feedback (Feedback) and how the quality of these elements can ultimately affect the overall usability of an interactive system. This discussion has identified the notion of mapping and it is this that I now turn my attention to.

User Models & Mapping Previous SectionNext Section


In this section I will initially discus an area of user centred design that will focus on the user himself in the form of a user model (not to be confused with the cognitive model that a user has of a particular system). I will analyse why the understanding of the user group is a vital ingredient in the usability recipe. Secondly I will examine the theory of mapping in which many designs exploit generic human methods of movement and cultural understanding that can make a system or device more natural to learn and to use.

Know Your Audience

Nobody would consider designing a car that needed three arms to operate it because it would be obviously absurd, after all we are all human and only have two arms (baring accident of course). Modelling or profiling may at first glance seem irrelevant for most systems but consider the following example of a simple task.

Whilst on holiday in Spain recently I attempted to make a telephone call back to the UK from a public phone. The instructions displayed in the phone stand were multi-lingual so I assumed there would be no problem; firstly because it was an international call, I was instructed to dial 07 and wait for the higher tone; then I had to dial the country code which I could select from a list of about 30 countries. It was at this stage that I became stuck since the countries were listed in Spanish (which I don't understand). I couldn't even make a guess since the country I needed was Reino Unido (United Kingdom), code - 44.

Despite the best intentions of the display design to take into account the possibility that not all phone users will understand Spanish, it had not gone far enough to make the system robust for ALL potential users (probably because the system was not tested using single language users).

Some users may have very specific profiles that require specialist designs. For instance blind people are a specific user group whose needs must be considered at the design stages to ensure that a system or product will be suitable. A main stream Connect 4 board game using red and yellow counters will be totally useless for blind players because they will not be able to identify the colour of the counters. The design of the game counters for this particular user group must therefore be changed to take into account the peculiar disability. This has been done by drilling a hole in one set of counters enabling them to be distinguishable from the other [RNIB 1996].

Therefore it can be seen that there is an element of 'know your audience' when designing systems to ensure that they are suitable for the whole user group.

Light Switches

After living in the same house since I was born, I reckoned I knew which light switch was which:

My house is two storey and I have the ability to switch the upstairs landing light on or off from the downstairs hallway or from the landing itself . The switch on the landing is a single switch but the switch in the hallway also encompasses the switch for the hallway too. The double switch panel was made of Bakelite and the switch for upstairs was situated, on the panel, above the one for downstairs. The house was re-wired five years ago and this old Bakelite double switch was replaced with a more modern one. The switches for both the upstairs and downstairs lights are located horizontally aside each other. It looks nicer than the old panel but, despite the time span, I still haven't a clue which one switches which light.

The moral here is to use "natural mapping", as discussed by Norman [1988], to fit the real world task onto the control for that task. In this way there is no need to make a conscious decision, which may indeed by the wrong one. The top switch for the top light seems to be an obvious solution rather than the right (I think it's right) switch being for the top light.

Putting this concept into an IT context Cuomo & Bowen [1994] suggest that "effective USI design is to minimise human information processing or cognitive demands on the computer system user". If there is a possibility to map tasks onto controls using "physical analogies and cultural standards" [Norman 1988] I suggest they should be used because they reduce the need for the user to make a conscious choice. I will now discuss the former of these mapping techniques in considering another situation where the real world doesn't seem to fit or naturally map its controls. The latter is discussed in The Sign and the Use of Colour and Constraints.

Bath Time!

Consider the situation in which a person takes a bath. Abowd and Beale [1991] consider this scenario in terms of their "Unifying Framework for Interaction", which I have discussed in General Framework for Interaction . What seems to be a natural way of performing the task, i.e. filling the bath with water from two taps, is quite poorly mapped because the semantic distance (in which the bather has to determine whether the intended goal has been accomplished) is quite large. Let me explain further:

The task concerned, involves two goals. Firstly the bather needs to fill the bath with water. Secondly he needs to obtain the correct temperature for the water. If one of the taps controlled the amount of water and the other set the temperature, all the bather would need to do is initially set how much water he needed and what temperature he wanted. The output would therefore be clear cut and the semantic distance shortened as a result.

However in common reality both taps contribute to, both, the water flow and the setting of the temperature. The semantic distance increases because the bather has to constantly check the water and temperature levels (the output) and make iterative adjustments to the input (i.e. both taps) to accomplish this, quite complex, task. If the taps did control the temperature and water flow independently then this "complexity is squarely placed on the system side" [Abowd and Beale 1991] as opposed to the bather as it is in common reality.

Abowd and Beale [1991] consider that a large semantic distance in the example of filling a bath is "precisely what should be avoided in a good interactive system". Ironically however this design is still used despite the fact that it is quite poor from the view of natural mapping. I would consider the reason for this is two fold. Firstly to produce a system of independent temperature and water flow is complex (since water is usually delivered by two pipes, one hot and one cold [Abowd and Beale 1991]) and/or relatively costly (a domestic shower unit is an example of such a system). Secondly, since a significant amount of the world's population have taken a bath each week since they were born using hot and cold taps, the extra effort they are putting in to undertake the task is a seemingly natural process in its own right anyway and thus distracts them from realising their extra effort.


The previous two examples have demonstrated systems with poor mapping causing one to be inconvenient and the other, due to the reasons given, to be unaffected. Not all interactive systems however have this tolerance against inappropriate or unmatched mapping. In safety critical systems, where lives depend on effective interaction at the interface, it is even more important that "controls and displays exploit natural mappings" [Norman 1988]. This view is endorsed by Grandjean [1988] who proposes that "any controls that might be mistaken for each other should be so designed that they can be identified without difficulty".

Consider McFarland cited in Grandjean [1988] who reports that "the American airforce in World War II suffered 400 crashes in 22 months because the pilots mistook some other lever for that controlling the under carriage". In situations where split second decisions are needed effective interface design cannot be undervalued. Bates [1996] proposes that the "safe and successful implementation of new systems will depend on their design and operation". I have uncovered, that after a disaster it had usually been the poor user who gets the blame rather than the design (surely all 400 pilots can't be wrong).

There are many instances of where user 'error' has been cited as the initial cause but further investigation has resulted in a more critical look at the systems themselves. Johnson [1994] refers to the "Kegworth and the Three Mile Island disasters" in which "substitution errors" were a "contributory" factor. In the case of Kegworth the investigation concluded that "the on-board systems failed to prevent pilots from shutting down a healthy engine" [Air Accidents Investigation Branch cited in Johnson 1994]. It seems that as research continues into analysing accident investigation methods, the initial presumption to blame the user is now tempered with a more objective review over the whole interactive system.

Returning to Grandjean's [1988] suggestion of controls consider figure M by Joseph L. Seminara cited in Norman [1988]. These knobs can be found in a nuclear plant and they have both been customised to enhance identification. Ultimately this helps to avoid the possibility of the operator pulling the wrong switch in two ways. Visibly the look different but they also feel different too. They may not look good but both controls have become more difficult to substitute, in error, for each other.

Figure M


In this section I have considered the reasons for undertaking a profiling of the target user group and explained why good design benefits from it. User modelling is a large area of research in its own right and I discuss it further in Customer Requirements . I have also described the advantages of mapping, which has the ability to help reduce the interaction distances (or gulfs) and have illustrated my arguments by discussing examples of good and bad designs.

User Perception Previous SectionNext Section


Interface design requires a knowledge of how users will perceive the information given to them at the interface whether it is a VDU screen, cash point or switch panel etc. I will demonstrate, in this section, that people perceive or 'see' their own version of the world and why recognition of this must be appreciated in order to effect usable designs.

It has been argued that there is two main categories of theoretical approach to human perception. Constructivist theorists such as Gregory cited in Preece et al [1994] believe that "the process of seeing is an active one in which our view of the world is constructed both from information in the environment and from previously stored knowledge". Alternatively the ecological approach as outlined by Gibson cited in Preece et al [1994] interprets perception to be "the process of picking up information from the environment and does not require any processes of construction or elaboration".

Constructivist Theory

There is much evidence to support the view of constructivist theory. Consider the pattern of dots in figure N.

Upon viewing the photograph taken by RC James, (in [Preece et al 1994]), some viewers may not be able to perceive a recognisable pattern in the dots. However, even if prompting is required to establish the scene of a sniffing Dalmatian, a constructivist theorist would argue that "without the prior knowledge... of what a dalmatian looks like... we would not be able to make sense of the picture" [Preece et al 1994]. In effect the viewer is constructing a model of what is expected and from the clues given.

Figure N

Consider the following list:

1 2 3 4 S 6 7 8 9 10 l1 12

A viewer of this list may see an S instead of a 5 but would he notice the l1 (the letter l and the number one) instead of the expected 11? Again, in this example, expectation may overrule what is actually seen by the eye.

In the next example shown at figure O there is no doubt that the image shows a drawing of a woman. However how old is the woman? It depends on the viewer; some may perceive an old woman whilst others will see a young woman. If this drawing has been witnessed before the viewer will see both again highlighting that experience is drawn on. Also some viewers may have subconsciously chosen to remember only one, until prompted.

Figure O

Unfortunately such an unstable picture can give rise to the viewer being confronted with an oscillating set of images with which he is unable to concentrate on only one of them. Pratchett [1996] in his fantasy Discworld novel describes a magic carpet which "had a complex pattern of golden dragons on a blue background" which after lengthy staring seemed to become "blue dragons on gold background" and "that if you kept on trying to see both types of dragon at once your brains would trickle out of your ears". I'm not suggesting such an image would result in the same effects in the real world but the potential for similar stress and inaccurate display can be demonstrated.

Preece et al [1994] further contribute to the constructivist theory by suggesting that we build on what we see by using our "prior knowledge and expectations". Otherwise, as Gregory cited in Preece et al [1994] points out, considering that since "we are [just] given tiny distorted up-side-down images in the eyes ...[with which we have to model the world.]... this ...[would be]... nothing short of a miracle".

It is not surprising that each of us will have our own limited view of the world.

Ecological Theory

Alternatively ecologists believe that "perception is a direct process in which information is simply detected" [Gibson cited in Preece et al 1994].

Returning to the example of the door knob/push plate in the introduction to Guessability it was argued that the guessability of the system was based on previous knowledge, similar in theory to the constructivist approach. Conversely Gaver cited in Preece et al [1994], however, sites a similar example of a door opening system to justify ecological theory, the argument being based on the notion of affordances. Preece et al [1994] expounds this in terms of Gaver's example: A "thin vertical door handle affords grasping , which in turn affords pulling... [where as a] ..flat horizontal plate affords a pushing action rather than a grasping action" implying that both views carry some weight of evidence.


Perception therefore is an important element in the role of understanding how the user meets the interface. It has been established, as understood by constructivists, that different viewers will perceive the same data in differing ways based on their own "mental models" of things. As Norman cited in Booth [1992] confirms "these internal models... by which people can... predict the world around them... tend to be incomplete, unstable, do not have firm boundaries, are unscientific and parsimonious".

Therefore any scene is not only perceived on what can be seen but also on what is predicted based on an individual's own mental picture which can thus be open to a wide range of interpretation.

Preece et al [1994] however also summarise that design, considered in terms of ecologist theory, is also susceptible to a range of interpretation based on the notion of whether or not the affordances in question are "perceptually obvious... [or]... ambiguous" resulting in errors at an interface. I would not argue with this view which seems to be a good foundation from which to design.

Consequently, I would suggest that both theories subscribe to the belief that for a usable design for an interactive device to be achieved, a reduction in the range of possible errors in perception must be reached, whether the system is predicted based on the, possibly, erroneous preconceived ideas of the user or on the ambiguous affordances of the system itself.

Aiding the User Previous SectionNext Section


"Designing well is not easy" as Norman [1988] points out. I would suggest that the main reason for this is because users happens to be human. However this may be turned to advantage when designing interactive systems and there are ways in which design can be improved without the need to undertake great research or effort.


In contrast to affordances (as outlined in Ecological Theory ) there are constraining methods by which a designer is able to limit the user in operating an interactive system . Norman [1988] aptly summarises this by stating "that affordances suggest the range of possibilities [whilst] constraints limit the number of alternatives". According to Norman [1988] there are four types of constraints.

Firstly there are physical design constraints in which a user will be constrained from undertaking an action by the actual physical form of the device. One example cited by Norman [1988] is the design of the ubiquitous 3" floppy disk; despite the eight conceivable ways of putting the disk into the drive bay only one is possible due to the physical shape of the disk (try it!).

Norman [1988] also considers "forcing functions" which he deems to be "strong constraints". One example he cites to demonstrate these is the NES whose design doesn't constrain the user as it should. The instruction manual for the game console cautions the user, in large upper case lettering, to switch off the game before removing the game pack. The game program may be corrupted if removed before the power is switched from it. Norman [1988] considers that this function (of switching off power before game removal) should be forced and not just warned about. It is interesting to note that its rival, the Sega Megadrive also had the same design flaw and that Nintendo had this function forced on its upgrade console, the SNES.

Secondly there are semantic constraints which "rely upon the meaning of the situation to control the set of possible actions" [Norman 1988]. For instance an anti-glare screen should be placed at the front of a screen even though it may well fit neatly on the top of a PC.

Thirdly cultural constraints may be used to increase natural usability. I have already discussed the use of colour to satisfy expectation making choice easier (The Sign and the Use of Colour ) but there are other ways in which cultural norms can reinforce and constrain users decisions. Consider the following scenario which gives a good example of where cultural constraints have not had the desired effect.

The effect of driving on the right hand side of the road on the continent seems to have bred a culture in which pedestrians also pass on the right. People in the UK tend to pass on the left. On a visit to a shopping complex in Tenerife I came across a double escalator that appeared not to be working so, being British, I walked down the left hand escalator. When I stepped out of the escalator I glanced around, for no particular reason, and to my surprise the stairs had started moving. I thought no more about it until the next time I used the escalator and noticed that it had an arrow and a no entry sign marked on the floor in front of each stairway.

Each escalator would start to move when a person passed into the stairway because they tripped a light beam switch across their path. Because I had walked down the 'up' escalator I had actually tripped the switch when I had passed out of the stairway.

Even taking into account poor observation the fact is that the constraint of a simple sign on the floor denoting the 'up' and 'down' direction for each escalator was not effective enough, some thing more physical, such as a one way barrier, could have been employed.

Finally designers are able to use logical constraints to improve the natural mapping of controls against their function in the eyes of the user . The example of the light switches I cited gives a good explanation of logical constraint. Norman [1988] gives another illustration of logical constraint in the building of a simple Lego model without the aid of a guide. Some builders were left with one piece with only one place for it to go. Completion of the model by the builder was easy because "logic dictates that all pieces should be used with no gaps in the final product". Therefore the last piece was logically constrained.


According to Lazonder & Van Der Meir [1994] "in learning to use software, people spend at least 30% of their time dealing with errors". As a result they suggest that the consideration and acknowledgement of errors, during interface design, should be explored rather than avoided. In terms of improving interfaces, the suggestion is an interesting one since it ultimately implies that if a design is developed with the goal being a total elimination of errors, then the interface, by default, should be highly effective and would prove usable. Mayhew [1992] agrees with this sentiment up to a point and suggests that "one goal for a software user interface is to minimise user's errors... because it will most likely be impossible to eliminate all errors".

Norman [1988] also points out that "designers make the mistake of not taking error into account". Accepting that users will make slips from time to time should be considered to be a core feature of the design process. This will have a two fold effect; firstly the designer, being aware of possible error, can aim to reduce them and secondly it will encourage suitable error recovery to be incorporated into the overall design for when the user does make mistakes.

Putting the Burden of Task onto the System

One way in which a system can be designed to aid the user is by enforcing the system to take the burden whether this is thinking, analysing, responsibility, or other processing that could be transferred to it. Let me explain using an actual example of how the burden of task, in the form of responsibility, can be transferred.

My local railway station, at Kirkby, is at the end of the electrified Merseyrail network and at the start of the diesel line that connects with Wigan and beyond. The station has two platforms, end to end, which are separated by a road bridge. This is not the only way they are separate. The Merseyrail line is controlled by an up to date, computer controlled, signalling system whilst the diesel line is controlled by a system that has not changed since the start of the line in the middle of the last century [Griffiths 1995]. It could be guessed which one is the more fool-proof.

The diesel line, from Kirkby is single-tracked until it reaches Rainford whereupon it splits into two. Consequently if a train passes Rainford Junction heading towards Kirkby, it must have sole use of this one track until it is returns to Rainford, allowing another train access to the Kirkby line. On initial consideration of the system, it appears that the task of remembering whether a train has passed the junction, and the subsequent signalling, was the responsibility of the signal operator.

Unfortunately people are not very good at remembering things, even a trainload of passengers can be forgotten during a moment's lack of attention. Even in the 1850's it was realised that to entrust this task solely to one man's memory would have been quite catastrophic; consider the carnage if a simple signalling error is made by the signal operator at this junction. The solution was a very simple one: a peculiar ring wrapped in leather, about 800 mm in diameter, is requested by and given to the driver of the passing train by the signal operator as the train passes alongside the signal box. Any subsequent train cannot proceed onto the used line, since the signal operator will not be able to supply the ring.

It can therefore be demonstrated that the task, of remembering if the line is busy or not, has been placed onto a system rather than onto a solitary individual. The system, in this case, refers to the sharing of the responsibility (between both the driver and signal operator) which drastically reduced the chance of an error.


In this section I have detailed how usability can be increased by simply taking into account the fact that the user is a human being, and as such, has certain universal traits and habits that can be relied on; as Norman [1988] suggests we should indeed "design for error".

Usability Assessment & Method of Evaluation Previous SectionNext Section


According to Johnson [1992]

"the aim of human factor evaluations is to identify inadequacies in design and to provide the design team with a sufficient understanding of how the design is inadequate, so that it can be redesigned without the same inadequacies being present."

I wish to highlight three issues from Johnson's statement. Firstly there is a need for a method with which the design inadequacies need to be uncovered. Secondly there is a communication method required to evaluate the information gleaned from the first. I suggest that involving a user in both methods will enable a design team to address the purpose of the third issue; that of effecting a usable design.

However what is a usable design? Holcomb & Tharp [1991] remark that "only if the ultimate users of a product are pleased is a product likely to succeed". How better to do this than to assess and evaluate the system involving the users of it. Therefore the testing, evaluation and reassessment of subsequent versions of design as described by Johnson implies an iterative methodology that I suggest would benefit from involving the user.

Indeed Holcomb & Tharp [1991] suggests that users should be "brought into the development cycle" because this "provides opportunity for feedback", which I have already demonstrated to be a principal element to affect overall usability.

In recent years usability assessment and evaluation has risen in stature and is now seen as a useful and important tool to aid design rather than being dismissed, as it previously had, as insignificant criticism. In this section I will detail methods used in usability testing and describe the evaluation techniques used to discover design problems.

Structured Walkthrough

For a quick assessment on a proposed design one cheap and yet highly effective method that can be employed is a pen and paper exercise. This method involves presenting an outline of a system's design on cards, story boards or simply on paper to the user for consideration. Booth [1992] describes this kind of walk through as a "concept test" which has the advantage of quickly identifying "concepts that the user finds acceptable and those that are likely to cause confusion". Users have the ability, even at this stage, to offer feedback on the proposals by manually adding to or amending the designs. I suggest that the role of this test is comparative to that of a context diagram in systems analysis, giving both the designer and user an overview of the envisaged system ensuring they both start off with a common and relevant baseline.

Cognitive Walkthrough

Lewis cited in Cuomo & Bowen [1994] considers an evaluation method by which "a list of theoretically derived questions about the User-System Interface (USI)" is put to users about how they undertook selected tasks. The interviewer will also ask the users what tasks in particular they found difficult to do. The purpose of the test is to ensure that there is an "Action-Goal" match within the system on test.

Dix et al [1993] suggest that this method does not involve the user and that the "basic intent" behind such a test is to discover design features that "violate known cognitive principles". They note that the test is undertaken by the "designer or an expert in cognitive psychology" who works through each task in the design noting how the interface will affect the user and whether the required task can be completed effectively. Dix et al [1993] compares this to the way in which the software engineer will go through the design code line by line which was where the original idea came from [Yourdon cited in Springett & Grant 1993].

Originally cognitive walkthrough tests were termed "walk-up-and-use interfaces" because they had been developed for evaluating Automatic Teller Machines [Cuomo & Bowen 1994].

Dutt et al [1994] considered this method to "be an effective method as it identifies task related problems rather than problems of 'taste'" which seems to suggest that users shouldn't be involved with this method confirming Dix's description of the evaluation.

Springett & Grant [1993] also point out another further advantage in that the output from a system can be "carefully examined" after each step in the walkthrough has taken place.

Friendly, Hostile and Simulated Users

As Booth [1992] reports there is more than one type of user. Friendly users are users who have some knowledge about the system who are able to make constructive comments that will be able to enhance designs that naive users will not have the foresight or experience to suggest. Although as Hewitt cited in Booth [1992] points out friendly users may "miss aspects of the system that often cause difficulties for naive users" anyhow.

Hostile users as noted by Booth [1992] may have the advantage over naive and friendly users since they have "no investment in the system" and will have no fear trying to crash a system. They will be able to apply criticism to systems exposing "inconsistencies and flaws" that may have not been uncovered otherwise.

Hewitt cited in Booth [1992] also defines the possibility of simulating users in which the "progress of several naive users is charted" which can be subsequently retraced by the designers. The advantage here is that the designers can follow a path through the design that they had not "previously envisaged" [Hewitt cited in Booth 1992] enabling them to redesign for error handling etc. that would not have been dealt with.

Thinking Aloud

This method involves users speaking their thoughts regarding the system to the designer (or a tester) as they use it, in an informal atmosphere. The tester is on hand to prompt the user only, without hindering or giving instruction, and to "listen for clues as to how the user is dealing with the system" [Lewis cited in Shneiderman 1992]. The advantage is that the user explores the system in a work-like pattern rather than following a particular route though the interface which may not be representative of a real situation.

Attitude Measures

Users' views of a new system can be canvassed by interview or by questionnaire. When interviewing prospective users "the level of questioning can be varied to suit the context" and also the line of questioning can "probe the user more deeply on interesting issues as they arise" [Dix et al 1993]. Dix et al [1993] point out that interviewing will give the user a chance to mention problems that may "not have been anticipated by the designer" of a system and is particularly useful "in eliciting information about user preferences, impressions and attitudes".

Despite the usefulness of the interviewing method which will give a general indication of "whether [or not] a system is likely to be used and appreciated in the work environment" it may be "open to bias" [Booth 1992]. This bias may be in the form of un-helpfulness on behalf of the interviewees fearing the "risk that new technology... [which] will create highly repetitive tasks which will require little skill..." [Johansson cited in Grandjean 1988] (Keen cited in Shneiderman [1992] terms this as "counterimplementation"). Alternatively the interviewee may, fearing for his job security, not wish to appear hostile and so not flag up any negative attributes about the proposed system which again results in unconstructive feedback.

Alternatively questionnaires are usually anonymous and thus have the advantage of being able to extract a more honest and open response. Unfortunately due to anonymity the evaluation is only one way and, unless the questions are open, may only assess pre-defined areas that may not suffer from usability problems anyway. Questionnaires may use a scalar (e.g. the Likert or semantic differential scales as noted by Preece et al [1994]), multiple choice or ranked method of answering. In the following section I will discuss the attributes of a sample questionnaire (the SUMI) which uses a Likert scalar method.


The SUMI questionnaire (shown at Appendix 1) was developed by the Human Factors Research Group, University College, Cork, Ireland as part of the European MUSiC project [NPL 1996] to measure, subjectively, the level of satisfaction a user has with software releases. It has "been developed, validated and standardised across Europe" and is available in many languages [NPL 1995a] and is often used as the definitive industry standard (Reuters, for example, use this questionnaire extensively during usability testing. See Chapter 7). The questionnaire is often used as a baseline by which subsequent product versions can be measured [NPL 1995a]

The SUMI contains a list of fifty questions [NPL 1996] that the user can either agree or disagree with or note an undecided result. It has the ability to give information in terms of software "efficiency, affect (or likeability), helpfulness, control and learnability, plus a global measure of usability" [NPL 1996]. In turn, this allows for the discovery of "overall strengths and weaknesses" [NPL 1996] of the software allowing the designers to confirm good design practices and concentrate on problem areas respectively.

Perhaps one reason why this questionnaire has been so successful in the field is that it is only part of the overall family of support for measuring usability assessment available through NPL. For instance there is software support for the SUMI, 'sumisco', allowing "computerised administration", "scoring... [allowing] analysis using a database of standardised samples" and report generation [NPL 1996] .

The SUMI may be suitable for empirical analysis but its scalar answering restricts possible responses that could be obtained if open questions were employed. However as noted by Dix et al [1993] "probing" questioning will take more time and resources and, as with most usability issues, a trade off has to be made.

I feel that the effectiveness of SUMI, in terms of its own usability, is high because it meets only the role set for it and does this well. The main advantage in using this testing method is that it can quickly cover a wide range of users and that the form itself is easily completed, relatively cheap and effective as a collector of measurable data. As such I suggest the SUMI to be an ideal and inexpensive tool that can be used as an initial 'gut reaction' survey of users when testing software.

Expert review

Booth [1992] considers the requirement for an independent "designer" or a "human factors expert" in the review of systems. He suggests that the advantage for such review is that "comments and criticisms are made from a position of knowledge". However as IT systems continue their onslaught into all areas of business, manufacturing, leisure etc., so there is also a need for a greater understanding of the context and language of these areas. Shneiderman [1992] also recognised this need and envisaged a professional growth in domain expertise incorporating areas such as "geographic information, medical laboratory instruments, or legal systems". Experts are therefore not just experts in interface design but come from a wide range of professions.

Bastien & Scapin [1995] however note that "experts rely on their experience in order to make a judgement on the ergonomics of a system". Their findings indicate there is a plethora of inharmonious usability standards due to this wide range of independent expertise. As a result they suggest that: "the evaluation of user interfaces is difficult and that much work is needed if dimensions are to serve as a basis for an evaluation method". By dimension they mean real, definable and specific areas or fields of measurement.

They propose, in their paper, that the dimensions, as well as being defined "explicitly, unambiguously and consistently" should be able to demonstrate their "utility and usability". Therefore they propose that any dimensions of ergonomic criteria should be

"Valid" restricting the reviewer to evaluate only those elements that were intended to be evaluated, but also conversely

"Thorough" enabling the widest scope to be achieved in evaluating the particular interface, and

"Reliable" producing the same results under the same conditions.

Molich & Newbon cited in Bastien & Scapin [1995] suggest that if these conditions were not met for ergonomic criteria "variability" would result and "tests would become reliant on expertise only" which would not provide comparability of result. In addition to the variability of results, the expert review may not actually detect "difficulties that hinder a naive user" [Booth 1992] which is the initial purpose of the review.


In this section I have reported the various methods used in usability testing and evaluation discussing their advantages and disadvantages. There are other forms of assessment and evaluation including task audits, field trials, follow-up studies and field studies [Booth 1992] as well as using video and audio taping of users working at interfaces in laboratory situations (this is discussed further in Usability Testing).

Because not one method is perfect for each situation, in practise, a combination of methods are used to overcome each other's disadvantages. Indeed to assess and evaluate a system effectively the correct methods needs to be chosen and this is a task in itself (there has been much research in this area in its own right).

Whatever methods of usability assessment and evaluation techniques used I suggest that the user is the one who should have the final usability vote because he is the one left to use the system when the designers, programmers and other experts are long gone.

Interface Development Previous SectionNext Section

Waterfall Model

Traditionally, software engineering followed a waterfall model of design in which the design process falls through to the next stage or activity upon completion of that activity. These activities generally group into areas such as "requirements analysis and definition, system and software design, implementation and unit testing and interrogation and system testing" [Preece et al 1994]. Each activity is quite isolated and self contained. In this way the most "appropriate techniques" [Dix et al 1993] can be applied to each stage resulting in the best output for that particular activity. However Dix et al [1993] notes that "the analogy of the waterfall is not completely faithful" since "in practice the stages overlap .... The software process is not a simple linear model", answers Sommerville cited in Preece et al [1994], "but involves a sequence of interactions of the development activities".

With the growing awareness of usability issues it can be seen that this model will not readily accommodate user input effectively into the design process as a separate activity because usability consideration needs "techniques which span the entire [design] life cycle" [Dix et al 1993]. As a result Hix & Hartson [1993] suggested a star model of development with usability and evaluation being at the centre of the development cycle.

The Star Life Cycle

Hix & Hartson's [1993] model of development, shown at figure P, is called the star life cycle because of its shape. In practice, any activity in the development cycle can be carried out first and development of a system is not restricted to a rigorous sequential process. The star method is thus "supportive of both top-down and bottom-up development" and it can be noted that it is "evaluation-centred" [Hix & Hartson 1993]. This allows iterative design to be accommodated since the designer can work with any activity in the knowledge that the design process will always pass through the centre point (usability & evaluation) before he moves onto another one. Knowledge gleaned from evaluating one aspect of the proposed system can thus be fed into the other activities.

Figure P


One area of significant and obvious difficulty in designing interactive systems is that "the customer and the user may not have a clear idea of what the system will look like when it is done". Shneiderman [1992] recognised this problem in one of his "three pillars of design". One way around the problem is to prototype the interface with the user and revise designs with the feedback. Otherwise, as Shneiderman [1992] points out, "it is difficult, costly and time consuming to make major changes to systems once they have been implemented".

The great advantage of prototyping, of course, is the ability to involve users in the decision making process (they are experts in their tasks after all) at an early stage. There are various levels of prototyping. Firstly there is the throw-away, or rapid, prototype in which only the knowledge gained from the testing of it, with the user, is kept. Concept tests, as in The Interface could be considered to be in this category. The tools for these, often, "low fidelity" [Preece et al 1994] prototypes tend to be relatively cheap and are used to produce proposed designs quickly. High fidelity prototypes, on the other hand, can be used to mimic the envisaged system complete with its functionality and interface. These can be costly but will give the user a considerable preview of what the final system will be like.

However extensive prototyping is not free from disadvantages. As modelled by Boehm cited in Preece et al [1994], an ever increasing spiral of prototypes may create more problems (such as a lack of management control) and thus be accompanied by spiralling costs. To avoid such costs Harrison cited in Preece et al [1994] considers the introduction of his "W" model of prototyping. In this model, the system is prototyped only once and only on a small scale so that "the system requirements are fixed and a traditional approach to development is undertaken." Preece et al [1994]. As a consequence this "evolutionary" spiral of multiple prototypes is regulated.

Conclusion Previous Section

I introduced this chapter by taking up the argument that user involvement during the development of interactive systems would prove both effective and worthwhile. However I have discovered that the usability approach to interface design is not the sole cure-all to expedient design and I have attempted to illustrate this during my discussion.

Indeed, Ives and Olson cited in Shneiderman [1992] point out there are disadvantages of a participatory methodology. They put forward that user involvement could be "costly and lengthen the implementation period, build antagonism with those not involved or whose suggestions have been rejected". They continue by suggesting that it may "force designers to compromise their design to satisfy incompetent participants [or] simply build opposition to implementation" generally. It seems that the initial idea of involving users may introduce as many problems as it solves.

However there has been enough interest, in the issue, for the ISO to produce a draft specific standard (ISO 13407) for user centred design [NPL 1995b] reinforcing both the credibility of, and the need from industry for a standard guideline on, participatory design. I would therefore suggest that the involvement of users to aid in the design of interactive systems is here to stay.