Special Report: Design Usability

Human Factors Methodology Can Help You Meet Users' Need

By Joy Busse and Jennifer Abbott Bulka

What will be your winning advantage? It’s not how loud you scream with branding, how many free giveaway or direct marketing promotions you create, or how many products you offer that will make your company succeed. The difference is going to be the depth of a satisfying end-to-end customer experience. You need to know your customers and identify what they want. Before we can even consider back-end killer apps, we need to understand the people we’re selling to.

Quality, Not Quantity
The majority of our clients feel they have to get the product out at any cost to meet their self-imposed deadlines. When schedules take priority over product-development criteria, the user suffers. A Silicon Valley 100 company in development at our studio wanted to launch a new B2B company that would host multiple application solutions, including Siebel Call Center. And they wanted to do it quickly. The concept was excellent and the advantages it offered to the company’s customers were plentiful, to say the least. However, the product-development challenges facing this project and the application service provider market in general are becoming fairly widespread. Offering different products with different user-interface conventions and no continuity between them yields a very poor customer experience.

You can offer all the great applications you can get your hands on to solve all your customers’ problems, but do they really want all that functionality, or would they prefer an experience that is consistent, intuitive, and targeted at their needs? Delivering multiple applications with multiple user-interface designs for the sake of delivering a lot of functionality without knowing your users’ needs will not satisfy customers. Conversely, making a strategic choice of a tight set of features and functionality targeted at your users’ needs, integrated in a way that provides a cohesive and consistent experience, is going to win you more applause than just slapping a bunch of disparate products together.

Analyze Human Behavior
Given that you’ve allocated the proper amount of time, the focal point for product development should start with a practice known as human factors. Here are some top-line points to consider for Web product design.

Engage an expert partner who can implement a human-factors methodology to help understand your users from the psychological, physical, emotional, and cognitive perspectives. Today’s human-factors discipline is derived from techniques originally used to improve the design of equipment during World War II. When applied to Web design, it’s used to explore, analyze, and diagnose users’ needs in relation to how they process information; it’s based on established theories of memory, perception, motor skills, attention, problem solving, learning and skills acquisition, and motivation. Specifically, the human-factors approach examines how people do these things in their daily environment. By analyzing human behavior and creating a Web-based product that addresses these factors, Web architects and designers will better understand their products in the context in which they will be used and will deliver a more satisfying user experience.

Targeted User Models
Although one size does not fit all, it is crucial to first distill your users into three key user-model groups. The models should represent the “sweet spot" of your constituencies. If you are starting from scratch, you will create hypotheses, compiling “what if" scenarios for the three groups. Whether you use existing data or hypothetical models, don’t believe in your own conclusions too firmly. More often than not, the person you are targeting is nothing like you. One client, Cruel World, worked with a psychologist who was an expert in the cognitive and psychological aspects of how people groom their careers and seek jobs. This proved to be crucial in the success of the product-development cycle, because the way in which different people approach their career advancement is a complex and sensitive topic.

When developing a new Web product, you must either acquire user data and customers or field-test your hypotheses to garner accurate information before you make decisions on final product development. If you are embarking upon your third-, fourth-, or fifth-generation product, you may already have acquired data that has been analyzed and segmented properly. Either way, user models are your most important asset in this phase of the product design and development cycle.

There are many ways to determine human-factor criteria for your user models. In design cycles for earlier Web products, we focused on a variety of categories, including demographics and psychographics. There is still a role for this kind of information, but when designing a Web application now, we are more concerned with “behavior-graphics." What are users’ key behavioral patterns? How are these patterns established?

First, define your user groups for modeling purposes. As you move through your questions and task hypotheses, look at the answers and scenarios from the following four angles wherever appropriate: cognitive patterns (how users think), physical usage, emotional approach, and varying psychological aspects. What are the model user’s patterns in related daily tasks offline? What obstacles might User Model A face as compared with User Model B? Do they have a beginning, intermediate, or advanced level of Web literacy? What kind of knowledge does a user at one level need compared with a user at another level? How do the features and functions change over time to help the beginner advance to an intermediate level or to keep the advanced user stimulated?

In our redesign of PurchasePro.com, the procurement task-sets needed to be simple enough for the user with minimal computer and application skills while containing all the functionality an advanced or power user with many different responsibilities would want. The former might be someone from housekeeping with English as a second language, who may only want to request new towels and sheets. The power user might be the head of purchasing, faced with complicated daily tasks ranging from approving purchase orders to adding new users to the system and assigning privileges to them. In our human-factors practice, we examine how to make the workflows distinct enough to give each of these two very different users what they need.

Permit Customization
Once behavioral patterns are known and tested, the next step in the human-factors approach is to put the power of customization into the users’ hands. Let users choose from an incredibly nimble and modular design what they want from the application. Let them change their feature sets as their needs progress.

Test Early, Test Often
Historically, many of the Web’s killer apps were the brainchildren of technologists who could define incredible functionality and feature sets but lacked the training for human-factors analysis and the marketing techniques for segmentation and analysis of user data. The ability to create user models and compose task analyses that are appropriate for each model—for example, what tasks will users do daily, weekly, or monthly? What’s the hierarchy of those tasks?—married with user testing and prototyping, will help to create a better Web product that more evenly balances back-end wizardry with users’ needs.

In-house product marketing and engineering teams have to ask themselves if it is more important to meet the self-imposed company deadline at the cost of losing perhaps the most important and dedicated part of your constituency—the early adopters. Or is it worthwhile to be realistic about product development timelines so that design methods such as human factors can be used to deliver something that actually works at launch and gives users what they want?

By Joy Busse and Jennifer Abbott Bulka