When UX Designs for Difficult Tasks Must Be User Friendly

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A column by Janet M. Six
September 20, 2021

This month in Ask UXmatters, our expert panel discusses how to handle a company’s insistence that you make an application user friendly upon its first use—even if the task for which you’re designing a solution is inherently difficult, complex, or time consuming. The panel explores what user friendly means, specifically within the context of difficult tasks. Our panelists also discuss defining concrete objectives for design solutions. Plus, we’ll consider training as a way of addressing the complexity of such tasks.

It is important to acknowledge that the complexity of a task can sometimes make an application difficult to use—not because the user-interface design is lacking, but just because the task is so inherently difficult.

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In my monthly column Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

The following experts have contributed answers to this month’s edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Adrian Howard—Generalizing Specialist in Agile/UX
  • Caroline Jarrett—Owner and Director at Effortmark Limited; author of Surveys That Work; UXmatters columnist
  • Ritch Macefield—CEO of Ax-Stream

Q: When some companies push for making all applications user friendly on their first use, how can you design an application that must support very difficult or time-consuming tasks?—from a UXmatters reader

“Balancing Whitney Quesenbery’s 5Es is really helpful here, endeavoring to make an application effective, efficient, engaging, error tolerant, and easy to learn,” replies Caroline. “Whitney first published the 5Es in 2001. I thought then and still think now that the 5Es are a wonderful way to help clients or colleagues engage with the tradeoffs that are inevitable in the design of systems for complex or difficult tasks. For example, I worked on one computer system for which the team’s drive to achieve user friendliness meant that they had implemented one task most users did dozens of times every day through thirteen allegedly user-friendly screens. Clicking through thirteen screens gets old really fast when you have to do it constantly. The users begged for one densely packed screen on which they could see everything at a glance.

“Let’s go back to around 1999. The standard definition of user friendly then was in ‘ISO 9241-11:1998 - Ergonomic Requirements for Office Work with Visual Display Terminals (VDTs)—Part 11: Guidance on Usability.’ In those days, we were still thinking mostly in terms of computer systems in offices—hence the ‘visual display terminals’ bit. That definition defined usability as:

  • effective
  • efficient
  • satisfying
  • in a specified context of use

Effective means you can do whatever tasks you need to do. Efficient means you can do them in an appropriate amount of time and with an appropriate level of effort. Satisfying means—well, that was always the conundrum. We could measure that only by asking users, and satisfaction turns out to be a tricky concept to define and measure, as I wrote in my UXmatters column ‘How to Ask About User Satisfaction in a Survey.’

“The context of use really matters, but is often forgotten. The example I’ve always used is a wristwatch. A watch that’s ideal for attending a gala dinner in full evening dress is hopeless if you change the context of use to deep-sea diving—or the other way around.

“Another snag at that time—which still is today—is that ISO standards are paywalled,” continues Caroline. “This is not a problem for a big corporation or university that pays a subscription for access, but is a barrier for many others.

“A third challenge was exactly the one in your question: how to bring context of use into the definition more clearly—and in a way that recognizes that, within some contexts, it’s really important to support first use; while in other contexts, it’s more important to support long-term use, at the possible sacrifice of some learning and training time; and in still other contexts, you have to somehow try to do both.

“Several of us were musing on all of this, and Whitney came up with her 5Es: effective, efficient, engaging, error tolerant, and easy to learn. I recall a long session when she was visiting the UK, during which we brainstormed the bubble diagram together. It’s a way of getting people to visualize which of the 5Es are most important in a given context. If they’re all equal, the diagram has five equal-sized bubbles. But if the context of use is a difficult or time-consuming task, you might choose to emphasize efficient and easy to learn over the other Es and give them larger bubbles.

“To find out more about the 5Es, read ‘Using the 5Es to Understand Users,’ at Whitney Interactive Design. On that page, you’ll also find examples of bubble diagrams and other resources as well.”

Relying on Training

“The key difference between intra-corporate systems and extra-corporate systems is that with the former, we have the opportunity to train the users,” suggests Ritch. “Thus, there exists a potential tradeoff between training time and cost against the cost of more in-depth UX design and user research. Of course, we must also consider here future training costs as new users onboard. However, sometimes training is the better option.

“There are also two other important points to consider here: First, we should recognize that sometimes tasks are essentially so complex that it’s not reasonable to expect the systems that support them to be usable without training—for example, at the extremes, tasks within a military battle–management system or an air traffic–control system. Second, you can often mitigate this whole issue significantly by maximizing the use of established style guides and UI design patterns—for example, by basing a design on the Microsoft Windows UX design guidelines and their underlying object model. On the latter point, I have sadly seen many naive UX designers unnecessarily attempt and fail to reinvent these well-established patterns, which have undergone extensive and very costly usability testing and are already very familiar to many users.”

When an Application Cannot Be User Friendly on the First Use

“Sometimes the answer is that you can’t make an application user friendly on the first use,” answers Adrian. “To roll out a clichéd example: take a look at the cockpit of any commercial airliner. You’ll see a user interface that is not and cannot be user friendly on first use. Such a user interface requires significant initial and ongoing training because the domain is complex and the consequences of failure are dire.

“This is one of those ghastly it-depends questions! So much of the how is going to depend on the domain, the opportunity you’re addressing, and the audience for the user interface. A few of many potential approaches include the following:

  • Could you progressively disclose a complex domain or user interface to the user? Computer games are often great at doing this—introducing UI elements, one at a time, allowing players to learn individual elements of gameplay in a controlled way.
  • Could you find a simple metaphor for a complex domain that is more useful to your users? Compare the color-adjustment palettes in Adobe Lightroom with the vastly simpler filters in Instagram. They both help the user to make photos look better, but in very different ways.
  • What are the consequences of the user’s making a mistake? Can you reduce the negatives and make the environment safer to explore? Infinite undo is a wonderful feature! If users can be confident that they can recover from mistakes, they’re often more willing to explore more complicated user interfaces.
  • Could you create a simple version that deals with a large percentage of the potential use cases? For example, the macOS backup software Carbon Copy Cloner has a simple mode for the common use case of copying everything from one disk to another disk and a much more complex standard-mode user interface for the many more complex options that address such tasks as making partial copies and scheduling backups.
  • Could you turn something complicated and general purpose into multiple simple tools with a single intent? For example, you could give people an application for double-entry book keeping, another application for creating shopping lists, and yet another application for calculating mortgage payments rather than a general-purpose spreadsheet that could do all of these things.

“But none of these approaches is applicable in all contexts. Only you know the problems and opportunities that your organization is trying to address for its customers. There is no magic answer—just a lot of research, usability testing, and iterative design. The only thing I occasionally see folks miss out on is considering that the user group and the business opportunity are also things you could potentially change during the design process. You could solve a simpler problem for your original user group or find a user group with a simpler version of the problem.” 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research. Janet is the Managing Editor of UXmatters.  Read More

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