10 Guidelines for Making a User Interface People-Friendly

I am going to write on one of my big “pet peeves” this week.  The harshest criticism of most delivered software comes from people frustrated by their interaction with the user interface. In my experience, most change requests are related to users and the user interface (UI). Now I know that most project managers are neither the designer nor developer of the UI. However, during initial design and prototype reviews, there are best practices to follow based on human factors and cognitive science research that create a friendlier product. (I work on many projects with cognitive scientists and have been told this often!)

In September 2010, I talked about the user design from the perspective of flow and functionality in “Keep Users in Mind in Your Design.”  In this post, I am going to talk more about the presentation of information or action requests to the user rather than the navigation of the software. For the following 10 guidelines, I am relying on the insightful work of Jeff Johnson in his book, Designing with the Mind in Mind and the excellent book on documenting user requirements by Karen McGraw and Karan Harbison, User-Centered Requirements: The scenario-based engineering process.

  1. Consistency. People act first on their expectations and experience. To translate that knowledge to the UI means presenting options in the same way each time the user is required to take an action. For example, if the software requires the user to consent or affirm an action before moving forward, the consent window should always be in the same place, with the same options, using the same words, in the same order. It also means that if different pages have the same capability, for example “search”, then that option should always be shown in the same place on the screen.  At Cognitive Technologies (where I previously worked) we used the Performance DNA™ methodology to ensure a match with the user’s mental model and work processes.

Grouping. Take advantage of people’s natural tendency to group objects that relate to one another. Use spacing, font type and size and nearby controls to create a natural visual group that is clearly separate from other groups. For example, this page from Adobe Photoshop Help uses white space, color, font size and symbols to guide the user to selectable options.

And here is a SharePoint page that also uses white space, pictures, and grouping to guide the user.

  1. People read pages from left to right and top to bottom. Using this knowledge, presenting data in two columns, with the left hand column being the field name and the right hand column being the field value, is more intuitive to users than placing field names on top and values beneath them. I copied this example from Jeff’s book to summarize an individual’s mortgage:



$1,840.50            Monthly payment $662,611.22Total of 360 payments     Monthly payment     $1,840.50
$318,861.22Total interest paid September, 2037Pay-off date     Total of payments  $662,611.22
      Total interest paid  $318,861.22
      Pay-off date  September, 2037
  1. Breaking long lists into groups of three or four items makes them easier to read, remember and copy than a long list of numbers. For example a phone number shown as 2153345645 is more difficult for readers than 215.334.5645. Not to mention 16 digits credit card or 30 digit user license numbers.
  2. Use clean easy-to-read fonts. A contrasting background box can make text stand out; however do not use contrasting colors that cannot be seen by colorblind individuals, such as red on green.
  3. Avoid techno-jargon. Use LOGIN or SIGN IN as opposed to AUTHETICATE, for example.
  4. Do not place error messages too far from the point of data entry. People focus on a small 2 to 3 cm screen area when reading. An error message that appears at the bottom or top of the page may go unnoticed. If you must place the error message there, consider making it bright in color and blinking as our peripheral vision is effective at detecting movement.
  5. When presenting options, combining color differences with other cues makes it easier for users to automatically recognize groups and actions. For example, the Mac OS uses different symbols next to files in the process of being updated versus completed updates in addition to color differences. Your design goal is to take advantage of people’s normal brain organizing and visual detection capabilities to minimize the amount of cognitive processing required.

  1. Give users multiple ways to accomplish the same task. For example in a copy, cut or paste operation, people unfamiliar with the task may prefer a guided method using pull down menus or icons.  Others may prefer to right-click on highlighted text to bring up the editing menu. Another option is to highlight text and then drag and drop. And finally some people will choose the simple keyboard shortcut of: Highlight, CTRL+C (or X), move cursor to desired location, and CTRL+ V to paste. The important point for the user interface designers to remember is to give people options to accomplish a task that accommodates their tool knowledge.  Use good scenario based requirements gathering to create multiple ways to present information and tasks.
  2. Do not expect users to remember how they got to a step in a multistep action sequence. Show them a map or key and where they are in a process. As a matter of fact, it is good practice to give users feedback every time they take an action, because if the page looks the same after an action as before, the user may think they have failed and repeat the action.

So why do I write about making the user interface “people friendly”?  As a project manager, knowing a bit about the human factors behind effective user interface design will help when you review the UI for your project or to better understand user requirements and change requests. We are lucky at our firm because our project teams always include performance specialists who specialize in how people think, learn and work!  And that makes all the difference in the tools and solutions we configure and implement.

If you have additional gotchas or guidelines for user interfaces, please share.

Part 2: If projects are like gasoline – Project Management Tools for Small Projects

Last week I talked about gasoline octane ratings as a metaphor for the relative performance and capability required of project management tools. According to Wikipedia, the octane rating is a standard measure of the performance of motor or aviation fuel. The higher the octane number –the higher the performance. Or, in the case of PM tools, large complex projects need high-octane, specialized tools, while small projects get by just fine exploiting the capabilities of the tools you commonly have around the work site.

Small projects (or Unleaded projects!) usually have characteristics of short time frames and minimal staff.  They occur within a short time frame — often less than six months and do not require nor have a full-time project manager. Several people may work on the project, but few if any, are assigned full-time. However, even small projects need to document their charter and scope, organize a task list and schedule and report on their status or accomplishments/issues.

In my experience, Microsoft Office applications, including Excel, PowerPoint, Word and Outlook, provide enough of the octane that a small project needs. Here are some examples of project management using Microsoft Office applications:

Task detail and scheduling
The workhorse tool for managing small projects is Microsoft Excel – in surveys that my company has conducted, MS Excel was the number 1 project management tool used by organizations. In fact many medium or large projects use Excel for some of their PM duties. I like the ability of Excel to quickly generate a task list, which can include a brief description, start and stop times and assignments. The tasks and time frame can then help build a simple Gantt chart. All of the charts produced in Excel, as well as the task detail, can be copied into Microsoft PowerPoint for presentations or Microsoft Word for reports.  The team can use email to distribute the excel sheet for updates.

Here is an example of an Excel project tool:
Status Reports

Here is another example of using Excel as a status report:

Cost Analysis

Spreadsheets, like Excel, had their roots as an accounting or number management tool (for some of us we remember using a program called VisiCalc!). So, it is no surprise that it provides a great deal of capability to manipulate cost figures, such as creating planned versus actual cost comparison.

And here are some ideas for a One Page

Summary Report using MS PowerPoint:

Project managers are not limited to simple things either, they can create a complete project workbook in Excel using the tab feature for various project documents, such as the charter, budget, risks and issues, action items, WBS and decision logs.

Also email, such as Microsoft Outlook and Exchange Server, serves as the primary formal communication tool for setting up meetings and sharing information both inside and outside the team. Within the team, Outlook can also be used to share information. However, the team will also benefit from communication using sticky notes, task boards and face-to-face discussions using other tools like GotoMeeting, WebEX or Live Meeting.

OK- so let’s look at the pros and cons of using Office tools for managing projects:

Pros of Using Microsoft Office for Project Management

  1. Most users already know how to use Word, Excel and PowerPoint – not much training needed
  2. Low initial cost – in fact most organizations already have these tools
  3. Tools and work products can be easily modified – the work products can be branded and modified to fit the project
  4. Many project management templates are available – if you look online, you will find hundreds of templates for these office tools

Cons of Microsoft Office for Project Management

  1. Staff/users have varying levels of skill and proficiency – even though everyone may have these tools, many people have never had to use them for advanced functions like making a project schedule or status report
  2. Data is not real time – have to send the file around and wait for distribution
  3. Version control is problematic – I hate the game of multiple people editing a file at the same time and then figuring out which one is the most recent
  4. Updates are more labor intensive – if you try to control changes to the project with one person (eliminating the version control issue) then you create a bottleneck

So, in summary, if you are on a team tradition project or agile, you can utilize standard office tools to help the teams manage the project without having to invest in expensive tools and technology.

If you have comments or thoughts about using Microsoft Office or other tools for small projects, please share.

Part 3 of our series will cover the “Standard” or regular projects and tools.

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