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Methodological UI Design

By John Pearson

Web site and project managers know that project requirements and scope often change. For example, in a recent Web project, I was hired to convert an existing program from an older, non-supported programming environment to something more current. The project sounded very straightforward at first. However, along the way, one of the analysts asked selected users a few questions about workflow, interface, and usability. The analyst discovered that the existing interface was hard to use, didn't meet users' needs, and lacked essential features. Thus, the solution involved re-architecting, additional work, and expense.

The Hiser Element Toolkit (the Toolkit) is designed to address usability issues when you're planning site and program design. It's specifically designed with all project managers in mind—that is, it's a simple enough tool that even those without specific UI testing training or expertise shouldn't have a problem using it.

The Hiser Element Toolkit
The Hiser Element Toolkit
cost: $1600 for a single-user license; multiuser licenses available, contact vendor for pricing.
Pros: Strong section on UI design. Detailed instructions on working with users; little overhead. Cons: Not directly linked to other apps. Completely manual information processing.

UI Methodology

The Toolkit is a structured UI and usability methodology centered around the following major processes:

  • Observation and Analysis. Documenting the user goals, activities, workflow, and processes.

  • Envisioning and Design. Creating the conceptual design and an initial prototype.

  • Evaluation and Refining. Evaluating the prototype, conducting usability testing, and completing the system.

    Each of these processes includes multiple activities, most of which are familiar to people with analysis and design backgrounds, though many of them have somewhat different names (for example, field study, workflow diagrams, scenarios—akin to case studies, paper mock-ups of the UI, and so on.)

    The most comprehensive section is the Evaluate and Design section. This includes various usability measures and design goals. The information contained in this section is an invaluable summary of interface design for anyone developing user interfaces—either for Web sites or programs. This section also includes a subsection on icon design and a very useful document with GUI controls, which are worth the price of admission.

    The greatest strength of the methodology and activities are the detailed, accompanying instructions. For example, on the field study, which is a detailed user observation and analysis, there are extensive instructions on how to prepare for the visit, conduct the visit, and perform the analysis and reporting. The instructions include checklists, sample memos, observer briefing sheets, and site visit consent forms. There are instructions on how to interview, observe, and select which users you'll interview, and more. This high level of detail and specific process identification, documentation, and reporting, makes the system practical for a wide range of users. Training is available for this methodology, but may not be necessary.

    A Quick Start Guide introduces the Toolkit materials. It presents a clear overview of the system and takes users step-by-step through each process. It's available either in CD-ROM or in print as four hefty binders. The CD-ROM version includes an interactive tool called the Tool Adviser, which is basically a wizard-driven version of this design methodology.

    The Tool Advisor begins by determining some of the attributes of your project, such as budget, schedule, application type, and project purpose. You then continue with the project objectives, and from there, the Tool Advisor gives you the top choices for activities (within the Hiser methodology processes) followed by alternatives and supporting techniques. This is a handy way to help users figure out what to do and get started with the proper tool. This is also much faster than trying to use the flowcharts in the printed material. New to this release is an additional tool: the Heuristic Evaluation Tool. A heuristic is a learning tool, and this tool includes a set of checklists and 12 guidelines to evaluate interfaces from two perspectives: a generic GUI perspective and a Web-specific perspective.

    Although all of the documentation is available online for quick reference while you're working, the forms, flowcharts, and instructions are also available in hard copy.

    The Toolkit isn't an automated process. Unfortunately that means that there isn't a computer program to track your progress, to print out status reports, or to store your completed products. It also means that The Hiser Element isn't linked to a word processor for working on any of the reports, a diagramming tool for workflows (flowcharting), or any demo or development tools for prototyping and screen design. The addition of such features would make the system much easier to use.

    However, the focus on UI design and the lack of automation features also works in The Hiser Element's favor. It can be used to augment other products that perform various db programming tasks (such as Rational Rose), but which aren't nearly as strong as the Toolkit in UI design.

    The Toolkit's pricing is reasonable for mid- to large-size organizations. Deloitte & Touche U.S.A. has been using it for internal development of program GUIs and Web site designs. For organizations that specialize in UI design or whose programming needs are light on the data side, this product may be sufficient to meet your design needs. Finally, if you're training users, managers, or developers in UI development, the related documentation should be required reading.

    The Hiser Element Toolkit is an extremely strong methodology for UI development. Managers, developers, and users on development teams would do well to buy the Toolkit either in tandem with The Hiser Group's other development tools, or by itself. Either way, using The Hiser Element Toolkit will save you money in the long run.

    John programs in Visual Basic and C++ and contributes to magazines such as Visual C++ Developer's Journal, and JavaPro.

  • Copyright © 2003 CMP Media LLC