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How to Scale Up Usability


Usability – The organization used in this paper to study how to scale up usability is the Felleskjopet, FK in short. FK is The Norwegian Agricultural Purchasing and Marketing Co-operation (FK), a part of Norwegian farm co-operative system. This is the largest supplier of feed concentrate, agricultural implements and fertilizers in Norway. Such a large business entity of course needs to increase usability in their communication system for this purpose FK uses an indirect groupware system, which has different functions. They are taken care by the R&D department of the organization. As the system is large and still expanding, scaling up usability may be key to efficient operation and cost effectiveness of this Groupware. This paper will mainly focus on how to scale up the usability. In the first chapter, the concept of scaling up usability is defined, explained and the need to scale up usability is justified. There is also a discussion about how to measure usability and which metrics are to be used in measuring. The features of a Groupware needing improvements for scaling up usability are also outlined in this section. In the second chapter one goes deeper into the problem through an empirical study. It will be clearly mentioned and analysed the challenges such as: which aspects are to be modified and which parts need a redesign. Following this section it will be presented two case studies which outline the methods used for implementation of suggested changes. The last part is conclusion.

Concept of usability & scaling it up

Usability has been defined in many ways. For instance: Jakob Nielsen (2003) defines usability as the following:

A quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use. The word “usability” also refers to methods for improving ease-of-use during the design process. Usability is defined by five quality components:

– Learn-ability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?

– Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?

– Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they re-establish proficiency?

– Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?

– Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?

Usability is a term used to denote the ease of use with which people can employ a particular tool or other human-made object in order to achieve a particular goal. It is a measure of the quality of a user’s experience when interacting with a product or system, whether a web site, a software application, mobile technology, or any user-operated device. The international standards organization formally defines usability:

“[Usability refers to] the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of user.” ISO 9241-11]

Scaling up usability of a system means to make it more powerful, bigger and easier to use. It is necessary that the level of usability is measured and stored from time to time. It has been proved that the interpretation of experimental data based on only one or two usability aspects leads to unreliable conclusions of overall usability. The usability measurements must be used in a particular situation and should be considered carefully due to be accurate. If they are considered critical in a particular situation, then they should be recognized as a central part of any evaluation of usability. It requires a firm understanding of how tasks, users, and technology interact in constituting the usage within the particular application domain. Usability concept has been perceived well in the industry and it seems that there is a very direct relationship between Usability and Return on Investment (ROI). This has prompted many multinational firms and companies to shell out millions of Dollars on usability professional and labs.


Measuring Usability

The biggest problem facing the usability field is how to scale up massively so that we can impact all the user interface designs in the world. Before scaling up, there is a need to measure usability. This is a challenge in itself, how can we measure usability? In fact we have a range of metrics to help us measure our design improvements. We need to use these measures to see whether the improvements are:

– More efficient for the users

– Easier to learn

– More satisfying to the users

We usually conduct what is called a “Usability Testing” to measure usability. The three most common factors measured in usability testing include: effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction. The data that we need during usability testing can be of two types. These include:

– Performance data (How data is or will be executed?)

– Preference data (what are the participant’s thoughts and ideas?)

Once the metrics are gathered, there may be need to evaluate the usability of the product,which in many cases might be for example: a groupware or a web site. Then we need to make the recommendations for scaling up usability. A baseline or benchmark usability test is usually conducted before making the design. The recommendations, which are based on the usability test, can be implemented in order to fix usability issues. Then, the re-tested product will be measured by their effectiveness of improvements. One should never forget that all organizations will not follow a general pattern. Thus talking about a general procedure may be irrelevant.

One area where usability has been widely used in recent years is Groupware. The recommendations for groupware are extendable to any product for that matter. The nature of recommendations for groupware is generally to improve the following attributes:

– Easy to access or start-up: The Groupware should be easy to access and start-up if it is to be widely used and to keep on being used. Users will not use the Groupware if they are able to communicate more easily some other way.

– Easy to learn and operate: If a Groupware is perceived to be difficult to operate or time consuming due to learn how to operate, then it will not be used widely. Hence, a Groupware should be easy-to-use for all users.

– Easy to Customize: Groupware must be suitable for each user and group. It should be customizable for each member of the group. Each group has its own demands and way of working and Groupware must take care of accommodations. Another possibility is to design Groupware that copes with broad user demands.

– Quality and Speed: Quality of the system is a criterion in any design. Quality also scales up usability. Good quality and quick output is a great plus for any usable system.

With the initial ideas in place let’s move on and apply them in actual scenario.

State of the art

In this section I am focusing mainly on what are the techniques used to scale up the usability.

When developing a new website, intranet, or groupware we need to start with greater focus on the end user. There must be clear idea as to who is going to use the system. The developer must have a very good idea of how varied the user group may be in terms of age, skills, time that they want to spend on the interface, technical knowledge etc. Once we know the user group well, we can focus on what they might need. Best way to know what the end user needs is to ask them directly. This is done by using the needs analysis which may involve drawing out a sample of potential users and interviewing them. Along with needs analysis on the user end, we must define the goals that this kind of interface is set to achieve. Once the needs of users and the goals of interface match, it can be implemented. After implementing the system we need to get the feedback from users and measure the usability again.

With iterative usability testing the developer will know when to make a change. Usability may fade down with time and this will be reflected on the usability measures. The system designer can continuously maintain a high usability. The whole exercise will work only if it is participatory and both the end user and developers work together. This is known as participatory design. It is very crucial in maintaining and scaling up the usability of any man machine interface (FEMA, 2006). There is another aspect which should be considered. Sometimes a person may wonder whether or not usability can scale up. Some experts point out that usability can not be scaled up! Because if an organisation hire more usability professionals, it doesn’t make their products more usable! Because a good usability depends on good design culture, not testing! Jared contention is that “When usability is effective, are we effective because of our methods and skills and training, or because a company that hires us is thinking about new things and considering them at the same time and could do it just as well without us: customer needs and feedback, firm marketing goals, good beta testing feedback, design process, quality”(Cherny, 2005).

In many instances, the scaling up of usability helped learn interesting facts about the user preferences. It was found during re-designing of US-CERT website that when multiple pathways for accessing the information are provided, people generally get confused. They simplified the access to information and provided fewer options. Participants had trouble understanding many of the link titles, and they thought the link labels were ambiguous. The numbering system was meaningless to users and made the lists difficult to scan. They rearranged titles on content pages, removed the numbers and dates from the titles of non technical documents, and grouped content in meaningful categories. These changes greatly improved usability for our non-technical audience. They were able to quickly find the information they needed and understood which sections of the web site were designed specifically for them. There were problems with color pallets too. Users didn’t like the overuse of the red, white, and blue palette; they felt that the site was cluttered. So it was decided to simplify the color palette by using only a few different shades of the same color throughout the site and streamlining all graphics and content to ensure that the site had a clean look and feel (US-CERT, 2006).

While designing an instant message system for NCI’s Live Help, it was found that users should decide the logo and graphics to be used on the interface. In this case it was found that most users chose the question mark. It was also found that users generally look at the top center of a page first, then look left, then right, and finally move down the page systematically. Hence putting important items at the top, “above the fold” (in the first screen of information), eased scanning and scaled up usability. Users are less likely to click on a graphic that does not look like a link. Hence the clickable links were replaced by clickable graphics which were labelled descriptively (, 2006). These steps helped achieve what is known as user-friendly and accessible graphic design. While implementing a groupware for in-house use in a corporate environment the design challenges are more diverse. Each of their staff work on the knowledge base they have of the subject. For example there may be several accountants who work well because of their knowledge in accounting. Enabling each worker to share information among them will be a great boon for the organization as the efficiency and improvement of each worker. There are several frontiers of a corporate business where this groupware can be used to scale up the usability.

Integration of ideas from product marketing, R&D and other relevant sources will create a pool for product requirements on which the company can base their product features. Marketing people will pass on the expectations of members and other consumers to the R&D which will work on development and improvements and send the re engineered product back to market for feedback. The overall direction of business can be decided by each member. Information sharing can make the organization more democratic. Whenever a new situation arises, the organization’s leaders could disseminate information about the situation and outline several general possible approaches. The information may be sent to front line people for review who in turn will gain a feedback from each shareholder in the process. The matter could be discussed and inputs would be collected and aggregated and then incorporated into a revised and more detailed series of alternatives, which would again be sent out for review. When nothing new is coming out of these discussions, the leadership can select a policy. This way shareholder’s interest in the organization will not fade away because their usability of the company’s share increases and the longevity of this organization would be ensured (Miller, 1993). The introduction and withdrawal of older products can also be streamlined by using information sharing groupware. Also preservation of historical data will help formulate market strategy.

What are the challenges, and how can the existing system be modified? First of all the information systems being used right now will have to be centralized. Several localized infrastructure that make this whole system today will have to be integrated. An often reiterated theme and ambition with establishing a working, organization-wide infrastructure is to finally make the world fit together, to integrate the various applications, platforms, and information systems that exist. The older mess has to be swept aside to avoid the chaos and fragmentation. This poses a challenge. Despite the practically unanimous acceptance of the need to avoid fragmentation, important user groups still have to learn to cope with the mess. The fragmentation, however, exists for good reasons and will not simply be swept away. The most important sources for the all too common situation of a fragmented infrastructure are, first, that the user’s requirements vary too much and, second, that new information systems extend and superimpose older ones rather than straightforwardly substituting them. Periodical measurements of usability metrics and updating of the system based on these results will help in scaling up of the usability of the groupware. (Monteiro et. al.)

Everyone in a corporate environment is working as a group and is serving to increase the value of shareholder’s as well as consumer’s money. Two aspects of improvement are to understand the changing needs of customers and then work in groups to work out a plan and implement them to achieve this shift in user preferences. Both on the user end and developer end, group work is important. In many group work situations, awareness of others provides information that is critical for smooth and effective collaboration. While working in groups, it is very much essential to know who is working with you, what they are doing, and how your own actions interact with theirs. This is called group awareness. Group awareness is useful for coordinating actions, managing coupling, discussing tasks, anticipating others’ actions, and finding help. Group awareness is therefore very important tool for scaling up usability.

Three mechanisms help people to maintain awareness in collocated situations: explicit communication, where people tell each other about their activities; consequential communication, in which watching another person work provides information as to their activities and plans; and feed-through, where observation of changes to project artifacts indicates who has been doing what. Although group awareness is taken for granted in face-to-face work, it is difficult to maintain in distributed settings. Studies of distributed work have shown that much of the communication and implicit information that is available to a collocated team does not exist for remote collaborators. Groupware is an efficient tool to facilitate group awareness in a geographically scattered organizational setup (Gutwin et. al., 2004).

We can implement the groupware, which will be used by the employees only when employees are ready to accept it. So we need to take care of the organizational factors as well when implementing the recommended changes for scaling up usability. Researchers have suggested that there are two main organizational elements that seem to influence effective utilization of groupware. First one is people’s cognition or mental models about technology and their work, and the second is structural properties of the organization such as policies, norms, and reward systems. It was found that where people’s mental models do not understand or appreciate the collaborative nature of groupware, such technologies will be interpreted and used as personal, stand-alone software (e.g., a spreadsheet or word processing program). They will not readily use the collaborative features of the groupware. It was also found that where the premises underlying the groupware technology e.g. shared effort, cooperation, collaboration etc. are not encouraged and rewarded, or where organization’s structure is competitive and individualistic with rigid hierarchy etc. the technology will be unlikely to facilitate collective use and value. Therefore wherever there are few incentives or norms for cooperating or sharing expertise, groupware technology alone cannot make much difference. Conversely, where the structural properties do support shared effort, cooperation, and collaboration, it is likely that the technology will be used collaboratively, that is, it will be another medium within which those values and norms are expressed. Recognizing the significant influence of these organizational elements is critical to groupware developers, users, and researchers (Orlikowski, 1992). To understand how to use the techniques discussed above, it will be better to take up a similar case and study it in full detail.

Case Study

This chapter will discuss case studies on the sated topic. One of these case studies deals with Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) and its deployment. SOA is a way to increase usability of systems. Service-Oriented Architecture smooths the progress and the work of the services as well as the conversion of power. Worldwide, many industries cover changes of basic IT services on the perception as well as the realization of orientated services. A couple of the main technologies used are the Extensible Markup Languages (XML), SOA and other web services. Retailers have implemented the standard of SOA growth purely based on what is seen on website pages. Some of the advantages are:

-Reuse: The ability to create services that are reusable in many applications

-Efficiency: The ability to create new services and applications with using a combination of new and old services quick and easy

-Loose technology coupling: The ability to model services independently of their execution environment and create messages that can be sent to any services.

-Division of responsibility: The ability to allow businessmen to concentrate on business problems, technical people to concentrate on technology issues, and for both groups to collaborate using the services contract. (Newcomer et. al., 2005)

Many variations are used when creating a service and an object. With the service, it is much larger and will switches communications with others types of services. Services are distinctive at elevated levels of pensiveness than an object would be due to the fact that it is achievable to diagram service characterizations on procedure-oriented programs such as “COBOL or PL/I, or to a message queuing system such as JMS or MSMQ, as well as to an object-oriented system such as J2EE or the .NET Framework (Newcomer et al. 2005).

Services are required to be classified as a usable crossing point which can allow additional date and data power for the object. Services that would require the use of this ability would be banks. SOA focuses mainly on business matters or other areas that pertain to marketing. It can respond at a faster rate, especially if it needs to happen right away, like sudden changes in the market. SOA has a characteristic linking it to having the ability to mix and match. Its design structure is crucial in directing all areas of performing and via business. It describes and provides the IT infrastructure in consenting to various applications to trade information and contribute in everyday commerce developments, in spite of the operating systems used or the encoding languages fundamental to those applications. As an IT approaching factor, an SOA is thought to be a tool which provides useful business services with upgraded key organization and helps to align the needs of that business.

Web services also provide a set of universal principles for various types of software. Take XML for instance, this tool is often used for defining a variety of date configurations and types. This is fairly easy to use and is free from platforms. The simplistic architecture for using this is UDDI (the registry) that is situated amid the requester and the WSDL (the provider) as well as SOAP being between them acting as the communicator. Also to be included is a case study on the subject of information tools and framework of use which for the most part will center on the amalgamation and how technology may play a significant part to escalating usability of systems in businesses. The case study concerning Kling & Iacono was based upon the significance and utilizing of the MRP system as a measurement of a line of attack to keep control, as this is imported by those in charge. This without a doubt stands for the use of interpretive methods in shifting governmental organization and mounting (scaling) usability of technology within any given organization. It was acknowledged in this particular study that collective processes executed by people such as developers and managers, create, utilize and/or revise such systems and its main properties of information. The relations between each user and the core developers can at times rely upon the joint system that provides the communication for each, and scale them to meet their needs. Orlikowski presented her case, as an outline which was accepted to demonstrate the improvement of case tools. It was interpreted as a kind of cook book for developers due to develop their systems. This cook book provided the rules around which computer procedures of the case tools were constructed. (Orlikowski et al 1991).

Discussion and Conclusion 

Usability addresses the relationship between tools and their users. In order for a tool to be effective, it must allow intended users to accomplish their tasks in the best way possible. The same principle applies to computers, websites, and other software. In order for these systems to work, their users must be able to employ them effectively. The key principle for maximizing usability is to employ iterative design, which progressively refines the design through evaluation from the early stages of design. The evaluation steps enable the designers and developers to incorporate user and client feedback until the system reaches an acceptable level of usability. Jakob Nielsen (2003) is an expert who did some evaluations. He helped intranet designers improve and scale up usability of their designs by giving them the results of usability testing of 14 different intranets: 10 in different cities in the U.S., three in London, England, and one in Hong Kong, China!

Usability depends on a number of factors including how well the functionality fits user needs, how well the flow through the application fits user tasks, and how well the response of the application fits user expectations. We can learn to be better user interface designers by learning design principles and design guidelines. But even the most insightful designer can only create a highly-usable system through a process that involves getting information from people who actually use the system. The case study discussed in the previous chapter allows us to interpret and learn so that the usability factor becomes easier to construct and manage, allowing each user to function more easily and at a faster rate than previous. These studies pertain to usability by way of giving basic instructions on how to perform better, allowing each and every person to integrate themselves on functioning within their given organization with newer and faster service tools such as XML and keeping a strong hold on control issues by using the MRP system. By diversifying themselves and being open to using new programs and/or services, each organization can then focus on producing faster times in communication and data performance. The strategy to scale up usability is very much dependent on the uniqueness of situation. While implementing a public information access system, we need to focus mainly on the user’s needs. There are only two stakeholders generally the organization disseminating information and the users who can use information for their benefit. On the other hand while implementing a groupware in a corporate environment the designer faces a tougher challenge.

This is because usability becomes multi-dimensional in such a set-up. The usability of groupware to employees and users is one issue, the usability of products and a system as a whole can be increased by the implementation of groupware which is a broader second issue. Stakeholders involved here are numerous and generally there is a complex relationship between stakeholders in corporation. Stakeholders may include the following: customers, R&D, HR, Finance and product development departments and the Shareholders. Each group has an interest and usability for the organization as a whole which needs to be scaled up by proper implementation of groupware. The challenge is obviously greater. Moreover usability of groupware is to be taken care of as well.

Three crucial functions may be performed due to scale up the usability of groupware for an organization. First, it should help in getting feedback from the users of products and services of the firm send them to the product development team, facilitate discussion among the group members and users. This will give deeper insight to the product development team to acknowledge consumers need. The second aspect is to facilitate the communication between shareholders and top brass of the organization which will help in making decision process democratically. Every shareholder will feel attached to the organization and as a result the longevity of organization will be ensured. A third objective would be to preserve historical information on which the firm can base product introduction or withdrawal decisions and fine tune its marketing strategy from time to time.

There are several challenges. One of them is that to integrate the existing system into a centralized one without letting the whole system fragment away. The success of groupware is also tied somewhat to the group awareness. People should know whom they are working with and what their roles are. Group awareness comes naturally when team members work face to face but in remote systems it is often hard to implement. The groupware only cannot ensure better usability. Organizational attributes have to be considered too. Employees’ perception about the new technology and organizations perception about group working is very important in ensuring that groupware work properly.

After analyzing the case studies, we can confidently acknowledge the fact that to get an increased usability for a groupware; we cannot implement a generalized system. We need to consider the unique features of the situation and then decide what factors may affect the usability of groupware. We need to focus on why the system is needed in the first place. Very often groupware implementation challenges the authority of the manager or tends to upset the political and social settings of the organization. This should be avoided at any cost. When the distribution of workload for running the system is not fair enough, success of groupware cannot be guaranteed. Too much freedom to individuals on the contrary may also harm the interests of the organization. We can have several groupware for each application. The design will be easier. All these can be integrated into a centralized system later on for better usability of the system and least conflict of interests.

In conclusion and upon closer evaluation, it is fair to say that not only will an organization lose focus and interest if such a thing a groupware is utilized without safely conducting testing on the system, then all the effort and workload will not be conducive to bettering the business. This will in the end, lead to a lesser success rate than originally predicted, and the organization will face many challenges. For future success for an organization, constant control must be maintained, while at the same time, increasing usability with new technologies can only help to improve an already satisfactory system. Proper maintenance and upgrades will help to ensure faster communication and data transfers.


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