Friday Sep 21, 2007

Journeys in Design

Andrea Kendall has been a Graphics and User Interface programmer and designer for over 20 years. She is passionate about designing for the user, and is currently leading the Sun B2B Platform Dashboard in the SOA/Business Integration Composite Applications group.

Designing a Business To Business Dashboard

My team and I have been on a journey to design a “Business-to-Business” dashboard. Like any traveler going on a journey, I didn't go alone. This project required a team of international programmers, our director, the Software Experience Design (xDesign) Group and, most importantly, our customers.

What is B2B?

Business-to-Business is “the exchange of information to support commerce”. This is a world that requires businesses to send standardized information. It's a world that allows a doctor to look up information about a patient or allows a factory to get the best price on steel from its partners. It's a world that spans large businesses and small mom-and-pop shops that want to do business together.

Identifying the Users

The first and most important step was to identify our users: the people who the dashboard had to serve by supporting their tasks and making their lives easier.

  • Business users
    • Dollars and cents — cut waste and increase profits.
    • Who is costing us more/less and why?
  • Operations users
    • Make sure the end-to-end system is up and running correctly.
    • View alerts about something that was expected to happen but did not. For example, "Purchase order 99587 has not finished processing".
  • Business-to-business centric users
    • Track transaction status for standard messages
    • Drill down to lowest level of a message and show:
      • The Message Hierarchy
      • Errors
      • The actual data sent
    • Resubmit messages back to the system after correcting errors
    • View audit information

Designing for the Web

I had sent off some of our best technical minds to explore what options we had for creating the Web application. This exploration brought into sharp focus that design a Web application is very different than designing a desktop application. It was like the difference between working with bronze or clay: you can create works of wonder using each material but you can not expect the materials to respond in the same ways. Using Swing to create a desktop application was like working with clay: very flexible with a rich set of widgets. Working on the Web was like working in bronze, more restrictive.

However, the rewards for working on the Web were also richer. One reward is that the Web is more available to users than a desktop. Our hectic business user would have access to statistics about his enterprise even while on an important trip. Our brilliant business-to-business-centric user would be able to communicate status about orders to our other users. Our crucial operations user would be able to ensure the smooth running of her business-to-business enterprise even at home. And best of all, they would all be using the same Web-based GUI.

Identifying Example Charts and Tables

Having read the requirements, our team knew that we could not possibly know every chart and table that would be needed to shown on our dashboard. What we did know is that we needed good examples that could be shown in a Web 2.0 application, and which contained data that each type of user would care about. Given these examples the customer could add their own charts and tables. Our team to came up with the charts and tables shown below.

Example charts for B2B Dashboard

 

Working on the Mock-Up

With the example charts in hand and an understanding of our development material (bronze), we started to tackle the next major task of designing the user interface. Working with Sun's Software Experience Design (xDesign) group was key, especially given that we had to create a way to allow our users to explore their data. This would require that we invent a way to show a hierarchical structure where a node can have thousands of children — a paginated tree. These experts quickly created screen designs and acted as much-needed guides on the path to creating a mock-up that we could show to users.

Message Structure

As of this writing we are exploring several other looks for this widget by creating a working prototype. However, ultimately we may follow one of my rules of thumb, ‘ when in doubt let the user decide what works for them ’.

Not the Final Destination, But a Good Stopping Point

At the end of this part of the design journey, we had several things to show for our efforts. The mock-up and some running code. We were able to see how the mock-up fulfilled the needs of our users and knew we were at a good stopping point.

  • The business user could find out how much money was sent/received.
  • The operations user could monitor the health of the system and check key tasks.
  • The business-to-business-centric user could find the data they needed to track, fix it and send it back to an enterprise.

We are confident that the design work we have done will help us create the right application for our users, and that, after all, is the point of any journey in design.

Monday Aug 27, 2007

A Brief Review of Leonardo's Laptop

Janice Critchlow is a technical writer in the Software Information Products Group. She has been a valued member of the Software User Interface Review Board (UIRB) for many years.

Picture of book cover Imagine a change in the way that we think about and design technology -- a change comparable to those that Leonardo DaVinci influenced in the arts and sciences in the 15th Century. That is the premise of Leonardo's Laptop: Human Needs and the New Computing Technologies, authored by Ben Shneiderman. It's not exactly a book that asks What would Leonardo do? but more a call to action for computer user experience to undergo something of a Renaissance.

Ben starts by reviewing some history related to Leonard DaVinci and computer experiences. Among other things, he cites several instances in which poor user interface design causes more than just inefficient work, but actually causes injury. He talks about how developments in technology relate to user experiences, and goes on to suggest that our technology-centric approach to user interface design should become more user-centric.

After defining the user-centered approach to design, Ben examines the user experience in several segments of our worldview in detail: education, commerce, medicine, and politics. For each segment, he suggests how changing the way that we experience technology could significantly improve our lives.

From my perspective as an information designer, two key concepts jumped out at me. The first was Ben's assertion that a "user interface" encompasses much more than just the look-and-feel of an application and that we need to consider this expanded definition when designing our products. Specifically, he mentions the importance of items such as:

  • Documentation
  • Quality assurance
  • Simplicity
  • Good error handling built into the product
  • Testing

The second major concept was a discussion about getting users to know what they need to know ("bridging the gap"). Ben talks about the different ways that people learn and a variety of techniques that we can use to enhance that learning. Some techniques are within the product interfaces themselves, while others fit into the more traditional "training" space.

References to Leonardo DaVinci's life and works are scattered throughout the discussion, which make for an engaging, although somewhat esoteric, read.

If you're looking for a book about technology, history, and user experience that makes you think, this is an excellent choice. If you're looking for a "formula" to solve all user experience problems, this book is not the answer. In fact, my interpretation of Ben's writing is that there is no simple formula to solve all user experience design problems. Instead, we need to use an approach that considers the users' needs before all else as we mesh technology, sociology, psychology, and art.

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