Wednesday Nov 16, 2011

Where Have All the Ugly Forms Gone? Users and ADF Took Care Of It

Sometimes I hear that our application demos are a bit too "cutsey" and that we never talk about with any user roles that have lots of data entry as a requirement. Some (no names) consider those old clunker forms, with the myriad rows of fields, to be super-productive for data clerks.

We do have such roles covered in Oracle Fusion Applications for sure. But consider what is really the issue here: productivity. Check out how the Oracle Fusion Financials Applications User Experience team went about designing for productivity when receiving and entering invoice data, for example. See how Fusion Financials caters so well for input and control of data? Central to all this is knowing the users and how they work: what tasks do they need to perform, and when. Read more about Fusion Financials productivity in the white paper, Get It Done Fast, Get It Done Right: The Oracle Fusion Financials User Experience.

Now and then, I see forms that weren't designed for end user activity at all. Instead, they were designed by developers or by the IT department around the database schema. Forms with literally dozens of fields on the same page, sometimes. Forms that give the impression there was only task involved, when there may have been several. At times, completing one of these huge forms accurately became so tedious that, under pressure, it made more sense for the user to complete it quickly as possible and then let somebody else check it for accuracy and fill in the gaps from data emailed along in spreadsheet form. Data accuracy is critical in our business. Not good. Not efficient. Not productive.

So here are a few basics on forms design for data entry-type user roles. A great place for developers to start exploring what is possible with forms layout is the Rich Client User Interface (RCUI) guidance on Form Layout, using ADF components.

JDeveloper Form Design View


User-Centered Forms Design Considerations


The starting point--something you must always keep in mind with your own design--is design for the end user. Find a representative end user, and keep that user engaged throughout the design, deployment, and test process. Consider these points in user testing those forms:


  • Are there automated or technical solutions to entering the data that avoid manual input in the first place? For example, imports, uploads, OCR, whatever. Some day we will be able to tell Siri to do it, but leave that for now.
  • Design your form to reflect the task involved (i.e., the business process) and not the database schema.
  • On the form, group like fields together, logically.
  • Eliminate duplicate data entry or prepopulate from previous data entry.
  • Allow users to complete fields in the order they wish (i.e., no interdependency).
  • Allow for tabbing between fields (keyboard is faster than mouse), so know how the browser supports this (see that RCUX guideline).
  • Allow for final validation at the page level not at field-level entry. Way better for heads-down users. For example, ADF messages allow you to see a list of all validation errors on a page on a final submit or navigation action and to easily navigate to the point of error.
  • Better still, be error tolerant. Allow users to enter data in formats they comfortable with. Bind any relevant user preference setting to the input format allowed (for example, the locale date format). Explore what data entry conversion can do for you automatically too (see the ADF converter demos, convenience patterns can also be written).
  • Only ask for data input when it's needed. Get rid of, or hide optional fields.
  • Cut down on the number of mandatory fields, and mark them clearly (use a *).
  • Clearly label the fields in plain language.

I am sure you may have a few more tips on forms design for data entry users. Remember the user before finding the comments.

Tuesday Nov 15, 2011

Games at Work Part 1: Introduction to Gamification and Applications

Games Are Everywhere

How many of you (will admit to) remember playing Pong? OK then, do you play Angry Birds on your phone during work hours? Thought about why we keep playing online, video, and mobile games and what this "gamification" business we're hearing about means for the enterprise applications user experience?

Pong, image available as WikiMedia Commons

In Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, Jane McGonigal says that playing computer and online games now provides more rewards for people than their real lives do. Games offer intrinsic rewards and happiness to the players as they pursue more satisfying work and the success, social connection, and meaning that goes with it.

Yep, Gran Turismo, Dungeons & Dragons, Guitar Hero, Mario Kart, Wii Boxing, and the rest are all forms of work it seems. Games are, in fact, work taken so seriously that governments now move to limit the impact of virtual gaming currencies on the real financial system.

Anyone who spends hours harvesting crops on FarmVille realizes it’s hard work too. Yet games evoke a positive emotion in players who voluntarily stay engaged with games for hours, day after day. Some 183 million active gamers in the United States play on average 13 hours per week. Weekly, 5 million of those gamers play for longer than a working week (45 hours). So why not harness the work put into games to solve real-world problems? Or, in the case of our applications users, real-world work problems?

What’s a Game?

Jane explains that all games have four defining traits: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation. We need to look at what motivational ideas behind the dynamics of the game—what we call gamification—are appropriate for our users. Typically, these motivators are achievement, altruism, competition, reward, self-expression, and status). Common game techniques for leveraging these motivations include:


  • Badging and avatars
  • Points and awards
  • Leader boards
  • Progress charts
  • Virtual currencies or goods
  • Gifting and giving
  • Challenges and quests

Some technology commentators argue for a game layer on top of everything, but this layer is already part of our daily lives in many instances.

OTN Discussion Forums: E-Business Suite leader board

We see gamification working around us already: the badging and kudos offered on My Oracle Support or other Oracle community forums, becoming a Dragon Slayer implementor of Atlassian applications, being made duke of your favorite coffee shop on Yelp, sharing your workout details with Nike+, or donating to Japanese earthquake relief through FarmVille, for example.

And what does all this mean for the applications that you use in your work? Read on in part two...

Tuesday Nov 08, 2011

Fusion Applications UX at Danish Oracle User Group

3 November 2011: Danish Oracle User Group (DOUG) event at Oracle Danmark's Ballerup offices. Explained the Applications User Experience (UX) team’s user research, design and testing that have brought to life a new standard in enterprise apps user experience. Used the Fusion User Experience Advocates (FXA) demo, and talked through the action shown.

Oracle Fusion Applications user interface

Very positive reaction from an engaged audience, perceptive questions asked, and enthusiastic feedback about the Fusion Apps killer decision-making ease, streamlined navigation, collaboration capability, embedded intelligence, state of the art visualizations, extensibility capability and deployment options. Great anticipation by the DOUG folks to see more of the product, too.

Ultan O'Broin talking at DOUG about the New Standard in User Experience: Fusion Applications

Picture: Rikke Christiansen

DOUG and other Nordic events are on our radar now, so looking for more opportunities to show and tell the Fusion Apps UX story and get more user feedback and participation going in EMEA and other regions.

First time in Denmark. Loved the place and moved around with ease, again with Google Maps on the iPhone. Public transport and connectivity to die for, multilingual society, ECCO, LEGO, Jakob Nielsen, an eye for cutting edge design (so Fusion Apps fits in well there), SAS SMS and QR code checkin for flights; it's all happening there. I'll be back.

Google Maps route to Ballerup

Thank you DOUG and Oracle Danmark.

Don't forget to check out the great set of white papers about the Oracle Fusion Applications UX, now available.

Monday Sep 19, 2011

Squirting is a Software Experience? Mind Your Language, Please

The language used in an application's user interface (UI) is a critical aspect of the user experience (UX), bit one often overlook. Des Traynor (@destraynor) brought this importance artfully to life at Refresh Dublin in his presentation on the Language of Interfaces. Well worth checking out, Des emphasized how language choice determines user action and engagement, with the simple choice of text for a button label or placeholder for status update making all the difference.

In Oracle Fusion Applications, for example, there's a big difference between the button labels Save, Submit, or Done, and the action that they imply to take on a page. Save implies an intermediate state during data object or process creation that the user will return to later before the task can be finalized. Submit is a final action, committing an object to the database or handing off a process, thus ending the task. Done is generally used to conclude the user review of a read-only page, closing it.

Save and Submit buttons together on a page


Google Wave's choice of Done however (as pointed out by Des) didn't help much with the puzzling concept of what anyone was expected to do with a wave to begin with. Language alone isn't going to save a rubbish UX.

Google Wave UI Done button


Des used some great examples from social media to as examples. Compare the language and action implied of the Facebook friend with the LinkedIn contact or the contact categorizations of Google+'s circles. Determining the action should shift from a third-person to first person paradigm led Facebook to change its status update text to What's on your mind? Twitter switched from What are you doing? to What's happening?

US English Twitter and Facebook status placeholder text

Not every natural language follows the English direction however. What's up with that? And, what about the challenges offered by crowdsourced language (as in the Dutch version of Twitter)? Facebook's community translation feature, as I pointed out before, is as much a user engagement strategy as a way of obtaining translated UIs (but not help) very quickly for the local market.

French and Dutch Twitter status placeholder text

French and German Facebook Status Placeholder Text

This choice of evolving or action-intended words can be a challenge for controlling the action globally. My old friend Frank Dietz in Multilingual magazine tells of the challenge of finding German translations for gaming concepts (buff, debuff, kiting, toon hop, and so on) for example, having to rely on transcreation, Denglisch, or the English term itself.


What the presentation didn't cover was how the language in the UI drives the creation of language around the intended action within the user community too. Unfriend, for example, appeared nowhere in the Facebook UI, but is a well-established word now. ReTweeting (or RTing) was a term and concept that came from the Twitter community, before it was codified. Personalization features that allow users to control the language or add their own are critical UX features too, particularly in the mobile space.

Apple iOS5 shortcut personalization feature

As for the choice of squirting to convey the sharing of music in Microsoft Zune (see Des's presentation), well, nobody over the age of five should be squirting anything at anybody, should they? What were they thinking? And yet,they're back with internet charms...


Find those comments...

Wednesday Jun 22, 2011

Brighton Rocks: UA Europe 2011

User Assistance Europe 2011 was held in Brighton, UK. Having seen Quadrophenia a dozen times, I just had to go along (OK, I wanted to talk about messages in enterprise applications). Sadly, it rained a lot, though that was still eminently more tolerable than being stuck home in Dublin during Bloomsday. So, here are my somewhat selective highlights and observations from the conference, massively skewed towards my own interests, as usual.

Enjoyed Leah Guren's (Cow TC) great start ‘keynote’ on the Cultural Dimensions of Software Help Usage. Starting out by revisiting Hofstede's and Hall's work on culture (how many times I have done this for Multilingual magazine?) and then Neilsen’s findings on age as an indicator of performance, Leah showed how it is the expertise of the user that user assistance (UA) needs to be designed for (especially for high-end users), with some considerations made for age, while the gender and culture of users are not major factors. Help also needs to be contextual and concise, embedded close to the action. That users are saying things like “If I want help on Office, I go to Google ” isn't all that profound at this stage, but it is always worth reiterating how search can be optimized to return better results for users. Interestingly, regardless of user education level, the issue of information quality--hinging on the lynchpin of terminology reflecting that of the user--is critical. Major takeaway for me there.

Matthew Ellison’s sessions on embedded help and demos were also impressive. Embedded help that is concise and contextual is definitely a powerful UX enabler, and I’m pleased to say that in Oracle Fusion Applications we have embraced the concept fully.

Help note on editable field, activated by user focus.

Matthew also mentioned in his session about successful software demos that the principle of modality with demos is a must. Look no further than Oracle User Productivity Kit demos See It!, Try It!, Know It, and Do It! modes, for example.

Oracle UPK Player Try It! Mode.

I also found some key takeaways in the presentation by Marie-Louise Flacke on notes and warnings. Here, legal considerations seemed to take precedence over providing any real information to users. I was delighted when Marie-Louise called out the Oracle JDeveloper documentation as an exemplar of how to use notes and instructions instead of trying to scare the bejaysus out of people and not providing them with any real information they’d find useful instead.

My own session on designing messages for enterprise applications was well attended. Knowing your user profiles (remember user expertise is the king maker for UA so write for each audience involved), how users really work, the required application business and UI rules, what the application technology exception handling framework does, and how messages integrate with the enterprise help desk and support policies will take you much further than relying solely on the guideline of "writing messages in plain language".

Leverage your message structure for all audiences, remembering tokens and context too.

Messages are customer support, so integrate them into the work environment and help desk policy.

And, remember the value in warnings and confirmation messages too, and how you can use them smartly. Messages are not just about errors.

Warnings and confirmation messages offer powerful user assistance, too.

I hope y’all got something from my presentation and from my answers to questions afterwards.

Ellis Pratt (Cherryleaf, a technical authoring company in the UK) stole the show with his presentation on applying game theory to software UA, using plenty of colorful, relevant examples (check out the Atlassian and DropBox approaches, for example), and striking just the right balance between theory and practice. Completely agree that the approach to take here is not to make UA itself a game, but to invoke UA as part of a bigger game dynamic (time-to-task completion, personal and communal goals, personal achievement and status, and so on). Sure there are gotchas and limitations to gamification, and we need to do more research. However, we'll hear a lot more about this subject in coming years, particularly in the enterprise space. I hope.

I also heard good things about the different sessions about DITA usage (including one by Sonja Fuga that clearly opens the door for major innovation in the community content space using WordPress), the progressive disclosure of information (Cerys Willoughby), an overview of controlled language (or "information quality", as I like to position it) solutions and rationale by Dave Gash, and others.

I also spent time chatting with Mike Hamilton of MadCap Software, who showed me a cool demo of their Flare product, and the Lingo translation solution. I liked the idea of their licensing model for workers-on-the-go; that’s smart UX-awareness in itself. Also chatted with Julian Murfitt of Mekon about uptake of DITA in the enterprise space.

In all, it's worth attending UA Europe. I was surprised, however, not to see conference topics about mobile UA, community conversation and content, and search in its own right. These are unstoppable forces now, and the latter is pretty central to providing assistance now to all but the most irredentist of hard-copy fetishists or advanced technical or functional users working away on the back end of applications and systems. Only saw one iPad too (says the guy who carries three laptops). Tweeting during the conference was pretty much nonexistent during the event, so no community energy there. Perhaps all this can be addressed next year. I would love to see the next UA Europe event come to Dublin (despite Bloomsday, it's not a bad place place, really) now that hotels are so cheap and all.

So, what is my overall impression of the state of user assistance in Europe? Clearly, there are still many people in the industry who feel there is something broken with the traditional forms of user assistance (particularly printed doc) and something needs to be done about it. I would suggest they move on and try and embrace change, instead.

Many others see new possibilities, offered by UX and technology, as well as the reality of online user behavior in an increasingly connected world and that is encouraging. Such thought leaders need to be listened to. As Ellis Pratt of Cherryleaf says in his great book, Trends in Technical Communication - Rethinking Help: “To stay relevant means taking a new perspective on the role (of technical writer), and delivering “products” over and above the traditional manual and online Help file... there are a number of new trends in this field - some complementary, some conflicting. Whatever trends emerge as the norm, it’s likely the status quo will change.” It already has, IMO.

I hear similar debates in the professional translation world about the onset of translation crowd sourcing (the Facebook model) and machine translation (trust me, that battle is over). Neither of these initiatives has put anyone out of a job and probably won't, though the nature of the work might change. If anything, such innovations have increased the overall need for professional translators as user expectations rise, new audiences emerge, and organizations need to collate and curate user-generated content, combining it with their own. Perhaps user assistance professionals can learn from other professions and grow accordingly.

Wednesday Mar 30, 2011

Apps-UX at the Aviva with OUG Ireland

I attended the Oracle User Group Ireland meet in Dublin today, invited by new OUG UK (and Ireland) chair  Debra Lilley. There was a jam-packed agenda with lots to interest the 200 attendees made up of Oracle partners, users, developers, and others.

aviva.jpg

Some Aviva attendees polishing their pitch.

I was particularly interested in the big picture-setting keyword by Oracle's Ireland country manager Paul O'Riordan (who had very positive things to say about Oracle apps UX too), and of course the sessions on applications, especially the demo of Oracle Fusion Applications that I knew Debra was going to give (Debra is a Fusion Apps UX Advocate). I was on hand to chat with attendees about how the Oracle Applications User Experience team (Apps-UX) team goes about its work. You can read more about that on the usableapps website. Suffice to say that Liam Nolan (apps development director in Ireland) did a smashing job talking about all the apps, how apps customers should deal with upgrade and maintenance issues, and introducing Oracle Fusion Applications.

Debra handled the Fusion Apps demo like a Eurovision winner - with great enthusiasm and a punchy delivery (no miming was allowed), really getting that UX message across. Afterwards, some of the attendees were interested in the UX process and what it meant for them as customers and partners. Design patterns were a hot topic, there was good insight into natural user interfaces (iPad, basically), and surprise, surprise, error messages were mentioned as something customers could use guidance on (they picked the right guy to turn up, then). Having Grant Ronald from ADF Product Management there helped complete the design to realization picture. In all, an accessible, value-add event with plenty of opportunity to network with smart people, acquire some new skills, share knowledge, and learn from the experience of others. Watch out for the next one in Ireland as it is well worth going to. How super to see the Irish flying the flag for Oracle in Europe, too. We can do it, y'know. Hashtag was #oug_ire11.

Tuesday Mar 29, 2011

Applications User Experience User Assistance at CHI 2011

Delighted to say team members Erika Webb, Ray Matsil, and Jeff Sauro have a case study on The Benefit Analysis of User Assistance Improvements  in CHI 2011. You can check out more details of this and the other Oracle contributions to CHI 2011 on the usableapps website.

Great job everyone!

About

Oracle applications user experience (UX) assistance. UX and development outreach of all sorts to the apps dev community, helping to design and deliver usable apps in the cloud.

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Ultan Ó Broin. Director, Global Applications User Experience, Oracle Corporation. On Twitter: @ultan

See my other Oracle blog about product globalization too: Not Lost in Translation

Interests: User experience (UX), user centered design, design patterns, tailoring, BYOD, dev relations, language quality, mobile apps, Oracle FMW and ADF, and a lot more.

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