Harmony Between Man and Machine

When users spend a lot of time searching the computer screen because they can’t find their way around their programs, their work ends up taking too long and they become frustrated. This leads to reduced productivity and an overworked IT support service. The only way to deal with this is to spend more on training. Ergonomic software design with User Interface Design (UID) can help prevent these problems right from the outset. According to Mummert Consulting AG, this would save at least Euro 190 million per year in Germany alone.
The manufacturers of tools such as milling machines or lathes have been aware of the value of designing their products ergonomically for almost 25 years. In partnership with industrial designers, they develop user-friendly machines which ensure not only a high level of safety but also high quality and productivity.
This approach is becoming more and more common in the software development sector too. The reason for this is that software – no matter how technically advanced – becomes a problem when the user finds it hard to work with. While providers of standard software are already putting this knowledge into practice, developers of customized solutions are lagging behind. At the development stage, the main focus is often the functionality of the program. Interface and user-friendliness tend to take a back seat, not least because the company or department commissioning the software has neither expressed any definite requirements regarding this nor budgeted for it.

Software ergonomics – a subject that concerns all industries and user interfaces

User Interface Design is concerned with the interfaces between the software and the user. Software interfaces should be ergonomically designed so that they not only fulfil the technical requirements of the user but also actively support him in his work.
User Interface Design is not limited to “classic” interfaces like client/server software and websites. UID-specific aspects can be usefully incorporated in the development of all “man-machine interfaces”. It does not matter what industry the software is being developed for – the basic principles of UID apply universally. The technical architecture is secondary. UID can be used on a wide range of different platforms and devices:

  • Java-, C++ clients (thin clients, client/server application)
  • Browser-supported user interfaces (Internet, intranet, extranet)
  • Mobile clients (PDA, cellphones, web tablets)
  • Set-top boxes for Internet access via the television set.

The significance of the information hierarchy

Knowledge of communication theory and established interface standards (GUI standards, style guides) plays an important role in User Interface Design. At the heart of this lies the question of how to organize the information and structure it hierarchically, and not what color or form a button or a selection function should take. The information architecture (Architecture Design) is structured according to the specialist business processes. This ensures intuitive navigation. Combine this clear structure with ergonomic presentation of information (Screen Design) and innovative navigation, e.g. via an integrated, context-sensitive online help, and you have a system that is user-friendly even to new or novice users such as those at an online shop. It is therefore essential to involve future users in the development of software at an early stage. It is also an advantage if software designed in this way is visually appealing.

The intermediary role of the User Interface Designer

User Interface Design covers Architecture Design, Screen Design, Prototyping and Consulting. The Architecture Design component consisting of information hierarchy, application structure and navigation concept, describes how the user moves within the application/website. It is invisible but indispensable for finding the required information quickly. The Screen Design component designs the individual masks used for inputting and displaying the information. In terms of layout, color and chosen wording, it is influenced by the corporate identity and corporate design.
The Prototyping component gives the user the opportunity to test the UI concept in practice. A prototype helps him to identify quickly whether the User Interface meets his requirements. Coordinating the technical requirements with development is the role of the mediation element of the Consulting component. In this case the UI Designer acts as a mediator between the two sides and helps to prevent misunderstandings. Customized guidelines (Style Guides) that support the interface development are also created as part of the Consulting component. Analysis of existing applications (Expert Review) lays the foundations for successful follow-up projects. Usability tests are based on prototyping and add further detail to its results.

Arguments for budget-management personnel

The aim of User Interface Design is to design the software interfaces so that users can concentrate on their work and not spend their time finding out how to use the computer. Greater job satisfaction and less stress for employees are very good reasons in themselves for choosing User Interface Design. However, there are also other advantages that are primarily of interest to budget-management personnel:

  • Training expenditure reduced by 25 percent.
  • Up to 25 percent reduction in User Help Desk/Service Desk workload possible.
  • Productivity of employees increases because intuitive software enables them to concentrate on their work.
  • Increased sales: For example, the faster the user is able to find and acquire the required products in a web shop, the greater the likelihood that he will buy them.
  • Increased customer loyalty in the B2C and B2B sectors: Satisfaction with the services offered and their presentation minimizes customer fluctuation. On the web in particular, the competitor is just a mouse click away.
  • Increased Return on Investment (ROI): Investments in new software pay for themselves more quickly.
  • Legal security with regard to ISO 9241-10:1996 guideline – Ergonomic requirements for office work with visual display terminals (VDTs), basic principles of dialog design. This point has generally been neglected up till now. However, because in many companies the influence of works councils on the introduction and choice of corporate software is increasing, the importance of this aspect is growing.
Sample calculation – training costs
Sample calculation – training costs

Training costs can be used as a concrete example to demonstrate the financial advantages of ergonomically designed software. If the training time can be reduced from five days to four as a result of intuitive interface design, for 20,000 users this saves 20,000 training days or in other words, 20 percent of the cost. Looked at from a business management point of view, a company that has average personnel costs of Euro 300 per day would save Euro 5.8 million. This example shows that User Interface Design is worthwhile even for software with few users – and that’s just in terms of the training costs. User Interface Design is not a luxury, it’s a means of protecting your investment.

Bernd Lohmeyer
Bernd Lohmeyer