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Michelle Reports from Washington, DC
1995, August (March 04, 2007)
by Michelle Corbin

This is the second in a series of reports Michelle Corbin Nichols filed on her experience at the 1995 STC Annual Conference.

Presenters: Tracey Chiricosta and Alice Jones

Tracey Chiricosta (of KBM Group) and Alice Jones (of Micrfo Dynamics Ltd) presented a workshop on designing effective user interfaces.

Thinking I could use the information to review my own software products user interfaces, I found that much of the information could apply to the online help systems I create for that product. The following is a quick summary of the key points from this technical session:
  1. While task analysis is a standard part of a documentation project, it should also be a standard part of a user interface design project. However, it is not enough to list the tasks. You must analyze tasks and determine which are critical, that is, the ones users do most often. Frequently performed tasks must be more carefully designed and documented.
  2. Typically, the amount of control a user interface gives a user is directly proportional to the knowledge required to use that interface. For example, a command-line interface, such as DOS, provides detailed control of the system but requires the user to remember any needed commands. On the other hand, a higher level, graphical interface, such as Microsoft Windows, shields the user from having to know as much of the inner workings, but provides less direct, detailed system control.
  3. When designing a screen (dialog or window), the designer must reduce the visual load (demands on the user), direct the users attention appropriately, and reduce clutter asmuch as possible. The visual load includes where the eyes must move to gather the necessary information. By using standard layouts and directing the eyes to a certain location on the screen, the designer creates a more effective user interface. Good screen design also helps reduce memory load.
Included in their process for designing an effective user interface, Tracey and Alice discussed the use of color and graphics, the design of error messages and feedback to the user, as well as iterative testing of the user interface. We must remember that as we create our online help systems, we are creating user interfaces, and vice versa. We must work together with user interface designers to create a online help systems that compliment the user interfaces. End of article.

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