upa - home page JUS - Journal of usability studies
An international peer-reviewed journal

Creating Effective Decision Aids for Complex Tasks

Caroline Clarke Hayes and Farnaz Akhavi

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 3, Issue 4, August 2008, pp. 152-172

Article Contents


The studies described above provide the beginning of an understanding of why product designers do not tend to use formal mathematical methods in their daily work, and what their actual needs are. However, many additional issues need to be explored in order to fully understand the situation, and how to best create human-centered design decision aids.

Future research questions

The following questions are specific examples that should be explored:

Product designers may be more willing to use decision aids if those decisions aids can be better designed to fit the way they actually work. For example, flexible interfaces that allow product designers to switch rapidly between activities such as comparison of alternatives, information seeking, and adding or subtracting criteria may better fit their observed practice of jumping back and forth between these activities. Additionally, information solicited from product designers by the decision aid must consider designers' willingness to find and enter the data and whether they can realistically obtain it in a timely and cost effective manner. For example, detailed statistical distributions describing cost and performance may not be readily obtainable for novel products, so it may not make sense to use a method that depends on highly accurate distributions. Finally, displays must be designed to present information in ways that facilitate understanding, integration, and navigation of product design information. For example, designers may want to "drill-down" into each of the alternatives to identify the major contributors to the uncertainty in that alternative's overall value.

Closing Thoughts

The contribution of this work is in identifying (a) the actual needs and constraints of designers when making design decisions in work contexts, (b) the ways in which two decision theoretic methods, when formulated as decision events, fail to meet those needs, and (c) a set of future research questions and directions to explore so that user-centered decision support tools can be developed that reflect the way in which designers work, and consider both the costs and benefits of such tools for users. We feel that the major challenges in developing such tools do not necessarily lie in development of new decision theoretic methods, but in gaining a better understanding of how designers work and apply human-centered design principles to existing methods so that they support practical human needs as they exist in the workplace.

Additionally, we would like to emphasize that human-centered design does not mean simply design of understandable displays, although displays certainly play an important role. Equally important, if not more important, is the choice of tasks to which methods are applied and the interactions supported by the tool. All should support the way in which designers understand information, and the processes by which they solve problems. Ideally, displays should be designed so they can be understood with relatively little training by presenting concepts in familiar ways or by using familiar metaphors.


Laboratory studies, protocol studies, and ethnographic observations suggest there is a mismatch between the classical decision theoretic paradigm that focuses on a highly structured decision event, and the way in which designers actually approach such problems. By paying more attention to human-computer interaction issues associated with MCDM approaches, it may be possible to create mathematically-based tools that designers will actually want to use because the tools respect the constraints and challenges of real design tasks and work environments. This work takes the first steps in that direction by providing a greater understanding of how designers approach decision making tasks, what their needs are, and in what ways traditionally applied MCDM approaches meet and do not meet those needs. Tools that designers are willing to use with frequency will have much greater impact on engineering design than those that mostly sit on the shelf gathering dust.

Previous | Next