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An international peer-reviewed journal

New Frontiers in Usability for Users' Complex Knowledge Work

Barbara Mirel

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 3, Issue 4, August 2008, pp. 149-151

Article Contents


In the first article, "Creating Effective Decision Aids for Complex Tasks" Caroline Hayes and Farnaz Akhavi look at complex work at an activity level. Examining the activity of engineering design, they analyze choices and choice processes in decision making that designers perform when they winnow down large numbers of possible competing design options to just a few best alternatives.

As a classic optimizing task, it would seem that designers should welcome help from deterministic or fuzzy mathematical decision-making models. Yet results of the authors' studies reveal otherwise. Hayes and Akhavi explain the effects of optimizing models on the quality of users' design choices, designers' naturalistic uses of them, and the misfit between these models (formalistic tools) and designers' actual practices.

In their conclusions, Hayes and Akhavi speculate about strategies for incorporating formalistic tools into people's complex decision making in ways that are sensitive to people's varying levels of expertise, tasks, and core practices of decisions-in-the-making. One core practice, for example, is decision makers' common process of moving recursively between information seeking and making comparative judgments about alternatives they are considering.

In "Switching Between Tools in Complex Applications," Will Schroeder looks at complex tasks and decisions at a lower scale. He focuses on choices users make when switching from one tool to another in a complex software application. A better understanding of switching, Schroeder urges, can lead to improved designs of complex applications (toolkits) so that users can interact more efficiently and effectively with different components and tools.

In Schroeder's study, "tools" are not different applications but rather various graphical user interfaces or windows in the MATLABŪ environment (e.g., different GUIs for programming, working with graphics, working with matrices and arrays, or viewing documentation and help). Users performed two predefined tasks. In examining the results, Schroeder compares users' switches in tools, and is able to make and interpret these comparisons across cases because of novel visualizations that he created to display usage log data over time. In addition to these comparisons, Schroeder correlates switches, quality of outcomes, and expertise.

Schroeder finds that scattered, frequent switches from tool to tool (including documentation) are associated with high task completion, high degrees of expertise, and high user satisfaction. His findings lead to such questions as the following:

Finally in "Unexpected Complexity in a Traditional Usability Study," Tharon Howard looks at tasks at a fine scale. He gathers and analyzes data on people looking up grammatical choices and bibliographic formats in handbooks and applying them correctly to texts. Howard's study shows that one of the "grey areas" making complex tasks complex is a user's need to make choices when "usage" leaves many options open. Here "usage" relates to language but broadly speaking it is convention and context.

Howard recounts the ways in which usability testing, when it is designed to detect complexity in tasks, can prompt clients to reconceive prior notions of formulaic user tasks and redesign products accordingly. One important redesign involves enhancing information seeking through visual communications and scenario based presentations of information. Howard stresses, however, that these techniques must selectively guide attention based on users' purposes and communities of practice.

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