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Switching Between Tools in Complex Applications

Will Schroeder

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 3, Issue 4, August 2008, pp. 173-188

Article Contents


User-Centered Design for tool switching is a big topic, and we're just beginning to work out a technique for gathering, examining, and evaluating data. A study of users moving from tool to tool (and the design changes intended to improve it) will not fit easily into a usability practitioner's normal practice. This work generates large amounts of data that the practitioner has little time to analyze or reduce. Tool switching appears in time patterns that the facilitator is too close to the process to observe. Critical tool changes (those that merit immediate analysis) can't always be identified at the moment they happen, and when they are identified, retrospective analysis (of a recording) is necessary to evaluate them. To improve design in this area, new techniques based on an understanding of the problems tool switching gives users are needed.

Conventional usability practice is organized around tasks, because a task framework supports observation, testing, and measurement. Work is sectioned into testable units that are concrete steps with quantifiable goals. This tacitly assumes that chaining the right steps in the proper order adequately models how work is actually done. In fact, only simple and repetitive work can be reduced to such a step-by-step model. The production line model is not adequate for complex or creative work. These are not production tasks. When starting them, users have only the most general idea what the workflow will be or which tools they will bring to bear on the work.

Individual tools in Visual Studio, Photoshop, and Word (toolkits) may work well on their own, but not in concert or in sequence. The following inefficiencies arise when users move between tools:

Tool switching is the task of choosing and changing from one tool to another. Tool switching work is not productive-it does not alter the product. Users switch to increase productivity by applying whatever is, at the time, the most productive tool. But gains from using the new tool must offset losses from the work of switching.

Switching between tools adds users' responsibilities to the production-line, step-by-step task model: monitoring task progress, deciding when to change tools, and choosing the best next tool. The usability of complex software toolkits includes users successfully applying these functions as well as usable individual tools and planned workflows. Proficient toolkit users apply tools in different ways, with different frequency, in a different sequence, at different times. Some must be better than others. Their switching patterns should be reinforced with appropriate improvements in design.

Usability and productivity of software toolkits peak when users switch to the right tool at the right time, every time and steadily focus on the work, not the tools.

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