IT staffers gaining usability

When it comes to designing software for IT managers, developers have tended to favour function over form. With today’s IT managers being ask to do more with less, however, designing for usabilility is becoming a trend in the enterprise software space.

At the former Veritas offices in Mountain View, Calif., Symantec engineers work on developing the next generation of the company’s line of data centre management software. But in addition to the development labs and racks of every imaginable server box for interoperability testing are the usability labs.

In much the same way marketers focus-test movies or other new products, Symantec’s usability specialists bring in third-party users to put the company’s products through their paces. The users of our products are intermittent users… ease of use is important.-MohagergText

Michael Mohagerg, director of user-centred design with Symantec, said when designing for the enterprise market usability has often been an afterthought, but that’s changing. IT managers are no longer dedicated to a specific narrow job area, but are now asked to be IT generalists.

“We’re seeing the users of our products are intermittent users,” said Mohagerg. “They move in and out and so ease of use and time to learn is important.”

In Symantec’s usability testing lab a bank of computers is set up around a conference table for focus group participants. As they test a software application their screen actions are recorded, with a camera trained on their faces to capture facial expressions.

Another specialized camera tracks eye movements. A user might be asked to find a specific function on the screen, such as the help menu. The camera follows their eye movements across the screen as they try to find it. Correlated with the results of many users, developers can see where most users expect to find certain functions, and consider relocating them.

Mohagerg said enterprise software is becoming a lot more visual, with graphical user interfaces (GUIs) becoming favoured over command line interfaces (CLIs). He cautions though that Symantec’s goal isn’t to eliminate the CLI, but rather find the right interface for the right task. He said exception-based reporting is also increasingly favoured. IT staffers now prefer to manage their specific tasks, rather than individual servers, for example.

It’s a similar story for Sage Software, developers of the Simply Accounting line. Scott Zandbcrgen, director of product management, in Sage’s Richmond, B.C. office, said the company has six people on its research and development team focused exclusively on user-centred design.

Each year, new versions of Simply Accounting are released and it’s this team’s task to find the pain points.

“You’re watching, being silent, finding what areas of the software they’re stopping and pausing on, maybe moving their mouse around the screen a lot trying to figure out what to do next,” said Zandbcrgen.

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