Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Ultimate Form of User Control is Knowing That You Can

As a consultant you have to deal and cope with ambiguity. When it comes to end-users of software and web applications and the technology itself, there always seems to be this cloud of mystery that surrounds the project. There are always more questions than there are answers when trying to figure out what an end-user wants or needs out of a product. One of those questions is how much control should given to the end-user.

A colleague in the Boise area, Kevin Donaldson of Kinetic Shift, wrote an interesting post last week about user control balanced with user capability and his experience with this dilemma. Giving users control is never a bad thing. When it comes to this question there really is no right or wrong answer. The thing to remember about user control is Bailey's Human Performance Model, which I discussed a couple weeks ago. Based on the person, their job or task at hand, and the context (i.e. - environment or conditions) in which they will be using the product, you can likely determine how much control the user should have.

I often think of many features and functions in software and web applications as "nice to have", but not vital or necessary. When I use an application to create a graphic, for example, I go in, create what I need and be done with it. The context of my work is pretty straight forward. Most of the stuff I create is rather two-dimensional, not a lot of colors and needs little or no enhancements. The total features and functions I used in the graphics application were very minimal. I do know that the application I use is very capable of creating eye-popping effects through the hundreds of filters and add-ons I can use, but for the most part they go untouched.

Kind of a waste if you think about it. I probably spent far too much money on an application that does more than what I really need it to do.

Developers of software and web applications do not have the luxury of creating different flavors of their products to appeal to the many different needs and tastes they are likely to encounter. I'm sure if there were a "lite" version of the graphics application I use I probably would have bought it. In general, what is created is usually one product for the audience that is in the middle of the standard bell curve. All of the features and functions are there, but only a fraction will be used. In other words, most will see them as "nice to have" and comfortable that the features are there if they ever need them.

This brings me to a vision I would like to see realized in the world of personal computing somewhere in the near future. Wouldn't it be great if all the applications we used learned about our individual needs as we used them and only presented the features and functions we needed? As our learning curve grows and our needs change, necessary features stay while lesser features fade away and new ones emerge. We are guided, taught and provided feedback on how to use the features as they relate to our tasks. As soon as we are proficient the learning support fades away and we are left to focus on what is important to us, using the application to complete our tasks.

If you look around there are applications on the market today that doing such things. The main idea I want to get across is control walks a very fine line between being useful to the end-user and out right noise. More control is never a bad thing, but too much can create confusion. Even though a typical end-user's needs and motivations behind their actions as it relates to a technology product can be clouded in ambiguity, one thing for sure is they will do whatever it takes to block out the "noise" on focus in on the controlling functions that are important to them.

No comments: