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Book Contents

Ch. 5
Designing and Evaluating DSS User Interfaces

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User Interfaces: An Overview

Many Decision Support Systems users have limited computing expertise. Most of these users do NOT want to learn a command language interface like Structured Query Language (SQL) that may be used by an expert or by a more technically-oriented user. According to Bennett (1986), for a non-technical user the design of an appropriate DSS user interface is the most important determinant of the success of a decision support implementation. So what is a user interface?

A user interface is what managers see and use when they interact with a DSS. More specifically, a user interface is the set of menus, icons, commands, graphical display formats, and/or other representations that are provided by a software program to allow a user to communicate with and use the program. A graphical user interface (abbreviated GUI which is pronounced "goo ee") provides a user a more or less "picture-oriented" way to interact with computing technology. GUIs remain controversial. Many people argue a GUI is the most user-friendly interface to an information or Decision Support System. Some people disagree strongly with this conclusion. User-friendly is an evaluative term for a computerized system's user interface. It indicates that users judge the interface as easy to learn, understand, and use.

Also, a user interface refers to the hardware and software that creates communication and interaction between a DSS user and the computer processor. The user interface includes responses and involves an exchange of graphic, acoustic, tactile, and other signs. User interface research is a subset of a field called human-computer interaction (abbreviated HCI). HCI focuses on the study of people, computer technology, and the way each influences the other.

An effective user interface is important because data and graphics displayed on a computer workstation screen provide a context for human interaction and provide cues for desired actions by the user. The user formulates a response to the context and takes an action. Data then passes back to the computer through the interface.

A well-designed user interface can increase human processing speed, reduce errors, increase productivity and create a sense of user control. The quality of the system interface, from the user's perspective, depends upon what the user sees or senses, what the user must know to understand what is sensed, and what actions the user can and in some cases must take to obtain needed results.

Figure 5.1 Screen shot of part of a Windows 98 browser type of graphical interface.

To create a well-designed user interface, MIS professionals need to work closely with potential users. Both groups need to be familiar with the following important issues and topics related to building and evaluating a user interface:

  1. User interface style Ė Is the style or combination of styles appropriate? What styles are used in the user interface?
  2. Screen design and layout -- Is the design easy to understand and attractive? Is the design symmetric and balanced?
  3. The Human-Software interaction sequence -- Is the interaction developed by the software logical and intuitive? Do people respond predictably to the interaction sequence?
  4. Use of colors, lines and graphics -- Are colors used appropriately? Do graphics improve the design or distract the user?
  5. Information density -- Is too much information presented on a screen? Can users control the information density?
  6. Use of icons and symbols -- Are icons understandable?
  7. Choice of input and output devices -- Do devices fit the task?

Managers and analysts should focus on these seven design issues when they evaluate a DSS prototype or the proposed screens for a DSS. A systematic evaluation of the DSS user interface can substantially improve its usefulness and increase how much it will be used. Letís examine some of these issues in more detail.

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