Keeping users in mind

Beverley Stevens is hoping the "interaction design" software design method will take off in New Zealand.

Beverley Stevens (right) is hoping the “interaction design” software design method will take off in New Zealand.

Stevens, who runs Auckland technical documentation company DesignIT, recently attended a five-day workshop on the methodology in Palo Alto. It’s the brainchild of American Alan Cooper — the man credited with the invention of the visual part of Visual Basic — and aims to improve the interaction between people and technology in software design. Coopers’ company has designed an in-flight entertainment system for Sony and the HP shopping website.

Stevens has been applying her newly acquired knowledge to put more user focus into a browser-based technology for Wellington software developer ingenUNITY.

Called i8-IT, the customer management technology automates workflow and business processes in call centres, helpdesks, sales forces and supply chains. IngenUNITY operating chief Paul de Wijze called in DesignIT to help simplify and improve the user experience of the software tool. He says when Stevens came to ingenUNITY with the new concept he immediately saw its value in making information accessible to a worldwide team. “By working with Beverley, we’ll agree the exact behaviour and screen designs before we start coding.” De Wijze says it will also cut down on development time.

Stevens says interaction design defines the goals of the user before the software is built. “By creating an explicit blueprint before any development work starts, based on an insightful understanding of their customers and their behaviour, software companies can create a superior product. They reduce uncertainty and risk, shorten their development cycles, achieve a faster time to market, lower their support costs and enjoy wildly loyal customers.”

She says one of the key concepts of Cooper’s design methodology is to develop a detailed description of the archetypal user called the persona. “The entire organisation gets to know Jim or Mary and their behaviour, and that includes the marketing people as well as the general manager. The developers can even put Jim’s picture up in their cubicle. Because everybody suddenly has a point of reference, disputes get resolved in an objective way and not on the basis of someone’s personal opinion. Having fixed personas help avoid common problems such as self-referential design or designing for an ‘elastic user’,” says Stevens.

Stevens will speak at the next meeting of the NZ Technical Writers Association.

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