by Frederic Drake and Frances L. Fleek, SMS
Reprinted from Usability Interface, Vol 6, No. 3, January 2000
Shared Medical Systems Corporation (SMS) recently combined its 66-person technical writing group and six-person performance-centered design team to form a new department called User Performance.
With more and more clinicians—often novice users—interacting with SMS systems, SMS recognized the need to place an increased focus on usability.
The organizational launch began within the technical writing department. This group was responsible for helping users to understand the robust features and functions of a large software suite and was hampered by the lack of formal usability methods. The technical writing group, composed of talented people who want the users to become self-sufficient and proficient more quickly, accepted the challenge. Thus, a small group was formed to implement electronic performance support elements, and it subsequently became the nucleus of a performance-centered design team.
We focused our initial efforts on implementing assistance for users via multi-layer help. Gloria Gery(1), as well as other usability professionals we consulted, helped us to convince management that making the software more intuitive and thus more usable would have a positive impact on our customer satisfaction—more than all the help, cue cards, wizards, etc., that an army of writers could put together. Since management had stressed the need for the product information to become a true “value add,” our organizational direction followed this path, particularly in the absence of a formal usability group up to this time.
Two other key tactics:
- We cost-justified and built a facility containing two user interface design and testing labs to create a tangible representation of the world of usability.
- We helped establish user interface standards across the company, encouraging other groups to participate in creating the standards.
MS User Performance, working with the SMS Software Engineering group, is developing a company-wide development methodology that incorporates user performance and object-oriented methods. The challenge has been to merge the various activities within each, so that we create software that best suits our customers’ needs.
The proposed methodology emphasizes user-focused activities early in the process, especially during the requirements gathering and analysis phase, and through the development of a workable and tested user interface design. These activities, which include field studies using contextual inquiry, analyzing the data using affinity diagramming, building sequential, flow, and other models, and creating the future vision for the product in various forms, culminated in a tested and refined prototype. User participation is emphasized throughout these activities. Then object-oriented activities, such as creating class and state diagrams and building architectural design and implementation models, ensure that the underlying architecture supports the design and produces workable software.
One requirement of the merged methodology is its adaptability to projects that differ widely in scope. Another is that it be documented adequately so that any development group can easily employ it.
We are using many portions of the Rational Unified Process, as well as many of the techniques of Contextual Design (defined by Holtzblatt and Beyer of InContext Enterprises) and the flexibility and design strength of the LUCID Methodology (defined by Charles Kreitzberg of Cognetics).
Respect for the New Roles
echnical writers, information analysts, editors, and Software Product Communications (SPC) production staff already assess users’ information needs and ensure consistency in the presentation of information, ultimately to improve user performance. As the efforts of our technical writers have become more and more focused on the needs of end users to have easy-to-learn, easy-to-use software, the overlap with our Performance-Centered Design team has increased. Both teams begin their projects early in the design process by observing the workflow of the target users and by seeking the participation of potential end users in designing software that is more intuitive (and therefore requires less user assistance). Given that our goal is clearly to improve user performance, we have chosen this as the new name for our department for the 21st century.
Our intention to change our name was met with sensitivity concerns by our group:
- We created an anonymous electronic submittal process for feedback and concerns.
- We gathered feedback early and provide frank answers.
- We demonstrated to members of the group that other leading companies are doing the same thing.
- We used the feedback to guide the content of our communications and education plans.
- We created a home page with a Frequently Asked Questions section with responses and common terminology definitions.
Beyond creating the new identity, adding to the foundation skills of all the staff members is important to a successful transition. All of our staff members, writers, QA, production, publishing analysts, and managers are taking part. Because the new department has both user interface and user assistance, we feel there will be opportunities for all the staff to add skill sets at varying speeds. We are:
- Performing skills assessment to create a skills inventory.
- Creating and publicize a structured path (with educational and experiential elements) that each staff member will follow via an individualized education plan.
In our prototype/initial efforts we are:
- Demonstrating the new skills.
- Making contributions to the team outside of the new role.
- Raising the entire development team’s understanding of user-centered design.
Frederick Drake is the manager of the User Performance Group, Shared Medical Systems (SMS).
Frances L. Fleek is a Senior Usability Analyst who pioneered the usability processes across the company.
SMS, headquartered in Malvern, PA, is the healthcare industry’s network computing leader. Information about SMS can be found at www.smed.com
(1) Gloria Gery is a leading proponent of electronic performance support and a principal of Gery Associates.