Task-Centered User Interface Design
A Practical Introduction
by Clayton Lewis and John Rieman
Copyright ©1993, 1994: Please see the "shareware notice" at the front of the book.
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Chapter 2: Getting to Know Users and Their Tasks

To get a good interface you have to figure out who is going to use it to do what. You may think your idea for a new system is so wonderful that everyone will want it, though you can't think of a really specific example, and that it will be useful in some way to people, even though you can't say just how. But history suggests you will be wrong. Even systems that turned out to be useful in unexpected ways, like the spreadsheet, started out by being useful in some expected ways.

Example: The Illusory Customers

There was a startup here in Boulder a few years back that wanted to build a system to help people build intelligent tutoring systems. They raised a bundle of money, brought a lot of smart people in, and went to work. But they didn't stop to figure out EXACTLY WHO would use the system to do EXACTLY WHAT. The concept seemed too good, in those palmy days of AI madness, to require that kind of pedestrianism. The lack of specificity created some problems internally, since it was hard to make good decisions about what aspects of the new system were important. But the trouble became critical when the time came to line up test users, people who would try out the software and provide feedback to the developers. There were no takers! Not only were there no people waiting to fork out cash for the tool, there weren't even people who would take it for nothing. And this wasn't because the work wasn't quality. People just didn't want to do what the tool was supposed to help them do.

The company didn't just roll over; they searched around for something that people did want to do that they could do with something like the tool that had been built. Not surprisingly this didn't work out and the company folded its tents when the money ran out.

You may not have needed selling on this point. "Everybody" knows you have to do some kind of requirements analysis. Yes, but based on what, and in what form? Our advice is to insist that your requirements be grounded in information about real, individual people and real tasks that they really want to perform. Get soft about this and the illusions start to creep in and before you know it you've got another system that everybody wants except people you can actually find.

HyperTopic: Contracts and Requirements

"Fortunately I don't have to worry about this. I work on contract stuff and all the requirements have been spelled out for me before I start."

Not so fast! It's one thing to meet the requirements of a contract and another thing to build a good system. Are anybody's interests really served if you build a system that meets spec but is a failure? That's what is likely to happen if you work to requirements that have not been grounded in reality, even if it's not your fault. Being selfish, will you get repeat business, or will you get a good reputation from work like this?

Clayton did once talk with a contract developer who assured him that on his current job the success of the system was really not an issue under any conceivable future (no possibility of repeat business, etc.) He has also heard of third-world "development" projects in which the real game is to please the bureaucrat who turns the tap on the (U.S.- supplied) "development" money, rather than to make something work. But life is too valuable to spend on activities like these. Find something to do that matters.

2.1 Getting in Touch With Users

So here's what to do. The first step is to find some real people who would be potential users of what you are going to build. If you can't find any you need to worry a lot. If you can't find them now, where will they come from when it's time to buy? When you have found some, get them to spend some time with you discussing what they do and how your system might fit in. Are they too busy to do this? Then they'll probably be too busy to care about your system after it exists. Do you think the idea is a real winner, and they will care if you explain it to them? Then buy their time in some way. Find people in your target group who are technology nuts and who'll talk with you because you can show them technology. Or go to a professional meeting and offer a unique T-shirt to people who'll talk with you (yes, there are people whose time is too expensive for you to buy for money who will work with you for a shirt or a coffee mug).

HyperTopic: Generic and Designer Users

"I don't have to bother about this stuff. My system will be a tool for any UNIX user, no matter what they are working on. There's no special user population I'm trying to support."

Unfortunately experience shows that many ideas that are supposed to be good for everybody aren't good for anybody. Why not check by finding somebody and making sure it's good at least for them?

"Well, I'm somebody and my tool is good for me."

Two points here. First, is it REALLY good for you? Do you actually USE it? Never work on something if you ought to be a user for it but you aren't. It's amazing how often this principle is violated. Second, there are lots of reasons why things often seem more useful to their designers than they do to other people. A big one is that the designer builds up his or her understanding of the thing over a long time and with a lot of thought. Usually the user wants to understand it right away, and often can't (Bruce Tognazzini makes this point very well in "Tog on Interface" Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1992, p. 8).

2.2 Learning About the Users' Tasks

Once you have some people to talk with, develop CONCRETE, DETAILED EXAMPLES of tasks they perform or want to perform that your system should support. Here's how this went for Clayton and colleagues in a recent project, disguised to avoid embarrassing anybody.

The aim was to develop a system for modelling traffic: street layout, traffic volumes, accidents and the like. The system was to provide a flexible, graphical interface that would make it easy to tweak the model and examine the results. We had good access to potential users, because the project was sponsored by an organization that included people who currently use an existing model that the new one was to replace.

But there was a delicate issue here, that you will often face. The particular people providing money for the project were not the users themselves, but a staff organization whose mission was to look after the needs of the users. Sounds OK? It's not: it meant that our direct contact was not with the people who really know firsthand what the problems are but people who are supposed to know the problems secondhand, a very different thing. Fortunately we knew what we wanted and were able to arrange a series of meetings with real users.

In these meetings we developed a list of twelve things the users would actually want to do with the system. They were specific, as for example:

Notice a few things about this example.

It says what the user wants to do but does not say how the user would do it.

As stated, this task does not make any assumptions about the nature of the modelling tool or its interface. Therefore it can be used to compare different design alternatives for the system and interface in a fair way. If we said "change the speed limit by selecting a new value from a menu" we would have prejudged the right way for the user to perform this part of the task.

It is very specific.

Not only does it say exactly what the user wants to do, it actually specifies particular streets. What's the point of this? It means that we can fill out this description of the task with any other details that may become relevant in evaluating designs. In fact, it forces us to do this. For example, if the model needs to divide streets into separate pieces for purposes of analysis, and the user then needs to select a number of pieces to do an analysis for a stretch of street, we can see in detail how this would work out for the real Canyon Boulevard. We can't avoid the problem as we could if we were thinking of any old generic street.

Dennis Wixon has an example that makes this point (In M. Rudisill, T. McKay, C. Lewis, and P.G. Polson (Eds.), "Human-Computer Interaction Design: Success Cases, Emerging Methods, and Real-World Context." Morgan Kaufman. In press.). Wixon and colleagues were developing an interface for a file management system. It passed lab tests with flying colors, but bombed as soon as customers got it. The problem was that it had a scrolling file list that was (say) twenty characters wide, but the file names customers used were very long, and in fact often identical for more than twenty characters (the names were made up by concatenating various qualifiers, and for many names the first several qualifiers would be the same.) Customers were not amused by needing to select from a scrolling list of umpty-ump identical entries that stood for different files. And this wasn't an oddball case, it was in fact typical. How had it been missed in the lab tests? Nobody thought it would matter what specific file names you used for the test, so of course they were all short.

It describes a complete job.

Note that the task doesn't just say to fiddle the speed limit on Canyon, or just to calculate projections for Arapahoe. It says the user wants to do both. This means that in seeing how this task plays out for a particular design of the interface we are forced to consider how features of the interface work together, not just how reasonable they may look separately.

We once evaluated a phone-in bank service that had done well in lab tests. People had no trouble checking their balances, finding out if checks had cleared, and the like. But when we looked at what was involved in finding if a check had cleared AND THEN looking at a balance, we found big problems. The interface was supposed to support this kind of transition between functions, but the test tasks used in the lab had not required them.

Describing complete jobs is a key feature of our approach, and it's different from the usual way of doing things. Usually requirements lists are just that: lists of little things the system has to do. Meeting this kind of requirement does little to ensure that users can do a real job without going crazy: it just ensures that they can do all the PARTS of a real job.

An important angle on the complete job issue is seeing where inputs come from and where outputs go. In the example problem, where does the model the user is going to tweak come from? How does he or she obtain it? If there aren't good answers to these questions the system will be no good in practice, even if it does the tweaking and calculating parts very well.

Clayton worked on an early business graphics package whose sales were disappointing. Customer visits (done after ship, not before development when they should have been done) showed that the problem was that the package worked well when users had numbers to type in to make a graph, but badly when numbers were already in the system and needed to be extracted from a file. One user had temporarily hired typists to transcribe numbers from one screen, where a data file was displayed, onto another screen where the graph package was running. He was not eager to continue this arrangement. The majority of uses we saw were of this get-data-from-a-file kind, so the system was unsuited to requirements even though it did a good job on making the graph itself, the part of the whole job on which the designers concentrated.

So you want to choose tasks that represent complete jobs, and you want to be sure to scrutinize the edges of the tasks. Where does stuff come in from? Where does it go? What has to happen next?

The tasks should say who the users are.

In the highway example we were dealing with a small, close- knit group of users, so we didn't specify in our example tasks WHO would be doing what: we took it as given. Probably we should have worried about this more, and probably you should. The success of a design can be influenced strongly by what users know, how the tasks supported by the system fit into other work they have to do, and the like. So you need to get a fix on these things early in design.

The design of Oncocin, a sophisticated cancer therapy advisor, illustrates what's at stake (Musen, M.A., Fagan, L.M., and Shortliffe, E.H. "Graphical specification of procedural knowledge for an expert system. In J.A. Hendler [Ed.], "Expert Systems: The User Interface." Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1988, p. 15). Earlier experience with doctor users had shown that they are willing to invest very little time in becoming familiar with a new system. A system to be used directly by doctors therefore has to be different from one to be used by medical technicians, who can be told they HAVE to learn a new tool. The Oncocin designers needed to decide up front whether their users would be doctors or would be technicians working in support of doctors. They went for direct use by doctors. The interface they came up with is as much as possible a faithful copy of the paper forms for specifying therapy that doctors were already using.

So what should you say about users in specifying your tasks? If possible, name names. This allows you to get more information if it becomes relevant, just as saying it's Arapahoe Avenue allows you to bring in more detail about the task if you need to. Beyond that you should note characteristics of the users that you already know will be important, such as what their job is and what expertise they have.

In choosing the sample tasks for the traffic modelling system we were guided by two objectives. First, we wanted to be sure that we had examples that illustrated the kinds of support that we as designers thought the system should provide. That is, we had some general ideas about what the system was supposed to be good for, and we tried to find tasks that were examples of these. But second, we needed to reflect the interests of potential users in the examples. So we tried to find tasks that illustrated proposed functionality in the context of work users really wanted to do.

In the process some possible functions for the system dropped out. We had envisioned that the system might include some optimization functions that would manipulate the model to find the best of some range of alternatives with respect to some measure of quality. Users had no interest in this. They preferred to solve such problems by framing and evaluating alternatives themselves rather than having the system do this.

This is not an uncommon conflict, and one without a simple resolution. We thought, and still think, that users would eventually come to want optimization functions once more pressing modelling needs were met, so we didn't want to just take the users' word on this. But we put optimization on the back burner to be pushed again in the future.

This illustrates a key point about input from users: users are NOT always right. They cannot anticipate with complete accuracy how they will use new technology. As a designer your job is to build a system that users will want when it gets here, not to build the system users say they want as they see things today. You may well have insight into the future that users lack. But you need to be very careful about this. If you are like most designers, an outsider in the domain of work you are trying to support, you have to recognize that users know a whole lot more about what they are doing than you do. If you can't get users interested in your hot new idea, however hard you try to draw them into it, you're probably missing something.

HyperTopic: Participatory Design

In our discussion we have been assuming a split between the roles of designers and users that has been traditional in U.S. system design. Designers are not users; they gather information from users and reflect it in systems they build; they give these systems to users who use them or not. There is an alternative approach, pioneered by workers in Scandinavia, that rejects this structure. In participatory design, systems are designed by designers and users working together: a slogan is DESIGNING WITH rather than DESIGNING FOR. The power to make the system be one way rather than another is not reserved for the designers, as it is in most U.S. design practice, but rather is shared by designers and users working in collaboration.

The contrast between participatory design and standard U.S. practice reflects deep differences in political and philosophical outlook between Europe and the U.S.. Most European countries give workers very broad influence on working conditions, which are much more strictly regulated than in the U.S.. In many countries workers must have seats on the boards of directors of companies, and workers must be consulted on the introduction of new technology in the workplace. With this view of workers it is natural to think that workers should have a direct hand in shaping the systems they have to use. By contrast the prevailing view in the U.S. is that management should just decide what systems are good for productivity and then impose them on workers, whose views basically don't matter.

Many people in the U.S., if they think about these matters at all, assume that the U.S. way of doing things must be right. What is your reaction when you hear that in some European countries it is illegal to make someone work in a room without a window? Does that seem silly, or maybe wrongheaded, because of the restriction in places on freedom of enterprise? What do you think about it when you also learn that a number of countries in Europe have higher per capita productivity than the U.S., and that the U.S. is steadily losing export position, especially in advanced industries, and holding its own primarily in commodity exports like farm produce? For a fascinating, disturbing, and constructive look at these and related issues, read the book "The Competitive Advantage of Nations," by Michael Porter (New York: Free Press, 1990).

You can find a lengthy discussion of participatory design in the journal Human-Computer Interaction, (Floyd, C., Mehl, W.-M., Reisin, F.-M., Schmidt, G., and Wolf, G. "Out of Scandinavia: Alternative approaches to software design and system development." Human-Computer Interaction, 4 (1989), pp. 252-350), and a short and sweet discussion in an article by Jeanette Blomberg and Austin Henderson of Xerox in the CHI'90 proceedings (Blomberg, A.L. and Henderson, A. "Reflections on participatory design." In Proc. CHI'90 Conference on Human Factors in Computer Systems. New York: ACM, 1990, pp. 353-359). Blomberg and Henderson stress three defining attributes of participatory design: the goal of the activity is to improve the worklife of users (not, for example, to demonstrate how neat object-oriented technology is); the activity is collaborative, with all goals and decisions actively negotiated and not imposed; the activity is iterative, in that ideas are tested and adjusted by seeing how they play out in practice.

It's pretty easy to see how one could approach participatory design in in-house projects, though it would not be easy to get your organization actually to do it. For in-house projects it will be true at some level that designers and users share the same goals, though in the U.S. context these goals may not have much to do with the quality of worklife. But U.S. organizations usually have job demarcations which make it hard to get participatory design going. Usually, if my job is to be a user it is not to be a designer or to work on designs. That's the province of "experts" employed for the purpose, even though they have no idea what the real problems are that need to be solved.

For commercial projects there are further challenges. At bottom, your objective as a commercial developer may really not be to improve the quality of somebody else's work life, but rather to make money for yourself. So you don't have the right goal to begin with.

There are two ways to go from here. One is to forget about the defining goals of participatory design and go through the motions of it in service of your selfish goals. The idea is that you hope to produce a better design, and hence make more money, by engaging users in collaboration focussed on the user's goals. To draw users in to making the considerable investment of time they would have to make to work with you, you would offer them a piece of the action.

Developing new technology in close partnership with potential users like this is a good idea in many industries for lots of reasons not restricted to the peculiarities of user interfaces. As Michael Porter recounts, the modern printing press was developed by a new technology company that was supported by some of its potential users, big English newspapers. Such a relationship gets you the information you need to make your system really useful, and hence successful, as well as developing an early market.

Another response to the mismatch of your goal of making money and the participatory design goal of improving the quality of work life is to change your goal. Will money actually make you happy? Of course not. Will improving somebody's work life make you happy? Maybe so, if the work involved is itself something worthwhile, or if you just take satisfaction in doing something well. Even if you can't get this unselfish the logic of the situation is that you may do better all around, including monetarily, if you really care about the people who will use your system and what they do than if you only care about the money.

2.3 Using the Tasks in Design

Back to the traffic modelling system and our sample tasks. What did we do with them after we got them? Taking a look at their fate may clarify what the tasks should be like, as well as helping to persuade you that it's worth defining them.

Our first step was to write up descriptions of all the tasks and circulate them to the users (remember, we're back in us- versus-them mode, with designers and users clearly different teams.) We included queries for more information where we felt the original discussion had left some details out. And we got corrections, clarifications, and suggestions back which were incorporated into the written descriptions.

We then roughed out an interface design and produced a SCENARIO for each of the sample tasks. A scenario spells out what a user would have to do and what he or she would see step-by-step in performing a task using a given system. The key distinction between a scenario and a task is that a scenario is design-specific, in that it shows how a task would be performed if you adopt a particular design, while the task itself is design-independent: it's something the user wants to do regardless of what design is chosen. Developing the scenarios forced us to get specific about our design, and it forced us to consider how the various features of the system would work together to accomplish real work. We could settle arguments about different ways of doing things in the interface by seeing how they played out for our example tasks.

Handling design arguments is a key issue, and having specific tasks to work with really helps. Interface design is full of issues that look as if they could be settled in the abstract but really can't. Unfortunately, designers, who often prefer to look at questions in the abstract, waste huge amounts of time on pointless arguments as a result.

For example, in our interface users select graphical objects from a palette and place them on the screen. They do this by clicking on an object in the palette and then clicking where they want to put it. Now, if they want to place another object of the same kind should they be made to click again on the palette or can they just click on a new location? You can't settle the matter by arguing about it on general grounds.

You can settle it by looking at the CONTEXT in which this operation actually occurs. If the user wants to adjust the position of an object after placing it, and you decide that clicking again somewhere places a new object, and if it's legal to pile objects up in the same place, then you have trouble. How will you select an object for purposes of adjustment if a click means "put another object down"? On the other hand, if your tasks don't require much adjustment, but do require repeated placement of the same kind of object, you're pushed the other way. Our tasks seemed to us to require adjustment more than repeated placement, so we went the first way.

This example brings up an important point about using the example tasks. It's important to remember that they are ONLY EXAMPLES. Often, as in this case, a decision requires you to look beyond the specific examples you have and make a judgement about what will be common and what will be uncommon. You can't do this just by taking an inventory of the specific examples you chose. You can't defend a crummy design by saying that it handles all the examples, any more than you can defend a crummy design by saying it meets any other kind of spec.

We represented our scenarios with STORYBOARDS, which are sequences of sketches showing what the screen would show, and what actions the user would take, at key points in each task. We then showed these to the users, stepping them through the tasks. Here we saw a big gain from the use of the sample tasks. They allowed us to tell the users what they really wanted to know about our proposed design, which was what it would be like to use it to do real work. A traditional design description, showing all the screens, menus, and so forth, out of the context of a real task, is pretty meaningless to users, and so they can't provide any useful reaction to it. Our scenarios let users see what the design would really give them.

"This sample task idea seems crazy. What if you leave something out? And won't your design be distorted by the examples you happen to choose? And how do you know the design will work for anything OTHER than your examples?" There is a risk with any spec technique that you will leave something out. In choosing your sample tasks you do whatever you would do in any other method to be sure the important requirements are reflected. As noted above, you treat the sample tasks as examples. Using them does not relieve you of the responsibility of thinking about how other tasks would be handled. But it's better to be sure that your design can do a good job on at least some real tasks, and that it has a good chance of working on other tasks, because you've tried to design for generality, than to trust exclusively in your ability to design for generality. It's the same as that point about users: if a system is supposed to be good for EVERYBODY you'd better be sure it's good for SOMEBODY.

HyperTopic: Integrating Task-Centered Design and Traditional Requirements Analysis

If you're working for a small company or developing small projects for a few internal users at a large firm, the task- centered design approach may be all you need. But for larger projects, you'll probably have to work within the structure of an established software engineering procedure. How to apply task-centered principles within that procedure will vary depending on the software engineering approach used at your company. But we can give some general guidelines that are especially useful in the early stages of development.

Most large software projects are developed using some version of the "waterfall method." The basic waterfall method assumes that a piece of software is produced through a clearly defined series of steps, or "phases":

In its strictest version, this method states that each phase must be completed before the next phase can begin, and that there's no chance (and no reason) to return to an earlier phase to redefine a system as its being developed.

Most software engineering specialists today realize that this approach is unrealistic. It was developed in the era of punch cards and mainframes, so it doesn't have a real place for considerations of interactive systems. Even in the mainframe era it was less than successful, because the definition of what's required inevitably changes as the system is developed.

Various modifications to the phases of the waterfall method and their interaction have been proposed. However, it's not unusual to find productive software development environments that still incorporate many steps of the method, partly for historical reasons and partly because the approach helps to define responsibilities and costs for various activities within a large software project. With some effort, the task- centered design approach can supplement the early stages of a waterfall environment.

Requirements Analysis

The waterfall method's initial "Requirements Analysis" phase describes the activity of defining the precise needs that the software must meet. These needs are defined in terms of the users and the their environment, with intentionally no reference to how the needs will actually be met by the proposed system.

This is exactly the same approach as we suggest for describing representative tasks: define what the user needs to do, not how it will be done. The difference is that the representative tasks in task-centered design are complete, real, detailed examples of things users actually need to do. The requirements produced by traditional software engineering, on the other hand, are abstract descriptions of parts of those representative tasks.

This is an important distinction, and we want to emphasize it most strongly:

Here's an example. For a document processing system, a representative task might be to produce this book. Not to produce "a book," but to produce "version 1 of Task-Centered Design, by Lewis and Rieman." That representative task supplements the detailed partial tasks collected in traditional requirements analysis, which might include things such as "key in text" and "check spelling" and "print the document."

So if you're doing a traditional requirements analysis, you need to supplement it by collecting some representative tasks. The two approaches complement each other nicely. The traditional approach helps to ensure that all important functions of the system are recognized, while the representative tasks in the task-centered approach provide an integrated picture of those functions working together.


In the traditional "Specifications" phase of software engineering, the requirements are used to produce a description of the system that includes the details needed by the software designers and implementers. The customers -- the end users -- can then sign off on this document, and the software team can begin to plan and design the actual system. This sounds like great stuff from a management point of view, but it practice it often falls apart. Users aren't experts at reading specifications documents, and they have trouble imagining how the system will actually perform. Various alternatives to written specifications have been proposed, including prototypes and a more iterative approach to design, both of which fit nicely into the task-centered design approach.

However, even if you're still doing written specifications, the representative tasks can be of value. Include those tasks, with some details about how they will be performed, in the specification document. The big win here is that the customers will be able to understand this part of the specifications. It will also force the specifications writer to consider a complete task, which may catch problems that could be missed when single functions are considered individually.

Notice that the description of the proposed software hasn't quite reached the stage where you could do a complete "scenario," as we have defined it. Many of the details, such as the names of menu items, the distribution of functionality among dialog boxes, etc., remain to be defined. But a high- level overview of the interactions can be described, and doing this well is a test of your understanding of the users' needs.

Planning, Design, and Beyond

From this point on, the strict waterfall method and the task- centered design approach take very different paths. Many of the principles we describe can be used in doing the first pass at system and interface design, but inherent in the task-centered approach is the need for iteration: it's very rare that the first design of an interface is a complete success. Several iterations of testing and redesign are required, and that may well involve jumping backward through the phases of the waterfall method, something that's traditionally not allowed. Fortunately, the strict forward- moving method is seldom adhered to today. Most development environments recognize the need for some iteration, and that should make it possible to accommodate the general spirit of the task-centered approach.

Copyright © 1993,1994 Lewis & Rieman
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