C.7 Ease of Use

Principal Authors:

Bonnie E. John, Raj Reddy and Rod Smith

Additional Contributors:

Ruzena Bajcsy, Doyle Baker, Sara Bly, Anita Borg, Bill Buzbee, Elizabeth Coppinger, Michael Deering, James Farber, Joel Frendt, Kevin Lacobie, Robert Logan, David Marques, James H. Morris, Steve Oberlin, Eldon Patterson, William A. Rowe, David R. Schwartz, Neil Scott and Alan Tannenbaum

1. Introduction

The success of the National Information Infrastructure ultimately depends on it being usable by real people. If access to information and communications-based services is to be effective and universally available, the user interface to the network and its services must be easy and fun to use. Simply providing bandwidth and connectivity, which has served the scientific community well, will not be sufficient for the NII without ensuring that services are accessible and usable by people without computer training.

Examples of the importance of the user interface to the success of communications and information systems are easy to find. For example:

2. The Technical Challenges of Universal Access

The theme of universal access interfaces focuses on the notion that all users without exception should have availability to NII services. This concept has three prongs: affordability, ubiquity and usability. The lack of any one of these can represent an impediment for potential NII users. The human-computer design principles for universal access interfaces should be clearly defined as: The approach for achieving universal access interfaces should be to focus on research issues that are at the intersection of NII needs and general ease-of-use research.

3. Research and Development Recommendations

Ensuring that the NII will be usable by the widest possible audience requires an explicit program of research, standards and development that focuses on three critical elements: This section provides key findings and recommendations for a research agenda in each of the above areas.

3.1 Findings and Recommendations: Individual, Social and Cultural Aspects

Developing an in-depth understanding of the individual, social and cultural aspects of NII users will be one of the most important first steps of the ease-of-use research. The wealth of knowledge developed initially by studying the areas of education, health and electronic commerce can set the groundwork for evolving NII services and applications to reach a broader audience over time. The issues include understanding the user on individual, organizational and sociocultural levels; and understanding tasks, environments and multiuser collaboration.

3.1.1 Understanding Users

Americans are extremely diverse. To achieve universal accessibility of the NII, the differences and similarities between individuals and groups must be understood. This research can be broken into multiple research areas:

  • 1) "Walk-up-and-learn" interfaces will be the predominant force for universal access. Understanding how individuals can use their previous real-world knowledge to navigate through the NII and use its applications is the purview of psychological research. Although there is much existing research in psychology that can be of use, additional support is needed to put that knowledge into a form that developers of the NII can use to design their systems.

  • 2) NII interfaces must "evolve gracefully." That is, consumers must be allowed a step approach to access the NII with increasing power and sophistication as their familiarity, needs and equipment evolve without relearning a core set of skills. This is sometimes called "research in gentle-slope systems."

  • 3) The cultural context of the NII must be explored. Basic research on broadly defined aspects of American life is needed to identify opportunities that could improve quality of life both at work and at home. Analysis of current trends can point to new product and service categories. Broad domains of trend research should include entertainment, communications, work and travel. In addition, the existence of the NII itself will create new social systems in the United States that will have their own emerging needs. Sample topics include:

  • 3.1.2 Understanding User Tasks

    Rigorous investigation of existing and anticipated tasks associated with the NII is required to fully identify the scope of user requirements. Task models are the basis for all product design and the NII should be no different.

    3.1.3 Understanding Environments

    Users and technology cannot be considered in isolation. Rather, both exist in the context of environments. Traditional environments such as offices, hospitals and schools have received some investigation, but more is required with the onslaught of enabling technologies. Additional understanding of less traditional environments such as inner-city public access terminals, transportation and recreational users is also required.

    3.1.4 Understanding Multiuser Collaboration

    Much work and play is accomplished in the context of social activity; rarely are tasks done in isolation. The NII offers access not only to extensive sources of information but to varied and far-flung interactions. Users will have the ability to connect to friends, colleagues and experts who previously would have been accessible at best by phone or mail. The NII capabilities further such interactions by erasing the boundaries of space and time. We list four research topics here:

  • 1) Much of the work and entertainment is social. Current single-user models of computer and networked use cannot meet such a need. Research is needed to understand the workplace's social context in order to bring this context into network/computer-mediated work. For example, medical providers need to have ad hoc "hallway" conversations with their remote colleagues just as easily as they now do with their colleagues in the same building. Electronic mail and telephony are not rich enough to provide sufficient social context for these ad hoc interactions.

  • 2) As networked (NII-mediated) collaboration becomes more common, community access, privacy and community control become areas needing significant research. For example, medical patients depend on privacy, yet need to be able to find similar case studies and share information with support groups. Research is needed on access models for collaboration that can meet these diverse and often conflicting needs.

  • 3) Through the NII, most users will participate in many different "communities," both geographically local ones and geographically dispersed communities. Research is needed on how users will do that, how they will socialize in the new networked communities, how different access rights will exist across communities and how users will "code switch" between them in the same sense that multilinguals code switch between communities. This has very strong user interface implications that are not well understood at present.

  • 4) There are a variety of technical research issues such as different levels of interaction needed and desired for different tasks and different access equipment.

  • 3.2 Findings and Recommendations: Technologies

    3.2.1 Hardware

    Many proposed uses for the NII cannot be successfully implemented today. Barriers include limitations of device performance, a high cost threshold and a lack of interface software. Development of enabling technologies would expand interaction via the NII at all levels (from lowest cost to the highest performance).

    Development examples where stimulus is required include:

    Other needed hardware items will be developed naturally in response to the economic stimulus created by the NII (bright projection displays, distributed storage, low data capacity backchannel, microphones).

    3.2.2 Adaptive Intelligent Interfaces

    Given the scope and magnitude of the NII, new approaches to end-user interfaces and their construction will be necessary. For example, in the medical field, new user interfaces that continually learn and remember information regarding specific areas of medicine will be essential to keep up with the information dynamics of recently published research and studies. Additionally, these types of interfaces will "learn" a person's viewpoint or interest to build self-describing search criteria.

    These interfaces will be characterized by:

    Toward this end, a significant effort must be undertaken to create intelligent, adaptive computer-based systems that integrate seamlessly into the human use of the NII, including the technology base that enables systems developers to rapidly create and deploy systems that exhibit intelligent behavior.

    3.2.3 Human-Centered Input Methods

    Human-centered interfaces refer to natural human-machine interactions using advanced input methods. The closer NII interfaces match real-world concepts, the faster we will achieve acceptance of those services. Pen, speech and natural language are viewed as the first of these input methods.

    Pen (and touch) enables the paper-like interface so common in education, authorization, forms and writing tasks. Speech has the potential to have a completely hands-free modality that can be envisioned as the ultimate interaction technique in the home and hands-free environments, as well as enabling the NII for the disabled and citizens with varied education levels. Together with natural-language comprehension and generation, these methods will enable users to interact with services using person-to-person metaphors.

    In the future, NII interfaces will need to automatically sense additional physical information about the user, tracking the location and orientation of a person's sense organs (eyes, ears, mouth, head), as well as their hands (for gesture recognition) and potentially their whole body. This extends to sensing the location of a person within a room, building or city.

    In order to be successful, we must evolve the research in navigation, recognition and semantic understanding technologies to the next stages of handling unconstrained input. Human-like feedback technologies, including natural voice response, anthropomorphic agents and intelligent dialogues complete the package and need to be a key focus area. Natural-language processing (NLP) is an important enabling technology for many of these features, and research should be continued in this area for the NII.

    The use of the pen, speech and other modalities simultaneously has the potential of having a synergistic effect when applied to the communication of ideas (e.g., voice-over-ink annotations) and the recognition of written or spoken commands and data.

    3.2.4 Visualization

    NII participants will be bombarded with services and data from a multitude of sources. Our methods of presenting this information in digestible forms must be enhanced. Advanced visual (two-dimensional and three-dimensional), auditory, tactile and other sensory "views" can increase the user's ability to filter this information and identify, extract and enhance its content. Also, advanced techniques of cinematic direction enhance user interaction with anthropomorphic agents.

    Examples include:

    Research is needed in:

    3.2.5 Authoring

    By "authoring" we mean the creation and organization of the multimedia, hypermedia, video and virtual environment information presentations that will be made available on the NII.

    Creating high-quality, effective multimedia/hypermedia for the NII, be it for education, entertainment or information presentation, takes too much time (sometimes as much as 1,000 hours for one hour of presentation) and requires considerable expertise. This represents a "production bottleneck" for one of the key commodities that will be distributed (and indeed created) with the NII.

    The speed issue can be addressed with research to develop metaphors and approaches for authoring systems, with a goal of an order of magnitude decrease in authoring time. The expertise issue can be addressed by developing authoring tools that encourage and facilitate good design practice, by means such as intelligent agent "design critics," including "codes of practice" in the tools or in templates, style sheets or examples. One objective of this work should be to empower every individual user of the NII to be an information creator.

    Similarly, shared virtual environments (including the simulation of physical processes that so often are an important part of these environments) need to be much more easily created than they now are. Tool kits that minimize and in some cases eliminate traditional programming are needed.

    3.3 Findings and Recommendations: Metrics and Evaluation Techniques

    The developers and consumers of NII software and hardware need to know how effective the products and services offered will be in fulfilling their needs. Consumers need to be able to make cost-benefit trade-offs for any particular access mechanism (e.g., I/O device, software options for accessing the NII) or application on the NII before they buy. The costs include usability issues like learning time, organizational-fit and satisfaction, as well as direct monetary costs. Developers need to understand the usability implications of their design decisions to direct design effort.

    To fulfill this need, research is necessary to define metrics and techniques (observational, analytic and heuristic) for assessing individual usability, group usability and how NII systems will fit into a social or organizational context. An important step is to validate these metrics and evaluation techniques by comparing their results to rigorous empirical tests of real systems in real-world use. The definition and validation of metrics and evaluation techniques are each themselves an iterative, continuous process during the life of the NII.

    3.3.1 Metrics

    Currently, the most well-defined metrics are for individual performance: time to perform a task and time to learn to perform a task. Although these metrics are important to a large segment of U.S. workers, they do not cover many other aspects of NII uses such as:

  • 1) Individual metrics: 2) Group metrics:

  • In addition to the group analogs of the individual metrics, metrics specific to groups and communities need to be developed and validated, e.g., level of cooperation or homogeneity of a group.
  • 3.3.2 Evaluation Techniques

    Evaluation should occur at many levels, for example: Evaluation can reflect national priorities that industry will not do, e.g., does an entire school system meet its educational goals in a cost-effective way using the NII, and if so, how?

    Three types of evaluation techniques have arisen from human factors and human-computer interaction (HCI) research: observational, theory-based and heuristic. Currently, observational techniques--i.e., watching users as they use an application--are dominant in the computer applications industry and will undoubtedly continue to be useful in the development of the NII. In fact, the NII poses the opportunity for forums where users of applications directly share product experience and potential users can judge whether they wish to invest both time and money in a particular application. However, the NII also poses unique problems for evaluation. In particular, when applications move from being a single-user in front of a workstation to groups of users geographically and temporally distributed, observational methods are not easily used. Due to this and other drawbacks of the observational approach, the NII requires research into other methods of evaluation.

    Theory-based and heuristic evaluation techniques are promising approaches in that they 1) provide evaluation at many stages in the design process, 2) remove the dependence on the availability of representative users and 3) remove the dependence on highly skilled usability testers. Each of these techniques needs to be validated by comparing its predictions to rigorous, empirical trials of real NII applications in real-world use. Also, each of these techniques needs to be usable by members of typical design teams in real development organizations.

    Theory-Based Simulation

    A modern engineering discipline requires modeling techniques and simulations to rapidly manipulate and evaluate design ideas. Design for the NII requires theories particularly associated with modeling users, their tasks and activities, work flow processes, environments and human communication. To fill this need, research is necessary to develop and validate simulations of users, tasks and environments (i.e., simulated users in a simulated community), of NII hardware and software technology and of the discourse through which these entities communicate. The methods for producing and using such simulations must be themselves usable, cost-effective and usefully fit into the design cycle. Additional research is required in:

    Heuristic Techniques

    As design experience accrues through the continuous evaluation of the NII, this experience could be captured and applied to new designs through heuristic techniques. Such techniques have started to develop, but need to be expanded to group applications and validated with observed performance in the field. These nascent techniques include: "Heuristic Evaluation" (Nielsen), Claims Analysis (Carroll and Rosson), guidelines, Cognitive Walkthroughs (Lewis and Polson) and prototyping tools with design critics (Fisher). Research in refining these methods and creating new ones should be supported to fill the needs of the NII.

    3.4 Findings and Recommendations: Standards

    The NII needs to establish a core set of user interface standards to provide a framework for developing products and services that are as ubiquitous and as easy to use as basic telephony.

    User interface standard specifications must ultimately provide uniform hardware and software benchmarks to measure both performance and compliance. Visible and explicit evaluation of competing solutions drives technical refinements in the appropriate direction and rewards cost-effectiveness.

    Standards are needed to enable easy-to-use services across different platforms and different media.

    Recommended research should focus on two areas:

    3.5 Findings and Recommendations: Pilot Projects and Testbeds

    Evaluation of the NII itself and its applications should be early, ongoing and its results should continually feed back into design. One approach would be to create a national "virtual" user interaction laboratory for defining, evaluating and conducting research that will foster collaboration and motivate NII product developers to make ease of use a high priority. There are also several testbeds already in place that should be studied immediately to begin the evaluation/design symbiotic relationship. For instance, research should be conducted into the individual use, social use and cultural implications of testbeds such as Mosaic, the World Wide Web and NSF's Scientific Collaboratories so that successes, failures and unexpected results can be understood and fed back into the design of NII products that come after. New testbeds and/or pilot projects such as those outlined below should also be developed to foster further development, introduction and evaluation of new ease-of-use technologies.

    3.5.1 Health Care

    Health care offers many interesting challenges and opportunities.

    The realization of "virtual consultation" will:

    Patients will be empowered by:

    3.5.2 Education

    Students need interactive access to educators with expertise not locally available, in either a virtual classroom or monitoring environment. Students need to collaborate among themselves, forming geographically and culturally disparate cooperative learning projects.

    "Virtual" instruction, tutoring and consultation will:

    3.5.3 Business

    Conference or meeting attendees need to participate without the time and expense of travel. Spontaneous, informal and low-overhead access (consistent with the goals of the NII) allows more-productive collaboration between meetings as well. The potential effects on business are:

    3.5.4 Entertainment

    This area offers the possibility of social games to geographically disparate (often anonymous) participants. The NII could increase the entertainment market by adding social dimensions not found in current games, i.e., social dimensions that appeal to many of the population who do not like current computer-based entertainment (games of movies).