Team LiB
Previous Section Next Section

User Levels

I can't imagine that anyone ever intentionally set out to build a system that wasn't "user-friendly." Perhaps usability wasn't a high priority, but no one would set out to build a system that's user-antagonistic. The problem is that "user-friendly" is one of those nice, well-intentioned expressions that doesn't mean much, so you're left scrambling around to find ad hoc definitions.

Two definitions of user-friendly that are often mooted are "easy to learn" and "easy to use." If we put aside for the moment the question of what, exactly, "easy" means, we still have to ask ourselves, "Easy for whom?" The system that's easy for a beginner to learn is not necessarily easy for an expert to use. Your best approach is to consider the needs of each level of user and accommodate each with different facets of the interface.


Everyone is a beginner at some point. Very few people remain that waythey will either pass through the "newbie" stage to intermediacy, or they'll discard your system entirely in favor of someone else's. For this reason, you must be careful not to build in support for beginners that will get in the way of more advanced users.

Beginners need to know what your system does before they start to learn how to use it. The best way to present this information is outside the main system itself. For simple systems, an introductory dialog box that describes the system can be sufficient. (Just be sure you always include a means of dismissing the dialog box permanently.) For more complex systems, a guided tour might be more appropriate.

Online help isn't a good option for beginners. They might not know it exists or, if they do, how to use it. I have had some success using an online user's guide, however, by including a link to it from both the introductory dialog box and from the Help menu. To be successful with beginners, these guides must be task-oriented. Beginners don't want to know what "menu item" means; they want to know how to create an invoice.


For most systems, the majority of users fall into the intermediate category. Intermediate users know what the system does, but they often forget the details of how. This is the group you must support directly in the user interface. Fortunately, the Microsoft Windows interface standards provide a lot of tools for helping these users.

A well-designed menu system is one of the best tools for reminding intermediate users of the system capabilities. A quick scan of the available menu items will immediately remind them of the functions available and at the same time that it allows them to initiate the appropriate task.

An excellent second level of support for intermediate users is online help. Unfortunately, writing online help is outside the scope of this book. In this context, however, I will mention that most intermediate users will use the index as their primary access mechanism. The index should therefore be as complete as you can possibly make it.


Expert users know what to do and how to do it. They're primarily interested in doing things quickly. The more shortcuts you can build into your system, the happier you will make this group of users. In my experience, expert users tend to be keyboard-oriented, so make sure that you provide a way to move around the system using the keyboard if you're catering to this group.

Expert users also appreciate the ability to customize their working environment. Providing this functionality can be an expensive exercise, however, so you will want to carefully evaluate the benefit before including it. If you do decide to include some level of interface customization, even if it's only a matter of arranging windows on the screen, be certain to maintain the changes between sessions. Nothing is as irritating as having to rearrange everything every time you load a program.

    Team LiB
    Previous Section Next Section