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User-friendly business systems?

By Richard Whitehand, January 2004

Computer Sweden (Sweden’s leading IT newspaper) recently published results from a survey of 210 medium-sized companies across different branches in Sweden. Primarily aimed at managing directors and finance managers, the survey asked (amongst other things) what they felt the most important characteristics of business support systems were.

Managers rated the most important characteristics as follows:



Pie chart Standard system



It is welcome news that top levels of management now place such a significant weight on user-friendliness (or, as we would prefer to call it, usability). However, the question is, if usability is so important then how do organisations go about specifying it in requirements for new systems?

The answer, unfortunately, is typically rather vague statements like:

  • "The system should be user-friendly"
  • ""The system should be easy to learn"
  • "The interface to the system should follow the style guide"
  • "The interface should be adaptable to different user needs"
  • "The interface must have a simple and logical layout"

Rarely, if ever, do requirements specifications contain any form of quantitative/measurable usability requirements.

At the end of the day, when a system is delivered, then it is relatively simple for a supplier or developer to state that a system is "user-friendly", after all, they built it and so its obvious to them how it works. Hence "user-friendliness" criteria are deemed to have been met, and providing objective arguments to the contrary can be difficult.

When documenting requirements, every effort should be made to specify usability in a manner that can be followed up - with objective assessment criteria. Furthermore, in the case of new system development, demands should also be placed on the development process to ensure that it is user-centred and that usability issues are concerned from the beginning of the development project. After all, user-friendliness can’t simply be painted on at the end (well, maybe in the marketing material...).

Related articles:

[The survey results were published in Computer Sweden on 28th January 2004. Whilst unclear in the reference article (link above), the survey was conducted by Actit, a company working with IT and financial control services.]

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