More Feedback = Better Software

I recently came across an interview with Jakob Nielsen, who has been referred to as the ‘king of usability.’ The article is from 2007, but the content is still relevant for companies, developers, and others interested in ensuring their website and/or software is user friendly. It’s particularly pertinent to the Capacity Project HRIS team’s work right now -- a few months ago we embarked on a plan to improve the usability of our HR software, the iHRIS Suite, and we’re currently using feedback received to influence the upcoming release.

In the article, Nielsen states that there are numerous things you can do to improve usability, but there are two key things he highlights: applying existing knowledge such as guidelines created from previous research or best practices, and conducting your own research on your specific product (or what’s referred to as user testing). He highly recommends this second option, and says even testing 5 people can uncover most usability issues.

Our own thinking about improving the usability of the iHRIS software has followed this approach. The lead of the HRIS team, Dykki Settle, who’s also the Director of Informatics for the Project, brought the idea of usability to the forefront last summer as we were writing our workplan for the fifth and final year of the Capacity Project. During the first four years of the Project, focus was mainly on iterative software development and customizations to meet country-specific needs. In the fifth and final year, the focus needed to be shifted to finalizing the software in order to generate complete releases that emphasize ease of use, reach a wider audience, and could be easily installed and used by HR managers and other decision-makers with a minimum of external technical assistance.

In previous years, the software was formally presented at numerous meetings and conferences, and more informal demonstrations were given to partner organizations and potential users in countries where the Project is working. As the one doing most of the presenting, Dykki told stories of what he referred to as ‘mouse spin,’ where he watched people try out the software demos and observed that they did not intuitively know where to start, and appeared confused about how to enter data or produce reports. Dykki and others on the team also noted that new users did not seem to be reading the explanatory on-screen text. It was therefore decided that improvements to the software, from minor changes in menu options and text to a redesign of the interface, could greatly improve the user experience. The assumption guiding this strategy was simple: the greater the number of users who are able to understand the functions and advantages of the iHRIS software, the greater the demand for its continual improvement, and therefore a greater chance of long-term sustainability after the Project ends.

After several conversations with the iHRIS development team, and consultation with a usability expert, the team initiated a Usability Improvement Plan. The plan focused our HR management software, iHRIS Manage, because it is currently used in the greatest number of countries and also shares many common components with iHRIS Qualify, our licensure and certification software. The initiative started with developing a testing document to elicit feedback. We reviewed testing documents that other organizations used, especially the NC State usability lab, and created a testing document with tasks we wanted volunteers to perform. After a round of feedback, we began formal usability testing, initially with IntraHealth's IT and Communications staff and the Capacity Project’s technical staff, and then with users in Uganda.

The iHRIS Manage usability test takes about an hour to complete. The procedure starts with collecting demographic information and finding out about volunteers’ experience with computers, software, and HR management tools. Volunteers are then asked to review the home page of the software and provide feedback about what they like or do not like, and if anything seems confusing. Next, they are asked to perform several tasks like changing their password, configuring the database, adding a new record, and producing reports. The facilitator emphasizes that there is no right or wrong way to perform the tasks and encourages the tester to think ‘out loud’ and let the facilitator know what they are thinking, feeling, and possibly confused about. The facilitator captures the session on videotape whenever possible and always takes notes during the session.

We had a unique opportunity to involve actual users and potential users from the countries where the Capacity Project works, by holding modified testing sessions at the recent HRIS/DDDM workshop in Arusha, Tanzania. We broke the test into three sections and several HRIS team members acted as the facilitators. 17 workshop attendees participated, from Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Namibia, S. Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda, as well as a representative from the Health Metrics Network.

So far, 24 people have volunteered and completed usability testing. Feedback has ranged from changing the photo on the homepage to clarifying terms such as ‘job’ and ‘position’ to simplifying data entry and customization of drop down menus to adding more standard reports. Findings have been documented and presented to the iHRIS development team. The development team is now incorporating some of the findings and suggestions into the Capacity Project’s final release of the iHRIS Manage software, version 4.0. The software is expected to be released next week. Some of the changes include improved explanatory text; more intuitive navigation, buttons, and menus; and an easier-to-use custom report tool.

It is our hope that this next release will be easier for people to use, will be adaptable to more locations, and will therefore create the demand for more local software developers to continue to modify and improve the software to meet their specific country’s needs. We want people to glean the benefits of iHRIS Manage, and use the information it generates to improve policy and planning about the health workforce, instead of being frustrated with something technology related. As Nielsen states,

“You don't want your customer to puzzle over how to operate your user interface, you just want them to focus on your product, on your argument, on your ideas, whatever you are trying to promote, and not on the mechanics, because the mechanics are hard enough already. And, if you then get in their way by doing things in unusual manner, then for sure you are going to lose a large percentage of people here.”

One of the HRIS team members recently compared software development to the mail. Remember when the character, Newman, from Seinfeld commented that the mail never stops? Well, neither does software development. There is always room for improvement. Nielsen stated something similar at the end of his interview:

“Yes, you are never done. You can always get better. I have of tracked these things over time, and what happens is that as the science gets better, the user's expectations actually get higher, so people want more and that might be unfair, but that's how it is.”

To learn more about usability, visit Nielsen's website at