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Interface design, 2002: Industry Briefs

IX.2 March 2002
Page: 59
Digital Citation

Accenture


Authors:


back to top  Philosophy of Design

Accenture designs and builds a multitude of applications for its clients: business-to-consumer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2B) Web sites, call centers, enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementations, learning management systems, training systems, and back-end applications such as billing systems. The philosophy of maximizing human performance is a key ingredient in Accenture's mix of strategy and technology consulting services. Part of this focus on human performance is the need to design applications that are "usable"—whether that means easy to learn, efficient, aesthetically pleasing, or mission-critical. Accenture has only a few small groups of interaction designers—primarily in the Chicago area, New Jersey, Oslo, and London—so there simply aren't enough interaction design skills to apply to every client project. Furthermore, because of the shortage of skilled human-computer interaction designers at Accenture, client teams often work with third-party graphic design firms to handle the "look and feel" issues, and the Accenture team focuses on technology development. Despite this apparent limited capability in interaction design, Accenture includes key interaction design tasks and deliverables in its standard methodology and offers courses in usability as part of its training curriculum for technology employees. With our move into inter- and intranet development, rather than our traditional focus on back-end systems, both clients and project management increasingly appreciate the value added by interaction design and its role in application development.

back to top  Design Process

Accenture's prescribed design process is quite formal; we have a standard, flexible methodology that applies to most development projects. Interaction design tasks are included in two areas of the methodology. First, we design the interaction model as part of the initial, conceptual design process. The interaction model is the framework within which we design the actual user interface. A properly designed interaction model allows the functions of future software releases to easily fit into the existing design, without costly redesign. The interaction model is typically subjected to a usability test using low-fidelity prototyping techniques, because we find that simple prototypes best tease out the navigation and modality issues necessary to develop an effective interaction model.

Next we design the interface itself. We work with our clients to determine their goals for human performance. We advise them that it is typically not possible to maximize each chosen usability attribute (such as efficiency, error prevention, and ease of learning). We help them determine which factor is most critical to meeting the business case for the application, and then we design to maximize the effectiveness of that factor. This is also the point at which we work with marketing and brand teams, especially for customer-facing Web sites. This means we must ensure that colors and layout are effective from both a human performance and a marketing and communications standpoint. Then there is the layout itself, in which we place the fields, labels, buttons and other widgets and content areas.

Throughout the design process we work closely with technical architects, software developers, business analysts, project managers, graphic designers, and (of course) users. This ensures that our design is both effective and feasible, which eliminates surprises and rework. Because we typically deliver software in releases, we can many times perform usability tests on working prototypes or early versions of the software to be released. This high-fidelity approach allows us to identify usability factors related to system response time, terminology and labels, and lesser navigation issues.

In addition to design and testing, we also encounter issues that require applied research in content organization and methods to identify meaningful content tags to help people find the information they need. For example, what is the best way—besides searching—to present users with thousands of course titles in a learning management system?

back to top  Sample Design Project

An important area of Accenture's practice is supply chain consulting and training consultants in the areas of that discipline. To support the Supply Chain practice, we created a Web site called Supply Chain University, featuring related news, articles, and access to training assets, for example, courses, books, conferences, and journals. As with many sites we develop, our challenge was to offer a sufficiently specific search method for finding the training assets, given the fact that the Supply Chain practice is divided into numerous subdisciplines in 40 countries. Another challenge was the need to offer access to both asynchronous and synchronous training assets—we learned from our users that the need to be at a certain place at a certain time or not is an important distinction.

We worked closely with the Supply Chain practice (our client), their employees, a graphic designer, and software developers. We initially designed a typical search interface with numerous check boxes, radio buttons, and combo boxes to define the search criteria. However, during usability testing we learned of the need for canned searches (such as the one labeled "See what I can take now online" in the figure) that combine several criteria into a single search action. This approach was further validated after the site was deployed; when we looked at usage data for the search page, 60 percent of searches were of the canned variety, with far fewer than half the searches using some combination of specific criteria. Armed with this data, we plan to design future versions of this site and others with a greater reliance on offering searches with predetermined criteria.

back to top  Authors

Cynthia L. Perrine (Left)

cynthia.l.perrine@accenture.com
Phone: +1 (630) 444-6112

Jeffry J. Tar (Center)

jeffrey.j.tar@accenture.com

Alan E. Asper (Right)

alan.e.asper@accenture.com
Phone: +1 (630) 444 6079

Cynthia is a principal usability architect and senior development manager at Accenture in Northbrook, Illinois. She has 11 years' experience at Accenture; her current responsibilities include managing internal Web site development projects and leading the group's usability team. Cynthia holds a bachelor's in psychology from Illinois Wesleyan University and a master's in engineering psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Jeffry is a usability architect at Accenture in Northbrook, Illinois. Before joining Accenture, he worked as a technical writer for Compuware Corporation. Jeffry holds a bachelor's in English from Purdue University.

Alan is a usability architect at Accenture in St. Charles, Illinois. Before joining Accenture, he worked in the Human Factors Group at SBC Technology Resources, Inc. Alan holds a bachelor's in experimental psychology and a master's in industrial engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. Cynthia L. Perrine (Left), Jeffry J. Tar (Center), Alan E. Asper (Right)

back to top  Sidebar: Company Snapshot

Job titles

Accenture has four levels of employees—Analyst, Consultant, Manager, and Associate Partner, with specific titles varying according to each group. There are interaction designers at each level.

Job qualifications

Psychology
Human factors
Industrial engineering
Computer science

Number of individuals employed in design and usability

Approximately 60 people scattered worldwide, primarily in the Chicago area, New Jersey, Oslo, and London. Most interaction design work is performed in Accenture's Customer Relationship Management (CRM) practice and in the training organization.

Project teams

Project teams typically include usability experts, graphic designers, technical architects and software developers, application testers, business analysts, and project managers.

Salary range for usability positions

Salaries at Accenture are determined by management level rather than role. There are interaction designers at all levels of the organization. Therefore, the range is competitive with similar roles in the consulting industry.

back to top  Sidebar: Practitioner's Workbench

Education for practitioners

The authors come from both formal, theoretical HCI and "learn on the job" backgrounds; one is an adjunct professor at a local university. Therefore, we feel that practioners must practice—and the best way to educate new practitioners is a combination of theory (for example, concepts in cognitive psychology and experimental design) and practice (where to recruit users for a usability test, how to communicate with team members from other disciplines). Good design requires a strong theoretical framework, but the designer must also be familiar with the everyday techniques and strategies to be successful.

Resources

  1. interactions, ACM Transactions on CHI, older issues of the Human Factors journal
  2. Mullet and Sano's Designing Visual Interfaces: Communication Oriented Techniques
  3. Edward Tufte's The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
  4. Chris Wickens' great textbook Engineering Psychology and Human Performance
  5. Laura Arlov's GUI Design for Dummies (not for dummies at all, but a very useful reference for experienced designers)
  6. Lynch, Patrick J. and Horton, Sarah. Web Style Guide: Basic Design Principles for Creating Web Sites. Yale University Press, 1999.

back to top 

©2002 ACM  1072-5220/02/0300  $5.00

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