The goal of the usability and user interface (UI) design group at Oracle is to improve our users' experience and increase their task efficiency, thereby making our products more competitive in the marketplace.
A well-designed user interface is considered to be a key corporate competitive advantage. Although Oracle is the market leader in many of its product areas, providing exceptional features and technical strength, well-designed products can differentiate us from our competitors, by reducing total cost of ownership in reduced support and training costs.
Oracle's usability and user interface design group follows a traditional user-centered design process. The process consists of studying the users, their activities, tasks, and methods of work; creating high level models and metaphors that organize each product or product line; designing individual UI components and visual representations of data; evaluating designs and products using heuristic methodologies; and conducting structured usability tests that produce specific metrics such as time on task and completion rates.
The usability and user interface group was set up in 1995 by the senior vice president of tools technology in response to competitive pressures. Before the group was set up, each product group was responsible for its own user interface design, sometimes doing it in house, sometimes using user interface design or graphic design contractors, with little usability testing. Our initial efforts were directed at the most glaring visual and interaction problems. We also used usability tests as a tool to clearly demonstrate issues with existing products.
On the basis of these early successes the group has grown to support all the major product divisions at Oracle. As trust has been established with the development groups, they have accepted the value of our contribution and incorporated us into their development plans and processes. We are now actively involved in all aspects of the design of new user-centered products, and in many cases we are considered a major determinant of success.
In building the group we have used a set of clearly articulated job descriptions and hiring processes. This ensures that people we hire meet a required minimum set of professional skills and education. This also enables us to select people with good motivational fit and perspective on design in corporate contexts. We provide experience to improve their core skills, as well as considerable technical and people management training.
We follow a traditional user-centered design process with slight variations according to the needs of a particular product or design problem. The design process has the following main phases:
The conceptual phase is the understanding phase, in which we work to answer the following questions: What is the product? Who are the users? Who are the key decision makers in the development group? What are the opportunities and constraints of the design problem? What are the dependencies?
First we involve the development team, identify the key contacts, and review any existing documentation, schedules, and demos. With these in mind, we then determine the best approach and activities to perform. Usability activities could include group task analyses, wants and needs analyses, card sorting activities, and contextual interviews.
Design activities could include creating user profiles; task, role, function, and competitive analyses; and possible task and screen flows to visualize potential issues. From all this we can develop a usability plan and schedule.
During this phase we iteratively explore, develop, and test possible user interface solutions for the product.
Design activities include the creation and iteration of "low-fidelity" versions of the task flows and screens. We generally use either paper and pencil, or diagramming software such as Visio®. We then create and iterate prototypes of the product ranging from static screen shots to highly interactive and testable flows through the product. We create UI specifications for screens and maintain an archive of past design iterations.
Usability activities could include usability walk-throughs that can be paper-based or prototype-based, expert design reviews, heuristic evaluations, and competitive heuristic evaluations.
Once the interface has been designed, the designer iteratively reviews the developing code to ensure that it conforms to the agreed design and tracks any new issues.
Usability activities could include usability tests on the live code, and competitive usability tests.
Design activities could include review of implementation in relation to user interface specification, recording and prioritization of issues for the team, working with the development team to address issues, logging bugs against the code, and maintaining a list of enhancements for the next release.
In all the products we support, we work directly with the developers and product managers and actively solicit their feedback. The goal is to be involved as early as possible in the product design process and follow it all the way through to quality assurance. At the start of each project, we identify the key contacts in the product development and product management groups. These contacts become the primary representatives of that group and are involved in all of the review processes. The typical user interface team consists of a lead designer, a usability engineer, and possibly a junior staff member in either design or usability. Other peripheral people involved include peer reviewers (other designers and usability engineers), corporate UI standards representatives, and executives.
We consider that a project is successful when it is coded to UI design specification and well accepted by the company and the users. This reflects the importance and acceptance of the usability and user interface effort to the product development process.
We have always used a user-centered design process, but over time the context in which we have applied it has changed. We used to produce traditional Windows® or UNIX®-based development and server technology products, with a typical one to two-year development cycle. Now our products are mainly Web based; therefore, we have to design and test in "Web time," which is typically a six-month cycle between product releases. We used to work on distinct products with little integration; we now work on whole suites of products with high degrees of interoperability. This has made it necessary to expand our corporate UI guidelines and technologies, to have a broader peer review and consistency assurance process, and to have excellent communication across UI teams.
We have found that although many of our designers and usability engineers come to us already trained in the techniques and processes of design and usability evaluation, they often lack experience and skill in facilitating processes and managing relationships. A significant part of the work at senior levels requires the ability to exert influence within a corporate structure. We would encourage colleges and universities to provide courses in interpersonal communication skills, project management, and presentation skills as part of current degree programs. Corporations should also take the initiative by offering more internships, competitions, and corporate-sponsored projects.
We have had to be flexible in our work as the technologies we support have evolved. With each new innovation, we have to learn the details to identify the opportunities it offers. We have to look at how it will affect our design and product strategies, and we have to anticipate which technologies are important. However, the design process itself changes very little. We still must design for our users. Although the tools may change, we still need to produce prototypes. We may have new platforms, but we still need to perform usability tests. Whatever the technology, our users still need to perform their tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The main design effort at Oracle in recent years has been the translation of traditional PC-based applications to the Web. At the same time, the corporate focus has shifted from standalone products to suites of products and full solutions, which require consolidation of functionality, better interdependence among products, a standardized user interface look and feel, and technologies to deliver that look and feel.
An illustration of this process is Oracle Balanced Scorecard. Oracle Balanced Scorecard is a business intelligence application that allows executives and other business professionals to monitor the performance of the strategic objectives of the company. This information is then used to refine those objectives.
When we began working with the team the product had already been ported into Java® from the PC platform. As a result of the key corporate objective of converting all interfaces to HTML, the development team approached us for UI design assistance with the conversion. The main challenges we uncovered were the following:
- The product contained interaction modalities such as drag and drop and dynamic updating, and developers and product managers were skeptical about whether the limited interactivity of HTML could adequately support these features.
- Previously the product worked standalone but was being integrated as a suite.
Sales have been good, and usability testing has confirmed the effectiveness of the user interface. Most important, the development and product management teams have come back to us to work on both future versions and new products.
At the initial meeting, the UI manager and two staff designers met the senior development and product managers. It was clear that they were uncomfortable with the idea of converting to HTML. So we showed them other products that we had successfully converted and offered to produce some initial prototypes to test the feasibility of translating Balanced Scorecard. At least some of the development team's skepticism was rooted in their lack of experience with HTML, so we intended to use the prototypes to clarify which things really were and were not issues.
We created prototypes and tested them with users, to determine whether users were willing to accept the trade-off between the convenience of the Web and the fuller interactivity of a traditional application. In testing these and other models, we discovered that if the product appeared in a browser, users assumed the Web paradigm and accepted that level of interactivity. Then we visited customers and performed internal usability tests with these early versions. With these results we succeeded in convincing the development and product management teams that their expectations for the product were different from the users' expectations and that the proposed solutions were in fact usable.
With the move to a suite, a common look and feel was required. The UI group had already created corporatewide guidelines on HTML look and feel for the Oracle Web-based applications. At the same time, an internal technology team was creating a set of GUI components that would enable development teams to create the look and feel automatically. Our team was able to take full advantage of this developing structure, and it was a reassurance to the development team that they could actually build what we specified.
As a result, the project went ahead. Sales have been good, and usability testing has confirmed the effectiveness of the user interface. Most important, the development and product management teams have come back to us to work on both future versions and new products.
User Interface Design Manager, Business Intelligence Tools
Usability and User Interface Group
Phone: +1 (650) 506-3584
Senior Interaction Designer,
Usability and User Interface Group
Phone: +1 (650) 506-6353
Jeremy Ashley has 11 years of experience in applied interaction design of software products. He joined Oracle in 1996. He is currently the user interface design manager for business intelligence products, managing a diverse team of designers and usability engineers. He has a bachelor of arts in industrial design from the Glasgow School of Art and a master of design in computer-related design from the Royal College of Art in London.
Kristin Desmond has seven years of experience in interaction design and information design. She joined Oracle in 1995. She is currently a senior interaction designer responsible for server management and monitoring products. She has a bachelor of arts in architecture from the University of California at Berkeley.
Oracle's Usability and User Interface Design group is a central group of interaction designers, usability engineers, visual designers, and research scientists that provides services to all of Oracle's development organizations. It is responsible for the design and specification of all product user interfaces as well as all corporate user interface guidelines and standards. Dan Rosenberg, vice president of Usability and User Interface Design, oversees the group and acts as corporate UI architect, responsible for Oracle's UI strategy. The 60-person group is divided into seven teams: five serve the development organizations along domain lines (customer relationship management applications, enterprise resource planning Applications, business intelligence products, server products, and development tools); one supports guidelines and standards, and one conducts research. Most of the group is located at corporate headquarters in Redwood Shores, California. Two satellite locations are in Burlington, Massaschusetts, and in the United Kingdom. Group members are assigned to teams and projects according to their skills and expertise. Most individuals work on a single product throughout its development cycle. The group maintains a state-of-the-art usability testing suite consisting of individual labs, a classroom lab, a participatory design lab, and labs at the satellite offices.
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Since the bulk of our work is now designing Web interfaces, we've shifted from tools like Director®, Visual Basic®, and Java environments to tools that help us directly produce HTML. We use Photoshop® and Illustrator® for graphics, Dreamweaver® for publishing (all of our guidelines, specifications, and usability reports are published on our internal Web site), and Visio for diagramming flows. To make our interactive prototypes, we use the same framework that the development teams use to create the products. This framework includes a relatively simple declarative XML-based language that we can easily code with static data for testing purposes.
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