Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Cause and Effect: A Two-way Loop

Had coffee this morning with my friend Ken Hilburn from Juice Analytics. Essentially, they are in the business of helping customers visualize data. Naturally, we talked about dashboards, a big emphasis of his company. The conversation helped close a loop for me between data dashboards and decision-support embedded user assistance.

Any follower of this blog or my column in UXmatters knows that I am a big proponent that user assistance needs to focus more on domain expertise rather than on how to interact mechanically with the user interface. For example, see my article User Assistance in the Role of Domain Expert.

I've always looked at it primarily from the viewpoint of decision support when asking a user to enter a parameter or make a selection on the UI. Essentially the pattern I support is:
  1. Define what the parameter controls.
  2. Advise what a good starting value is.
  3. Advise when the user might want to make it higher or lower (including any tradeoffs).
  4. Advise what the user could monitor to assess the impact of their decision, e.g., specific reports or status screens.
What came out of the coffee klatch discussion with Ken was to link the parameter setting directly to the that part of the application where its impact would be evident--and vice-versa. For example, if lowering a heartbeat threshhold parameter could impact server bandwidth, provide a link to the dashboard or system health screen that monitors bandwidth utilization. That way the user sees the baseline value and knows where to monitor for any negative impacts.

On the reverse side, if you have dashboard readouts that are affected by decisions the user makes in an application, provide that information at the dashboard and provide links back to where those decisions can be modified. For example, the bandwidth utilization dashboard should inform the user what kinds of things can make utilization go up (such as lower heartbeat threshholds) and link back to where those parameters can be adjusted. That way, information is linked to action.

And if you're not going to act on information, what's its value?

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