Understanding Why Users Work in Unexpected Ways
Each week I spend a few hours on our Help Desk answering questions (mostly while wearing headphones and accidentally singing out loud when I forget I’m with other people). Many of the tickets I troubleshoot fall into three main categories:
- Someone skipped a step and now we’ve got an annoying loop going.
- Field X is supposed to be filled in, but someone managed to override it on hundreds of records.
- I need to reverse this weird thing someone else did.
With the pool of experienced users on staff and the seemingly infinite amounts of documentation both users and developers create, it’s easy to wonder why users are interacting with applications in ways that diverge from detailed descriptions of how certain tasks should be accomplished. In my experience, users (including myself) do unexpected things when encountering resistance during their attempts to power through their work and get their job done.
Processes Are Over-Documented (Translation: There are 20 pages of Instructions, So I’ll Just Wing It)
If I don’t know how to do something, my first instinct is to check the online instructions (yes, I’m *that* person). But let’s be honest, if those instructions require me to dig through page after page to find the nugget I need, or simply aren’t easily accessible, I’m opting out and making my best guess as to what needs to happen.
During implementation phases, many sites dedicate a significant amount of resources to documenting internal processes. Hundreds of screenshots are taken. Instructions are carefully specified. Exceptions to any rule we can think of are added “just in case”. In the end, relatively simple processes get obscured under all of the “what if” scenarios. Rather than risk users getting bogged-down digging through hundreds of detailed steps, try having a concise summary with a limited number of short, clear instructions. Include a note with a departmental contact for the rare occasion when a user truly isn’t sure how to proceed. Keeping things simple is often enough to help guide users through a task.
This Help Isn’t Helpful (FYI: These Instructions Were Written Years Ago and Don’t Match the Screen)
Many of us are great at regular assessment of our system functionality. Our documentation and online help? Not so much. Do you remember the last time you updated your data entry examples? Field definitions? User handbooks? All the cheat sheets and online help in the universe won’t matter if using them results in records that meet outdated standards.
Organisational Value is Unclear (AKA: Who Really Cares if I Do Things This Way?)
Sometimes we aren’t the primary consumers of the data we enter. I might start a record about a process that gets passed to another department. Although my team may not experience the impact resulting from partial records, data inconsistency or skipped steps, someone downstream is definitely in for some good times. In shared systems, the format and presence of data can be critical to another group’s ability to generate statistics or observations. If that’s the case, let’s just say so. Users are more likely to commit to procedures that don’t have obvious value if they understand that their actions lay the framework for another department to be successful.
Workflow Needs to be Optimised (Code For: This Requires Too Many Clicks)
We all have a limited amount of time. In a crunch, when forced to choose between doing some of our work or none of it, most of us do the best we can and complete as much of it as possible. If you notice a pattern of incomplete data entry which later causes other tasks to fail, count up the fields and screens the users have to touch in order to be “done” with a process. Is there a way for things to be consolidated? Should one time-consuming function be broken out into multiple smaller engagements? Would a simple upload or add-on utility be more efficient? Often times system administrators and software partners may be able to offer alternatives to help streamline routines and help create efficiencies.
Lack of Checks and Alerts (I Already Told You: The System Let Me Do It…Now Stop Hassling Me)
In an ideal environment, there are periodic checks and validations with messages confirming that an entry is being completed as expected. In reality, we find ourselves dealing with what I fondly refer to as empty field syndrome. If a user needs to enter something and there is an open spot in an application, it’s up for grabs. While I’m a fan of personal responsibility, I see users go rogue all the time in an attempt to generate a report, build a list, or flag certain tasks (on my team, this is column W in a certain Excel spreadsheet that shall remain nameless). I’d like to have an honest chat with any software user that claims they haven’t entered something into an available spot “for now.” If members of your team are constantly correcting and updating data, it’s time to find out why and identify a way forward.
Software is full of the unexpected. By examining the ways that we engage with systems, we can be alert to opportunities to create more supportive interactions with our applications. If you’re interested in connecting with other Axiell systems experts to get new ideas about doing this at your site, we encourage you to register for one of our upcoming user groups: North America, Europe, France, Middle East and Australia (to be announced).