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Ask Eric: Questions & Answers

Each month Dr. Eric Schaffer answers selected questions on usable interface design. Archived questions by topic

Here are the most recent questions you asked with Eric's answers. HFI RSS feed

December 10, 2013 – submitted by Mujahid Syed of Ontario, CA


Hi Eric, Would breadcrumbs be effective if they incorporate dropdown menus? Are there any usability study on this? Is it a good idea to replace the global navigation with breadcrumb navigation with dropdown menus?

Eric's response: I think you will find that problematic. The idea of breadcrumbs includes picking a link to move back to a given page. But the idea of taking an action of moving back, by reselecting a dropdown, is not at all obvious. You can use a stack of dropdowns to move through a hierarchy (like picking a state and then having a dropdown with counties). But it does not really work as a set of breadcrumbs.


October 7, 2013 – submitted by Patil Pallavi of Maharashtra, India

Question: Here is my question: I came across the Usability Quiz on the HFI website. For the quiz item, “Important factors leading to usable software do not include,” my answer was “Management buy-in.” But the answer is “User Training.” Can you justify the answer? User training can make software usable.

Eric's response: We understand that this is a subtle issue. Management buy-in is an important factor leading to usable software, because management’s commitment to UX design is imperative to get the resources and coordination needed for good UX design. Itís an indirect factor. User training, on the other hand, doesnít improve the usability of software. It merely teaches users how to use the software, even if it is hard to use. User training is often seen as a work-around for bad UX design. In fact, the amount of user training decreases or may even be unnecessary when software is designed well.


Sep 27, 2013 – submitted by Sailesh Sawant of Maharashtra, India

Question: I am a UI developer and exploring opportunities in mobile web. I like to make wireframes, build prototypes, etc., for web-based interfaces. What course or modules i should apply for?

Eric's response: We have a course on UX in mobile application design. But if you want to really operate in the field, I would recommend our professional level training. I would also say get your certification. UX is a hot field in India, and I am really proud to see how many folks are successful at moving ahead in the field.


Sep 26, 2013 – submitted by Jeanne Won of Vienna, VA

Question: We are redesigning our Intranet. Are there guidelines for how much content should be rendered/displayed, given the "vested" audience and the need to communicate mandatory, required messages (compliance, security, emergencies, executive updates, etc.)?

Eric's response: Generally, the intranet does NOT make a good push medium for time-sensitive messages. It is like a phone that does not ring! You have to keep looking on the chance something is there. You need to broadcast by a different channel (probably email or SMS).


Sep 25, 2013 – submitted by Jeric Copuz of Pangasinan, Philippines

Question: Why is it that many software developers don't pay enough attention to requirements engineering? Are there ever circumstances where you can skip it?

Eric's response: When people talk about "requirements," they often mean the UX part of the design. Based on user needs, what should the interface do? Based on user needs, how should the design flow? It takes a UX skill set to define these requirements, and since computer scientists almost never get this skill set, they canít do that work well. So they donít do it. And they have to recode again and again hoping to gradually figure it out.


Aug 31, 2013 – submitted by Nikhil Tiwari of Maharashtra, India

Question: I am working as senior web developer (UI) with five years of experience. I look forward to pursuing HFI's CUA certification. Can you please let me know whether this certification is appropriate for me, and are there relevant jobs in the industry? Along with web development I also do wireframing and Photoshop for creating mockups.

Eric's response: I will say that there is a booming market in India for staff with usability/user-experience capabilities. And the HFI training is certainly the most recognized training program wordwide as a solid foundation for doing that kind of work. So yes, the program is generally worthwhile. In India I see a lot of requests for people that can do interaction design like a CUA, do graphic artwork, and code. I think that it would be better to just expect people to be able to do one of those activities well. But that said, there is certainly a demand for people with that wide spectrum profile.


May 24, 2013 – submitted by Asaak Abdi of Somalia

Question: What is the major danger of doing research without a literature review?

Eric's response: Thanks, delighted to see a good question from Somalia.

Research is rarely a simple, single study, that illuminates the whole question. If we have even a "simple" question, like what is be best way to display text on a mobile screen, we actually have lots of questions. We need to know the best font, which interacts with best font size. You need to know the best line length. The leading (or space between lines). You might find that English text has a different answer then simplified Chinese. Pretty much all we do is complicated. So if you do research without a literature review, you are doing a single study out of context of the previous studies done worldwide. You might well be unintentionally duplicating a previous study. You might fail to be asking the right question in your research. You might be making up dependent variables (like surveys and measures) which have already been established and used routinely for years. I recently had a major hardware manufacturer ask us to answer a list of questions about display design and operation of a touch screen. We certainly know the basic answers just from our previous training and work. But we are still proposing a literature review first. Because there is a stream of new research coming out all the time. And the last thing we want to do is spend $40,000 to do a study where we can instead spend $10 on buying a research paper!


April 30, 2013 – submitted by Dietra Lavergne of Jacksonville, FL

Question: I have an M.S. in Information Systems Management. I am finding the information on usability with humans very interesting. I would like to work on my doctorate in this subject. To attempt to answer some questions, I believe I should start working on understanding the subject of human thought process first. Or, is there another subject I should start with? What would be an initial good subject to begin with?

Eric's response: Certainly, studying cognitive psychology is a good foundation for UX work. However, there are lots of programs that directly focus on the field. You can search the listing on our website here.


April 12, 2013 – submitted by Melanie St. James of USA

Question: Hi Eric, In your Dec, 2010 "Impediments to a Mature UX Practice and How to Avoid Them", you talk about the right investment for UX work being about ten percent of the total development cost. In our IT organization, we implement online services that include home-grown, open-source and 3rd party products. As we are planning to institutionalize UX, how should we think about the 10% cost? 10% of people time on a project? If buying a 3rd party web-enabled technology, 10% of cost of product? Thanks!

Eric's response: If you buy a package, especially if it can not be customized, there may be nothing for the UX team to do. But if you are designing software (or doing major customizations to a purchased facility) then you can look at it as 10% of the development team headcount, or 10% of the budget. The 10% is for all UX activities including research, design, and testing.


March 4, 2013 – submitted by Paula of Pittsburgh, PA

Question: I work for a medical device company. Our product is worn worldwide by predominantly geriatric patients. In upgrading the 2x4 inch touch screens on our device, consultants are advising that we change the word on the response key from "OK" to the word "Accept". We feel that this would be a mistake, but there is resistance to buck the experts who have been hired to give the screens a more up-to-date, fresh look. For one, "OK" is an easily recognizable, generic symbol in the US and abroad. Then there's the translation issue; fitting the word "Accept" in a small area on a small screen in German, Norwegian, etc text. This means condensing the font as necessary to fit for a population with aging eyes, attempting to recognize/read what to press to acknowledge cues. We feel this is not in the best interests of our customers, yet we've been told that we must prove our point via formative tests and/or expert opinion, otherwise the decision will remain to support the consultant's design change because they're the experts. I'm interested in your opinion about this modification. In the interests of human factors, we want to keep it simple for our aging, non-techy target audience that views a touch screen a challenge in and of itself.

Eric's response: I would be happier to find a version that is localized.  But if you have to use English I can tell you the “OK” is the best understood English word in the world. It is as close to universal as you can get (That an Kaopectate…  only kidding). I just can’t imagine what rational they have for using ‘Accept’! Are you talking to lawyers or something?  If they understand ANY English OK will work. However, if they only read Devanagri even ok won’t work. Of course ओके  probably will (which is OK in Devanagri).


November 30, 2012 – submitted by Mariu Hernando of Berlin, Germany

Question: What is the best strategy in a company dedicated to usability, to do knowledge management from users data, in order to use it for future projects and internal development?

Eric's response: The best strategy is to accumulate a shared model of ecosystem and UX oriented data. So each project starts with a full knowledge of the customer. And then as new projects gain insights these need to be added to the shared, object oriented model of the customers. If you sign up at UX Marketplace™ you can get a free personal UXEnterprise™ login. UXEnterprise is our tool that is built to accumulate the knowledge of the customer's ecosystem and keep it all linked up.


November 24, 2012 – submitted by Ashu Saini of Gurgaon, India

Question: What is the right approach and procedure to institutionalize usability in an organization with no awareness. We have recently got a UX Designer to design and redesign user interfaces.

Eric's response: Happily, most organizations are now aware (at least at the executive level). In a new study Forrester found that 97% of companies see customer experience as a strategic imperative. So today, the key is to connect with the executives that understand. With that executive championship, you can begin to move toward a mature practice.


October 23, 2012 – submitted by Sue Richter of Atlanta, GA

Question: How do you think UX fits into the Agile Methodology?

My clients are using two-week Sprints for design iterations. Of course, iterations occur in IT and with Agile, but usually for developers. Does it make sense to use this methodology for UX? The opportunity for planning, strategy and analysis gets lost in Agile. Projects are completed but are not innovative, because the focus was on deadlines rather than what we were actually trying to build.

Here's an example that hopefully explains my point. You are asked to design a new innovative phone. If I were to "simply put something together" with no planning, brainstorming, analysis, etc., I would probably come up with a device that looks very much like a phone and at the end of the project this design will be fine-tuned for approval with perhaps a few new features that were identified as something our developers can program and support. However, if I were to analyze what this device is first, I would think, "hmm... it is a device that communicates between people, but does it have to necessarily communicate via voice or sound? Maybe it is not a device at all." My point is that this type of out-of-the-box thinking could be what motivated Steve Jobs' ideas. He thought, "What does it do? – communicate. What are ways to communicate etc.? What is different? What could be helpful? What do users want?", etc. I am sure that the iPhone idea wasn't created in a two-week Sprint. If it was, I really would like to know how. Thanks!

Eric's response: Yes. Agile is generally not good news for the customer centred design team. It will routinely fail to create proper cross channel integration, proper innovation, and even proper high level design. So the only good solution is to do all those activities before the Agile process starts.


October 8, 2012 – submitted by Vineet Chandra of New York, NY

Question: What is the best way to make sure that UI-Standards and Style Guides are implemented across different teams?

Eric's response: There two things that work together well. One is to give staff training in the importance of standards, how to access standards, and how to apply them in design. We use a course like this one, that we customizes for each client.

Half day standards course from UX Marketplace

We also recommend a systematic review of each screen by a separate team (we often setup offshore operations for this). The big question though is if that team should provide approvals for each screen (which can feel draconian) or if they should just give feedback to the authors.


September 28, 2012 – submitted by T.S.S. Ganesan of Chennai, India

Question: There are changes happening with respect to the screen sizes – huge, big, small, etc. Sometimes I feel these are only going back and forth and will continue in times to come. Whatever be the situation, the UX process will remain the same and there could be a change only in the approach. Am I right, Eric? If not, kindly explain.

Eric's response: You are correct. The UX process is the same. However we are now often using responsive design so that our interfaces automatically scale to various device formats. I think this is the trend for the future. There are a blizzard of devices. And we have to design to handle all (or most) of them.


September 17, 2012 – submitted by Nakul Wali of Pune, India

Question: I am currently working as a UX engineer. I am planning to go for a Master's in Human-Computer Interaction. I have completed engineering in E&TC. Will it help, and what are the prospectus after that?

Eric's response: Of course getting a Master's degree will help! The UX field in India is quite hot. So you can expect excellent job prospects. Be sure to include HFI in your placement list. :)


August 9, 2012 – submitted by Amanda Messer of Westlake, OH

Question: Have you experienced a negative attitude towards new features that improve usability? For instance, you have a released web site. You have some type of feedback or change request process for the site and you also do usability testing. You see many users running into the same usability issue so you add a new feature to address it in the next release. When you announce the new features you include the usability enhancement with an emphasis on how you are listening to your customers and taking action. Are all of your end users now satisfied or could some look at this differently? Does anyone take this as "if you knew anything about what I was trying to accomplish this would have been there a long time ago"? Could it leave your organization with a bad user interface design reputation because you released something without this "enhancement" in the first place? Could it lead to a bad impression of your design team because you needed usability testing to tell you that you need to add an "obvious" feature? What is the best practice for marketing how you are listening to your customers, that you care about them and their needs, are adding features that add value for them, but not make it look like you have to apologize for not having a good design from the beginning or do customers not look at this in a negative way?

Eric's response: Pretty much all software users expect periodic new releases. You will primarily get into trouble if the release is worse. And this certainly happens. But if you make a change that really does improve the design you will mostly be appreciated. The one issue to watch for is proactive inhabitation. If users have learned (or particularly overlearned) a motor behaviour and you change it, you will drive them nuts. For example, if they have learned to hit ENTER to go to the next field, and change it to make ENTER send the screen, then the users will perpetually find themselves making mistakes. And they will rightly blame you.


July 26, 2012 – submitted by Abhijeet Patankar of Pune, India

Question: I am designing a website form. One of the field sets is a set of multiple (five) options. The user can select any one. Out of five, two options have suboptions. A user who selects either of these two must select a suboption for one or provide some input value for other. The remaining three have only main options. So, as a design solution we can use either radio button group or the select box (combo box/List Box). Here are the two alternatives-

Alternative 1: Radio button group
Option 1 has sub options Op1_1, Op1_2 and Op1_3. For this option, a user can select multiple suboptions. So, I decided to use check boxes for suboptions. Option 5 has text input from user. Text field can be provided. Either these suboptions can be visible by default, but they will be disabled until the user selects its parent option or they will become visible on selection of parent option. For example Op1_1, Op1_2, and Op1_3 will be available for selection if Option 1 is selected, or they will be visible on selection of Option 1.

Alternative 2: Select Box (Combo box/List Box)
It will be a list of 5 options. Sub options will be visible and available on main option selection from the list. There is no restriction on space or real estate on the screen, so not considering that aspect.

Which one is better design alternative in terms of usability and intuitiveness?

Eric's response: If there is no special constraint and there are just five selections, a radio button is the best control. All items are immediately visible. If the default item is desired, there is no work to do. And selecting a different item is a single click. Drop downs take a click just to view the items, and is a complex and error prone selection.

Then, I would make the deferred create area a bit more obvious, and have the contingent items show up in that area either at the top of the box, or in the middle. Don’t try to align the secondary choices with the radio button selection.


June 22, 2012 – submitted by T.S.S. Ganesan of Chennai, India

Question: Usability is a term coined for the Computer Age but existed even before now, and with different names in different fields. Is my understanidng right? Can you detail it further? Can you also let me know when usability was born?

Eric's response: Sure. And I apologize for the confusion. The field started in World War II (around 1942) with the U.S. Air Force bringing in psychologists to figure out how to best lay out aircraft cockpits. The psychologists used methods we use today (like visual link analysis) to create the ‘Sacred Six” layout, which is used even today. These guys were then called ‘Engineering Psychologists’ (and they formed Division 21 of the American Psychological Association).

Then came a blizzard of terms. First, ‘Human Performance Engineer’ (‘Engineer’ can also be ‘Specialist’ ). Then, ‘Human Factors Engineer’. Then mostly in Europe ‘Ergonomist’. Then ‘Usability Engineer’. Library scientists who moved into the field were mostly called ‘Information Architects’. And those focused on software UI were sometimes called ‘Human Computer Interface (HCI) Designers'.

More recently, with an expansion of the domain to the design for complex ecosystems, emotional design, innovation, and UX Strategy, the field ‘User Experience Engineer’ has become popular. With the variant 'Customer Experience Engineer’, which emphasizes that the design is for customers (but of course internal staff can be customers also).


June 12, 2012 – submitted by Tuncho Granados of Guatemala

Question: On what criteria do you decide if OK-CANCEL buttons should be OK-CANCEL or CANCEL-OK? I can see reasonable arguments for both and perhaps find out if it should make a difference if they are on the top part of the form or at the bottom.

Eric's response: Good question! The OK-Cancel structure with the OK left justified and the Cancel at the right side makes the most sense ergonomically. The buttons are nicely separated so you are unlikely to hit the wrong one by accident. Also, the flow of work goes down the screen and you hit the more likely button (OK) right where your eye goes as it continues down the page. The cancel button is also in a fixed position which can be learned easily, as opposed to floating, depending on the number of action buttons that are at the bottom of the page. This all said, we want to stick with our organization's standards.


May 29, 2012 – submitted by Robin Garrett of Humble, TX

Question: I will by conducting a usability study for my dissertation. I want to be sure the upload and download speed remains consistant or an allowable range during the various tests over several weeks and need to find some references that provide this guideline. I am considering using speedtest.net to obtain the speeds, but want to have data to support the allowable range.

Eric's response: The line speed on most studies is controlled in one of two ways.  Either you use a facility on your hard drive (so it is basically instant), or you counterbalance and randomize the conditions so that net speed variation is factored out.  The later approach is our traditional way of addressing a multitude of test factors like room temperature, lighting, and barometric pressure that all can also have an impact on your results.


April 23, 2012 – submitted by Hardik Khanna

Question: I am an Internet evangelist. I came across your website through a friend's recommendation and really like it. I have a query regarding web designing, which goes like this: on websites, why are filters provided on the right-hand side of the page? From my personal observation/usage I have seen that generally the cursor is always on the right side of the screen, which is probably because I am a right-handed person. Whenever I try to change filters, I have to again rub my finger against the mouse pad, which is not a very good experience. This becomes even more annoying on an e-commerce website. Can you please provide some insights on this?

Eric's response: Well, you can find pretty much any design online somewhere. But, in general, filters belong either on the top or the left side. In that way, logical structure is maintained (for cultures reading left to right and down). You first enter the filter and then you see the results.


April 20, 2012 – submitted by Diane Evans of Savannah, GA

Question: Do you think decision trees, nav maps, and storyboards are enough to represent the hierarchy of information to your design, or do you require an additional tool for the same? Give reasons in support your answer.

Eric's response: Hmmm. Am I answering your test question?

Well, in any case, you do not need multiple methods to define an information architecture. A simple tree view will pretty much always be enough. Navigation maps do NOT show an information architecture purely. A navigational map is used to show a navigational solution, which has implicit in it an information architecture. But you must also deal with other issues, like the selection of modes of navigation. For example, your information architecture could be managed with a combination of a left navigation and a modal menu.

Storyboards are not a method for describing an information architecture. Rather, a storyboard is a method which may provide a part of the context necessary to determine an optimal information architecture. However, in addition to the taskflow data in a storyboard, you would also need to look at the mental model of the users (as in the HFI ĎPrimary Noun Analysisí methodology).

Did we pass? :)


October 27, 2011 – submitted by Carol Aubin of Alpharetta, GA

Question: Realizing that there are International icons when traveling, etc., is there a standard for our International users of various software applications? If there is and I've missed it, please let me know the source. Thank you!

Eric's response: Nope. And it is not really the case that there are truly international signs either. If you work at it you MIGHT find some road that are pretty international (maybe a yellow triangle with a squiggly line for winding road?). But you would be amazed at the level of confusion that is possible, even for things that you would think are simple. For example we have had problems with the mailbox icon, because the typical American rural mailbox is not used in other places, including Europe.


August 11, 2011 – submitted by Callie Coon of Clearwater, FL

Question: I was curious if you have any data on current bill rates for Usability Analysis. In your classes, you went over bill rates for actual participants in testing scenarios, but I'm interested in information on the standard billing rate for my services as an independent contractor, not as a salaried employee. Is there a resource out there that provides that info regionally? Or does HFI monitor the industry for that data?

Eric's response: The Usability Professionals Association does a lovely annual salary survey. I suggest monitoring that for income expectations. As a contractor there is quite a large range of hourly rates. It depends on skill level. It also depends on the resources you bring with you. For example HFI bill rates include a mass of intellectual property, training, certification, management, and quality assurance processes. I would say roughly as a independent contractor you might see rates from $550-1,500 a day in the USA.


July 11, 2011 – submitted by Ellen Krueger of Appleton, WI

Question: There have been quite a few sites redesigned with mega menus. How do you feel about the usability of these. i.e. www.usaa.com

Eric's response: We have really solid data that the hierarchical menu is a good design. It is preferred over left and horizontal navigation. It is also better from a performance viewpoint. So we can be pretty sure that the presentation of the mega menu will work well (given that you actually HAVE that much stuff to show). We have also been using a SINGLE dropdown menu (see the "Site Map / Go to" in the black bar at the top of our site). That is also a good alternative to the dropdown menu.


April 28, 2011 – submitted by Tom Ghoreyeb of Groton, CT

Question: My company is moving to AGILE development, (along with a "me too" trend. How can we make usability fit more precisely with that model?

Eric's response: Ok. You are in trouble.

Basically you have to do the digital strategy, innovation, and structural design BEFORE starting the Agile process. Then it works ok...


March 14, 2011 – submitted by T S S Ganesan of Chennai, India

Question: It seems there is still not a streamlined designation across our industry. Each organization follows its own norms. This is really confusing and at times irritating. This is a concern when one switches jobs or moves up the ladder.

Two Questions:
1. Are there any steps taken to streamline the process.
2. According to you what designations should be given starting from a trainee upward. If you could also brief what should be one's work for that level as invariably the designations do change but the work remains the same.

Eric's response: There is massive inconsistency in titles for UX staff. I see a "Senior User Experience Specialist" at HFI, with a low-to-middle rating on performance, leave HFI to become the "Director of User Experience" for huge name-brand organizations. I recently saw the head of half of the UX work for a systems integrator, test only a C+ on our entrance test. I think this is part of why the CUA/CXA certifications are so hot. It provides at least a baseline.

So "don't be fooled by titles" is the best advice. At Bell Labs, I remember meeting luminaries that made more money then the company CEO and changed technology forever, with the title "Member of the Technical Staff".

You can sort of tell if someone is managing people - sort of. So, a "Group Lead" or "Director" is probably also managing. But other then that look at education, training, certification, and experience.

And thanks, maybe some day I will try to define a industry standard set of titles. But today I will be happy if we keep the name of our field stable, for just a few years.

Human Performance Engineer
Human Factors Specialist
Software Ergonomist
Usability Expert
User Experience Designer


January 27, 2011 – submitted by Shawn Kenney of Richfield, OH

Question: In your white paper "Impediments to a Mature UX Practice: and how to avoid them" you state on page 7 that "It's not as though you can evolve (a mature UX practice) organically. One of the mistakes people make is to think that... by doing good work you will somehow create an institutionalized UX team."

This makes sense to me, clearly makes sense to you. However, when trying to convey that point to middle management or executive leadership I feel like the Dunning-Kruger effect kicks in, and the message becomes blocked by what the audience thinks they know about making an institutional change.

Do you know of any documented theories or principals that can be referenced to show that change in culture isn't possible by just one person setting a good example, but that it needs to come from the top through structure and governance?

Eric's response: Actually, one person CAN have an impact on the corporate culture (over time). We can lead by personality and effort. But you can not set up a mature operation with resources and governance without high level support. It is the transition from a UX operation based on craftsmanship, to an operation that is process-driven, which requires a serious champion.


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