Building Decision Support System User Interface

Decision support systems are now widely used in organizations and military across the world, helping decision makers apply analytical, statistical and scientific techniques to decision making. In recent years, there popularity has significantly increased because of their ability to execute, interpret, analyze and suggest.

Decision support systems can be used in the areas of economic forecasting, risk management, manufacturing automation, supply chain management, healthcare, data warehousing, demographic trends and forecasts, resource allocation, etc. The growing popularity of decision support systems is due to their capability to help decision makers balancing conflicting objectives and allocating scarce resources optimally.

Though decision support systems are known to make the whole process of decision making easier and speedier, their own development is a complex and time consuming process. Building a DSS user interface requires a very high level of expertise in technology, programming, decision making, project management, and user experience and user interface design. Plus, it requires a close and unswerving collaboration of the analysts, programmers, decision makers, finance specialists and end users.

Building DSS User Interface

In the previous article, we learnt about ROMC approach to user interface design. Since each DSS has a different purpose, defining representations, operations, and memory and control aids are of absolute importance before beginning to develop a DSS user interface. The usefulness, validity and applicability of a DSS depend on the design elements of a user interface.

A good user interface design must ensure that:

  • The screen design is aesthetically pleasing
  • The layouts are symmetrical
  • The arrangement of options/menus is appropriate
  • The screen layout is easy to understand and use
  • The design doesn’t need to be artistic but it should certainly be visually pleasing
  • Working on it is easy and enjoyable

Therefore, a Decision Support System user interface developer must:

  • Get started with all significant information in hand. As a DSS is customized to the needs of end users, it’s not a previously defined package. This means that a DSS user interface developer must steer clear of assumptions and postulations. Rather he or she must rely on neat specifications.

  • Be able to respond quickly to the needs of end users. A decision support system needs to be modified or evolved quickly as per the directions of the decision maker who is going to use the system. The designing of user interface should be such that it facilitates changes whenever required.

  • Take into account the idiosyncrasies of the problems to be solved. Each DSS is developed to solve particular types of problems. Therefore, a user interface developer is expected to understand the peculiarity of the problems to be solved using DSS. And on the basis of this, he or she must be able to determine what kind of input a user must feed and how and what kind of output the system must produce.

  • Pay attention to the order of priority while designing the software. This typically includes four steps. i) Design user interface, focusing on the dialogue that takes place between user and machine. ii) Design operations and commands that will be used to carry out the operations. iii) Define what happens when the user gives a command. iv) Work backward and create the program.

While a DSS user interface developer works on building the software, the focus must constantly be on - who the user is; what the user will do with the system; what type of decisions the user makes; and what aid the user expects from a DSS.

Comments on Design Elements

As user interface development takes place, the developer must keep a tab on the way information will be presented to the end user. Design elements play a crucial role in forming user experience. Here are few tips that should be kept in mind:

  • Visual presentation of data is important, as it helps users visualize the relationship between two or more elements.

  • Graphs, charts, hierarchy, diagrams, flowcharts and maps should be used in reports, performance sheets, planning, designing and allocation.

  • Augment the use of color in a way that it enhances the overall appearance of the system.

  • Allow users to have some control of the functions, such as color adjustments, themes, home screen, wall papers, menu style, patterns, etc.

  • Build guidance mechanisms, in order to make it easy for users to manipulate the system.

  • Offer process guidance help, just in case the user feels stuck.

  • The software system should be responsive enough to offer suggestions to the users, helping them optimally use the system.

The bottom line is that a DSS user interface developer should make it a point that the system provides decision makers with enough discretion and prudence. The system must let them choose the way they want to use it.

Guidelines for Dialogue and User Interface design

The design of a computerized system determines whether it will be used or not. Over the period of time, the researchers, DSS analysts and designers and decision makers have gather several important points that may be considered as principles or guidelines for dialogue and user interface design.

Although the user interface is central to the system development but the totality of experience also plays an important role. You must be cautious about user experience and ensure that the decision maker or the end user attains utmost satisfaction.

Here are 10 user interface design rules that you must follow when designing one:

  1. Consistency: A decision support system software must look, feel and act similar throughout. The color combination, theme, menu display and other visuals must be consistent. It makes a DSS look organized and well thought out.

  2. Reduce Information Overload: The main objective of a decision support system is to reduce information overload and simplify things to the extent possible. Probably, this is why most organizations use computerized systems to aid decision making. The human memory is subject to a limitation when it comes to information processing and learning commands. Where appropriate, the design should be minimized and commands should be displayed and the sequence of actions should be shortened.

  3. Create Aesthetically Appealing yet Minimalist Interface Design: The interface should be appealing; however, you need not show your artistic side. It must be balanced, soothing, interactive and responsive.

  4. Informative Feedback: Users look forward to informative feedback about the command they have given or action they have performed. Minor commands may offer modest feedback, whereas concrete feedback should be offered for infrequent actions.

  5. Design Interactions: Each interaction should have a sequence or an order – beginning, middle and end. This keeps a track on the flow of the dialogue.

  6. Anticipate Errors: You need to anticipate possible errors that a user can make when using the decision support system. Think of simple and comprehendible ways to detect errors and to guide users on what to do now. At some places, the system must make users aware of what errors they are going to make by pressing a command.

  7. Permit Action Reversal: Include ‘undo’. Sometimes, users make mistakes unintentionally. But inability to reverse the action may build anxiety in users. Give them the flexibility to undo what they did, whether knowingly or unknowingly. It gives them the confidence to try out new things.

  8. Give Users Control of the System: People using a decision support system want to control each aspect of the system. Inability to control makes them anxious and unconfident. Give them control of the system and let them explore it as much as they want.

  9. Provide Accelerators: As decision makers use a DSS more frequently, they don’t want to offer same information each time they log into the system. Provide them with accelerators to shorten the interactions and increase the pace. Offer abbreviations and automation commands that accelerate the entire process of decision making.

  10. Provide Documentation and Help Capabilities: A DSS although is not incomplete if it doesn’t provide documentation capabilities but to users it may seem incomplete. Such capabilities are desirable because most users want to document major points or something that catches their attention.

An effective user interface makes a system easier to use. It eliminates anxiety and fear of technology and promotes its use. A decision support designer must keep all the above guidelines when designing a user interface.

Factors Influencing User Interface Design Success

There are a lot of factors that influence the success of a user interface design. A DSS designer is expected to recognize and consider these factors when designing a user interface for a decision support system. This is done to:

  • Eliminate/reduce the fatigue of working on a system
  • Reduce the learning time of DSS users
  • Reduce the chances of errors made by end users
  • Keep users motivated to use the decision support system
  • Offer users the ease to recall

So, here are the factors influencing UI design success. Take a look:

  • Execution Time: Why does a decision maker use computerized system to aid decision making? Obviously, to reduce execution time! As a DSS designer, you must try reduce the execution time for a command given and action performed. Maximize the pace of execution to minimize the wastage of time.

  • Versatility: A decision support system must be resourceful enough to perform the entire range of tasks that a decision maker needs to perform when making a decision using DSS. Moreover, it should be flexible enough to integrate new tasks whenever needs arises.

  • Adaptability: A decision support system should be smart enough to adapt according to the most prominent habits of its user. This means it needs to be self-tailoring or customizing in itself. It may seem impractical, but in reality it is not. Rather this is what is expected from a smart decision making system.

  • Learning Time: A DSS user interface should be simple enough to reduce the learning time of its users, so that they can use it to its full capacity as soon as possible.

  • Uniformity of Command: As said earlier, a DSS user interface must have a uniform theme throughout. It should offer the same look and feel and command throughout.

  • Quality of Help: When a decision maker is user a DSS built by you, he or she expects complete on and off line support from you. The success of a DSS depends upon the quality of support offered. Recognize what user may do on/with the DSS and offer self-help manuals both online and offline.

  • Memory Load: A person has limitations when it comes to remembering numbers. The idea is not to bombard the user with too many statistical or numerical data interpretations at one time. A good UI design takes the memory load off the user mind.

  • Ease of Recall: If a user comes back to DSS after long, it must help him/her recall what was done previously. It helps them achieve the same pace in a shortened time.

  • Fatigue: Mental fatigue occurs because of the complexity of the design. Keep things simple and keep the commands visual so that the user doesn’t need to remember anything.

  • Errors: Anticipate errors that a user may perform when using a decision support system. Provide them the control to reverse the action and help to guide them what to do next.

Designing decision support system user interface is the toughest part of the development cycle. It’s the most important element as it establishes the communication between the machine and the human. The use of visual elements and simple screen designs can add a great deal to the success of a DSS.

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