Designing a Decision Support System User Interface

The effectiveness of a computerized system or a software platform depends on its user interface design. Be it a routine software program or a high-end decision support system, user’s interaction with the system should be as simple, effective and hassle-free as possible.

It’s not a mystery that great decision support systems have brilliant user interface designs. They are engineered to provide superior user experience. Designing a user interface involves attaining complete understanding of user needs and the way they make decisions.

So, the questions arise - what goes into their planning and how to design a good user face? We will come to this. However, before we get into the details of why and how parts, let’s first try to understand what user interface actually means.

What is User Interface ?

If we look at the literal meaning of the word, interface means the ‘crossing point’ or ‘border’. And in computer science, interface means that part of a computerized system that allows its users to interact with it. It is what users see and use. User interface is important yet it facilitates interaction between the user and the software system without drawing much attention to itself. It is that hidden aspect of a computer program that supports its usability.

User interface may include:

  • Commands
  • Set of menus
  • Graphics
  • Icons
  • Guidelines
  • Acoustics
  • Tactile
  • Hardware
  • Any other presentation

Features of Good User Interface

The most important features of user interface are that it:

  • Influences how users interact with the decision support system
  • Balances the technicality (functionality of the system) and mentality (user’s state of mind)
  • Provides users a picture-oriented (visual) way to interact with the system
  • Creates flawless communication and interaction between the user and the decision support system
  • Reduces errors, increases speed, supports ‘good decision making’
  • Logical and intuitive at the same time

The quality of a decision support system very much depends on its user interface. This is because it is what a user sees, feels, senses and uses to interact with the software system. Therefore, right from the screen layout to color, style, symmetry, lines, density, icons, pictures, symbols, commands, input and output display play a decisive role.

To get things right, DSS analysts and end users need to work together, and cite and resolve potential issues that may arise while using a decision support system.

User Interface Styles

As we know, user interface is the space where human-machine interactions take place. This decides how user enters the information and how system presents the outcome. There are different ways to interact with computerized decision making systems.

However, which user interface style is to be used needs to be decided before the development process begins. There are no hard and fast rules about which the best user interface style is. A Decision Support System may use one interface style or a combination of two or more styles.

A DSS designer can provide several control sequences to manage or run a software program, depending upon user needs. There are six dominant user interface styles that can be used:

  1. Command-Line Interface: As the name suggests, the command-line interface made dominant use of commands to set user interaction with the software system. A user would enter the command, such as “run” and the system would execute it. The operating systems used were MS-DOS, UNIX and LINUX. This interface would require a user to enter the command, in order to tell the machine what to do. Though such interfaces were powerful, the user would actually have to learn the commands to make a system work for them, which was definitely restricting.

    Command-Line Interface

  2. Menu Interface: The menu interface offers users a list of functions in the form of choices. The drop-down menu makes it easier for them to select a function that needs to be performed. The best part is the users don’t have to learn the commands to make use of software system.

    However, menus are appropriate for simple systems. As complexity increases, the users require several sets of menus to choose from. Even the items in the menu can have sub menus. A good example of such operating system is Windows. But when it comes to building DSS using menu interface, it takes huge time and resources to design and develop the interface and the software itself in the long run.

    Menu Interface

  3. Graphical Interface: It is an interface system that allows users to give commands through visible objects. You either point or touch the images, icons or symbols to perform an action. The graphic user interface focuses more on multimedia rather than text.

    Graphical Interface

  4. Question-and-Answer Interface: Such kind of interface allows machine to ask questions and user to enter answers to the questions. It turns into a dialogue when user continues to answer questions asked by the system. This type of interface is an effort to induce human-to-human interaction through a system. However, the major challenge occurs when the answers fed by the user are unstructured because a computer doesn’t understand unstructured responses.

    Question-and-Answer Interface

  5. Voice User Interface: As the name suggests, it makes human-machine interaction possible through speech. A human voice is required to control the machine or to make it perform an action. Voice user interfaces have now become commonplace. These are eyes-free and hands-free interfaces that perform action by recognizing the speech.

    Voice User Interface

  6. Touch User Interface: This is the most popular and most recent type of user interface. It relies upon the sense of touch and directs the system to perform the chosen action when a user touches a particular visual. In digital environment, it is used alongside voice and graphics user interfaces.

    Touch User Interface

Designing User Interface

An effective user interface is essential for any type of information system. Its design largely determines whether the software system will be used or not. Typically, the focus is always on the expertise of the analysts and designers, which is not the right approach. Although the technical expertise is crucial, the specific needs of the end user need to be understood, accessed and evaluated. With this, the totality of experience working on the system and using it needs to be counted. The right user interface design approach is the first step in developing an efficient decision support system.

ROMC Design Approach - Representation - Operation - Memory Aid - Control Aid

ROMC is an organized approach to design specialized decision support systems, more precisely their user interfaces. It’s a systematic move towards designing the representation, operation, memory and control mechanisms of a large decision support system.

Suggested by Ralph Sprague and Eric Carlson in 1982, it focuses on the analysis of the above mentioned four important elements of a user interface. The approach helps identify the essential competencies of a computerized system. Not only is this approach suitable for developing user interface designs but this can also be used for creating screen designs.

  • Representation

    Representation is about presenting information or results for that matter, in a structured way. All decision making activities in an organization take place in a certain environment or context. The representation, in tandem with this context, provides a tangible conceptualization to communicate information to the decision maker or user of the system about the situation.

    The representation provides a base to the decision makers backed by concrete information, helping them interpret DSS outputs. The representation can be in the form of a table, graph, map, chart or a text document and each value on a map or a table communicates decision making context.

  • Operation

    This stage in user interface design focuses on specific tasks performed by/with a decision support system. The operation can involve one activity or many, depending upon the specific needs of the decision maker. A DSS may be used to process data, track market trends, carry analytics or suggest alternatives or perform all the functions.

  • Memory Aid

    How will a DSS operate? On what basis will it produce outputs? What is it going to represent? It must have an access to data to synthesize and analyze. A data warehouse is its memory aid and so for decision makers. So, it must give users a link to data warehouse aid their memory. In addition, it may provide them with links and command shortcuts or sequences to help users control a decision support system.

  • Control Aid

    Control aid is provided to users, so that they can effectively use representations, operations and memory aids. It allows them to edit, redo, undo, save, view, delete any information or representation or the task performed by/with a DSS. They make it easier for the user to interact with and control a decision support system. The commands, however, depends upon the type of user interface.

A user interface design is made up of all these elements and a lot of brainstorming and planning go into it. Designing a user design is not a technical process; rather it is a collective effort of technical and decision making experts. They need to work closely, in order to design a great user interface. This increases the likelihood that a system will be used post development and implementation.


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