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User-Centred Product Creation in Interactive Electronic Publishing

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User Requirements Analysis

Developing products and services that meet the expectations of users and customers is critical to success. Technology-oriented enterprises face strong competition on the basis of quality. Requirement analysis is the foundation of a user-centred approach, creating products that appeal and meet user needs.

Marketing and user requirements analysis

It is essential to check the available market analysis results for relevant information about user needs, and to exploit this information. The marketing department may provide information about real users which can be used to recruit people for user requirements analysis (and for user validation later in the development process).

There is a gap between marketing and usability engineering due to the different approaches used. Market research largely focuses on the customer view, on purchasing behaviour, acceptable prices and thresholds, demand for functions, and how would customers prefer products to be packaged and distributed. Usability engineering aims at understanding quality and user needs and requirements in a more general sense.

When innovative products and new markets are concerned the combination of market research information and detailed user requirements analysis provides a powerful combination of approaches. Bridge the gap!

Market analysis

Appropriate market analysis methods for IEP projects are desktop research, interviews, focus groups, mailed survey, telephone survey and email survey. Methods are selected with respect to the degree of uncertainty of the research problem.

If uncertainty is high, then either interviews or focus groups are used to point to more focused questions, and the need for quantitative results. If uncertainty is low, a satisfactory survey can be developed based on existing knowledge.

Focus groups are more adequate when the objective is to brainstorm ideas for the development of an innovative application that would have particular appeal to customers and users. Based on the results of focus group sessions, surveys should be used to collect quantifiable results concerning expected consumer response.

Surveys also collect important demographic data such as access to computer platform, telecommunication connection, work environment and cross-tabulation of data from product-oriented questions with the exact user and customer characteristics, their opinions and attitudes.

User requirements analysis

User requirements analysis provides precise descriptions of the content, functionality and quality demanded by prospective users. For the identification of user needs the user perspective must be assumed and result in:

Functional requirements

Specification of functional requirements. The goals users want to reach and the tasks they intend to perform with the new product or service must be determined, including information needed, modes of access, transactions, modifications to this information.

The distinction between tasks and activities is crucial. Activities describe user procedures (also called user action), i.e. command sequences for performing tasks. Tasks describe the goals of the user with as little reference as possible to the detailed technical realisation of the information product. It is often misleading to transfer action sequences using existing paper based information products to electronic information products. Electronic information products may provide new methods for browsing, selecting and visualising data which induce very different activities of the user.

Understanding the tasks involves abstraction of why the user performs certain activities, what his constraints and preferences are, and how the user would make trade-offs between different products.

Non-functional requirements

Specification of non-functional requirements includes the description of user characteristics such as prior knowledge and experiences, special needs of elderly and handicapped persons, subjective preferences, and the description of the environment, in which the product or service will be used. For electronic information products and services new business models, legal issues, intellectual property rights, security and privacy requirements be an issue. Further non-functional requirements must be derived from cost constraints.

Methods for user requirements analysis

Informal methods such as observation, interview, document analysis, focus group analysis, checklists or questionnaires can be used for the elicitation of user requirements. Different requirements analysis methods can be applied in parallel to complement each others in order to yield more effective results.

Task analysis is often confounded with activity analysis, which is a description of the activities users take to carry out tasks with existing systems. Task analysis is mostly done in the form of a hierarchical description of main tasks and several levels of subtasks. Scenarios and Use Cases have become a popular technique for task analysis.

Product benchmarking

Benchmarking of existing products competing for the same users is important, but may often be too costly. The principle of benchmarking is to measure and compare performance parameters, strengths and weaknesses of traditional information products, currently available electronic information products, and all representative applications which are considered a major competition. The results of benchmarking are an important input to the design process and set the goals (eg baseline) for the development of new applications, which must be designed to improve on the existing applications by giving higher total utility to the customer.

Effectiveness of user requirements analysis

The effectiveness of user requirements analysis in the beginning of a development project depends to a large extent on the type of project.

  • Collecting user requirements for consumer products (eg entertainment and edutainment products) requires much effort, and the risk to fail is still very high. As long as consumers have no idea of the innovative product or service, it will be very difficult for them to state their needs. Creativity of designers is required for the transfer of user requirements into innovative consumer products.
  • For the development of professional applications precise user requirements analysis and specification is essential. Professionals often are available who perform the tasks under investigation.
  • Task analysis is obligatory for the development of safety critical applications. A characteristic of safety critical work domains is that tasks and procedures are precisely defined before new support tools are built. This is a good precondition for the specification of functional and non-functional requirements.

User requirements analysis is an error prone part of the development process. Errors not detected at this stage may lead to expensive system failures later. User requirements should be verified as soon as design solutions and prototypes are available.