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April 26, 2001 Ahmed Seffah is concerned with software usability




Computer Science professor Ahmed Seffah

Computer Science professor Ahmed Seffah.

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj


by Janice Hamilton

As a computer user, you may have experienced something like this: You install a sophisticated piece of software, but end up using only about 20 per cent of its capabilities, either because you are not aware of all the things it can do, or because you don’t have time to learn them.

Ahmed Seffah, an assistant professor of computer science, sees software usability and “learnability” — or the lack thereof — as a serious problem. He is spearheading a new effort at Concordia to tackle this issue with a new research lab, graduate and undergraduate courses in user interface design and software usability, and collaboration with industry.

Usability means the ease of learning and using a software system. It can include ease of switching to upgraded versions, and safety factors, such as the likelihood a user will develop repetitive strain injuries. Visual aspects, such as formatting and color, and psychological factors may also be involved.

Seffah points out that lack of usability has significant and expensive consequences. Companies spend a great deal of time and money on training employees to master complex software. The increased productivity that computers are supposed to bring to the workplace is sometimes lost because the software is underutilized.

Software developers also lose time and money if they have to go back to the drawing board because a program, or system, doesn’t meet the needs of the end user. And, while most software today is technically stable and bug-free, 64 per cent of software problems are related to usability.

Seffah worked for five years at the Computer Research Institute of Montreal (CRIM), a government-funded applied research centre, where he was part of a multidisciplinary team studying user interface design.

After CRIM decided to focus its efforts in other directions, he moved to Concordia last year. Here, he collaborates with T. Radhakrishnan, and Juergen Rilling, members of the Computer Science Department who have an interest in user interface design and usability engineering, and he is trying to attract researchers from other departments and universities, such as psychology and art, to this multidisciplinary field. He has also started collaborating with Professor J.M Robert from École Polytechnique de Montréal.

One of his main objectives is to set up a human-centered software engineering lab where researchers can observe both the types of difficulties people experience using software, and how software developers engineers work using current software engineering tools and methods.

Seffah and his colleagues have so far raised about $200,000 for their current research investigations, including special funds for new faculty members from the office of the Dean, as well as individual NSERC grants. They are applying for additional funding and negotiating with IBM and other companies for equipment and other contributions. Seffah said, “In Montreal there is no such lab, so we are pushing to be first.”

The lab will have two rooms, separated by a one-way mirror. Cameras will record both the user’s actions and expressions, and the computer screen.

“We will have the tools to transform these observations into design recommendations in order to improve both software products, and the process that engineers use to develop them so they won’t continue to make the same mistakes.”

He continued, “As a researcher, it is my goal to improve engineering methods. I don’t think the department hired me just to improve the ease of use for end users, and as a software engineer, I’m not interested in just that.”

Educating engineers to design easily usable interfaces and Web applications is another of Seffah’s main goals. The department now offers a graduate certificate on user interface design for software systems, and Seffah teaches an undergraduate course for the software engineering program.

He suggests software engineers have to see usability as a central issue, not just an afterthought, adding that the importance of user interface design is well-accepted by large companies, and thousands of small and medium-sized companies need software engineers with skills in this field.

He noted that user interface design will become even more crucial with the growth of wireless applications because devices like electronic organizers are so small and accomplish similar tasks with different user interfaces and devices.

Off campus, Seffah helped set up a Montreal chapter of the Usability Professional Association and gives workshops on usability engineering at international conferences.

For more information on user interface design and usability issues, see his Web site at www.cs.concordia.ca/~faculty/seffah/.