Unlike most other components in a system, user behaviour is variable and influenced by many factors. The same combination of input conditions will produce exactly similar effects on hardware or software. This is not the case for humans who will process the world in the light of their intentions, knowledge, and present state.

Benefits of Understanding User Behaviour

Understanding how a product or system is actually used helps engineers design operable and safe equipment.

The main benefits of understanding user behaviour are:

  • The equipment is more likely to be accepted by end-users because it matches their requirements
  • Functionality can be de-scoped if it is shown not to be necessary (therefore saving costs and reducing equipment complexity)
  • Less design rework because requirements are understood ahead of implementation
  • The safety case can have a more accurate understanding of human-related risks

Establishing how users may behave is a fundamental step in a human-centred design process and reduces the cost and time necessary for any subsequent HF analysis.

Task Analysis

In order to identify the human actions that are important to safety or operability, it is important to first understand the tasks that are being carried out, and the context in which they occur.

The process of describing the tasks that people perform in relation to usage of a system is called task analysis.  Task analysis requires a team that understands the domain, the changes to the system, and data collection and synthesis techniques.

a team carrying out a task analysis site visit at a railway

Task analysis data collection can be made from design documents and existing working practices.  It is often useful to observe and talk with end-users that currently perform tasks associated with or equivalent to the change.

A Target Audience Description can also be part of this phase of work.  A TAD or user profile is a description of the different types of users that will interact with the system. The aim of a TAD or user profile is to understand the capabilities and limitations of the people using the equipment. This ensures that the new system does not demand more from people than they are naturally capable of.

Field Studies

Field Studies involve semi-structured discussion and observation sessions conducted with representative end-users in the actual home or workplace, or involving the actual products that are relevant to the scope of the study.

It is important to observe or interview a sample of users if possible as this reduces the possibility of getting the opinions of a user with wildly different views to the general population. It is usually better to interview users individually or in pairs. In large groups, the facilitator needs to be mindful of the stronger personalities that could dominate the conversations and try to canvass the opinions of quieter users.

Field studies, properly conducted, can provide valuable insights into actual user behaviour.

Usage of User Behaviour Information

The final step is to use the information that has been gathered and analysed. This step involves making of the information and using the knowledge to inform design decisions.

a whiteboard showing the task analysis results from the site visit

One of the greatest but intangible benefits of carrying out user behaviour research is actually the learning process itself. This is because the information is learnt in an active way and this provides the team conducting the work a better understanding of the context of use. In turn this aids the application of the information to the design.

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