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Switching Between Tools in Complex Applications

Will Schroeder

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 3, Issue 4, August 2008, pp. 173-188


Large software applications are made up of many specialized tools. In Microsoft Word the document editor is supported by tools to create and fix drawings and tables. Programming environments have custom views (difference editors) and analyses (performance reports) to help developers make robust code. Every application has tools to help users sift the documentation.

In usability, we usually test a tool at a time, yet complex work requires many tools, and this brings a new set of issues. How do I know when I should be using a different tool? What tool do I need when the one I am using is not working? How do I get to it? How quickly can I start using it?

In complex or creative work, our observations show that users seldom choose the correct tool as soon as work progress dictates. This erodes productivity and creativity and is a prime target for improved designs.

Usability practice needs a procedure to identify, record, count, and highlight tool switch events for study. This paper describes one that supports the trained observers on which User-Centered Design relies to detect problems and causes, and evaluate design changes.

Practitioner's Take Away

Methods presented in this paper serve as a foundation for the following:

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Switching Between Tools in Complex Applications