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Web-based Information systems


Section 4 - Usability Methods In Requirements Analysis of Web-based Information Systems

When discussing users' requirements in the context of a Web-based information system, usability is often mentioned. "Usability" has been defined as a measure of "the ease with which users can learn or use a system, its safety, effectiveness, and efficiency, and users' attitude toward it."34 At the requirements analysis stage, usability methods can be used to help gather information about users. In his article Developing usable Web sites - a review and model, Daniel Cunliffe offers a useful summary of some of these methods that can be applied to a WIS requirements analysis: competitive analysis, scenarios, inspection methods, log analysis, and on-line questionnaires.

Competitive analysis - This type of analysis is easy to conduct since it involves comparing Web sites that are publicly accessible from the Internet and which offer similar products or services. It does not require a large financial investment, but it may require large sunk costs in terms of time spent comparing Web sites and identifying their best features. In order to make sure that the users' perspectives are represented, it is best to have real users conduct the competitive analysis. This is based on the assumption that genuine users are more inclined to identify what features will best meet their requirements. However, the level of effectiveness of such a technique also depends on the users' level of familiarity with using the Web. In order to appreciate the effectiveness of the features encountered on these Web sites, users would have to have had experience conducting business on the Web in the past. At the end of competitive analysis, the developers should have a list of desirable features for the site.

Scenarios - Conducting a competitive analysis with real users is ideal. However, as mentioned earlier, users of a Web-based information system often are unreachable or unknown. Scenario analysis can help developers to identify users requirements by using people - "proxy users" - who are considered to have similar attributes to the real users. Scenarios are used in order to provide some guidance to the proxy users when conducting user testing in order to control for the differences that may exist between the "proxy users" and the "real users". The scenarios are developed through brainstorming or focus group sessions involving the system stakeholders and the developers. To create more realistic scenarios, users can be involved in this process as well. Scenario analysis is helpful to generate ideas and users requirements.

Inspection methods - Inspection methods can be used throughout the development process. In a WIS development process, inspection methods can be used in conjunction with prototyping and requirements analysis in an iterative manner. Inspection methods involve "a systematic (but not necessarily exhaustive) comparison of an interface against a pre-determined set of criteria or guidelines (which may be specified at higher or lower levels of abstraction)."35 Inspection methods does not require a high financial investment, but may be time consuming since the evaluator will have to inspect each page of the prototype and check it against identified requirements. The results of inspection methods are a set of revisions or modifications that need to be made to users requirements.

On-line questionnaires - They are effective tools to collect information about user behaviors. However, Cunliffe identifies a major concern with on-line questionnaires. It "is the self-selecting nature of the sample, raising concern as to whether or not the users who have answered the questionnaire are typical users ."36 Another drawback with on-line questionnaires is that the organization may not have the infrastructure in place to survey their customers. However, and despite these concerns, on-line questionnaires are tools of the next generation. They offer enormous opportunities in terms of allowing organizations to reach their global customers in a cost-effective manner. On-line questionnaires are used in the evaluation of on-line prototypes, and can help to identify users behaviors.

Research in the development process of Web-based information systems has concentrated on the design and implementation phases of the process. And although usability methods have been mostly studied in that context, I believe they can also be powerful tools at the requirements analysis stage. They can offer insight into WIS users and provide opportunities to better identify users requirements.

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