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By Timothy Dyck  |  Posted 2003-04-28 Email Print this article Print

Quality documentation is also a big part of overall usability. Windows Server 2003s Manage Your Server wizard provides the best example of a simple but far-reaching server configuration tool Ive yet seen. Windows 2000 Server and Windows Server 2003s scenario-oriented help, background technical information and reference documentation continues to be unmatched in its depth, instant accessibility, search features, comprehensiveness and quality of writing.

Second, interfaces must inform to help administrators quickly determine what operational data is important and which data points need special attention. Although passive monitoring is a regular part of server software operation, information-rich, context- and history-aware status displays are almost nonexistent.

Third, interfaces must enable staff to use them productively and in expressive ways. If the heat from the Linux-versus-Windows-interface flame wars were redirected, we could eliminate our oil imports, but one testable characteristic of an enabling interface is composability. I define this as the ability of an interface to let users do more complex tasks by combining different sequences of simpler, easy-to-learn tasks.

The Unix and Windows command shells ability to pipe the output of one command to the input of another is a classic example of this, but a less obvious one is a universal clipboard. For example, one files contents can be inserted into anothers by issuing whatever an editors command for "insert file at cursor" is. Alternatively, a user can do the same task by opening the second file in another editor instance and copying and pasting the text into the first window. Both approaches are powerful, but for occasional users, building with bricks is much faster than having to mix mud and grow hay all the time.

Programs that provide both composable and dedicated command facilities are far more usable than those that take just one approach or the other.

Adopting packages that fail the usability test will cost big down the road in training and frustration. Even worse, when an emergency arises, staff may end up flailing around trying to remember how to proceed while systems fail around them. Address usability problems before its too late to do anything about them.

Timothy Dyck is a Senior Analyst with eWEEK Labs. He has been testing and reviewing application server, database and middleware products and technologies for eWEEK since 1996. Prior to joining eWEEK, he worked at the LAN and WAN network operations center for a large telecommunications firm, in operating systems and development tools technical marketing for a large software company and in the IT department at a government agency. He has an honors bachelors degree of mathematics in computer science from the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, and a masters of arts degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada.

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