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We are redesigning a 5 step repetitive process for some web software. Normally for a step-by-step process I would like to use a wizard but to me it implies the process must be complete in one sitting and cannot be exited. At any point the user can stop the process if some information is missing and jump back into it later when they have that information and complete it (they would have a history of system inputs which could see the progress of and jump back into).

At the same time this is a repetitive process because the user could have multiple "applications" to fill in. Also the users do this process everyday so they are expert users.

We have this functionality in place just not as a wizard. Currently The first 2 steps must be complete in that order, then the other 3 can be done in Any order, but I've done some user research and found the majority of people do it in a fixed path.

My question is -

Is a wizard really the best approach for a process that is all required but the user can leave and jump back into? Can anyone think of a better approach?

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If it hasn't to be a lineal process, then maybe a settings page? –  Naoise Golden Dec 29 '11 at 15:08
    
Can you post a low-fi process flow diagram? –  dnbrv Dec 29 '11 at 15:33
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3 Answers

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I have not seen any confusion in having users return to the middle of a previously started wizard process. In fact, you can see this in very many shopping cart applications on the Internet; you are guided through a step-by-step process, but you can return to the middle of the process after leaving.

For greater user clarity, add a 'Save & Close' button in your wizard, down with the 'Next' and 'Previous' buttons. That will give users the assurance that they can leave the process and return to it at a later time.

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Just because you can do it in any order doesn't neccesarily mean you should? Without knowing the specifics of your application I think most users would prefer to be guided through the process step by step.

Check out tax return software (e.g. TurboTax online). They take the user through a set of dependant steps, then a set of independant steps (in a chronological order) and offer the user the chance to stop/resume at anytime. Granted they have way more than 5 steps, but I think it is a good example of the pattern.

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I'd love to give more specific details but I can't. It goes without saying we are trying to streamline the process as much as possible, so we may have to define a fixed path we feel works most efficiently. Thanks for the suggestion, I'll take a look. –  Captain Dec 29 '11 at 14:46
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Since the system / process you are design is so flexible, you should think about given it this feel to the user. For instance, have a small icon on each page that brings back (or hides) the menu with the steps or give it some kind of menu behavior it's not a fixed path (perhaps with buttons "next" and "finish later").

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