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We have a simple administrative page for managing stores open and close dates.

Upon initial rendering, the page is readonly. Checking a box labeled edit in the top right of the page, enables the ability to edit.

There are a couple date pickers on the top of the page, one each for open and close date.

And a list of stores, with a checkbox beside them follow.

The user needs to enter an open or close date (or both) and select stores for the page to validate, and the save button to perform an action (otherwise a message appears informing them to select a store).

When saving, the open/close date entered is applied to all the stores that were checked.

Personally, I think this is sufficient. However, our analyst wants to modify the workflow on the page, so that the user can't enter an open or close date prior to selecting a store?

I think that's unnecessarily making the page harder to use, as if you want to pick your dates prior to picking stores, you no longer can. We validate upon saving, so, why force the user into entering values in a specific order needlessly.

His argument is that, it ensures the user selects a store. Because he thinks the validation message about not having any stores selected is confusing.

Usability wise, is it better to force the user through steps, or allow them to enter data however they want, as long as it's validated before saving? Given the user should have a firm grasp of how to use the page in the first place, as it's in their business domain, and the page only has one purpose.

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3 Answers 3

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My answer will be highly speculative without having seen the concept that you are describing. Ideally you would run some quick guerrilla usability testing on the way that you have it at the moment with no restriction. Observing how the user tackles the interface in accordance with a non-led, scenario based question will reveal whether your analysts fears ring true or not. If the analyst is correct, and the user does indeed fail to select a store then you will likely need to explore some other avenues.

The other avenues that will need exploring will be:

  1. The affordance of the design, what can you do to ensure that the user completes the desired action without stumbling over or getting stuck in the interface
  2. Labeling and instructional microcopy, is there enough to guide the user successfully through the action and assist in error prevention
  3. Error recovery, when an error does occur i.e. the user fails to select a store, does the interface adequately assist in helping them get back on track

Depending on the complexity of the interface, the affordance part may require reordering the form functions, disabling the date range (as suggested by the analyst), or a progressive reveal of interface items based on previous selection.

Testing it with real potential end users, or at the very least with someone who is unfamiliar with the design, will be the key to exploring these issues (if there are any) and coming up with the final solution.

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It looks like this page is being redesigned based on something I had suggested when I got the initial design. In short, instead of a hierarchical listing, they will get a grid, to select their store/shop combinations. They then hit next, and get a list of only what they have selected to alter, this gives them an opportunity to verify their selections. This second page, also has the date selection on it, so they can enter the values, and save. It guides, but in a manner that makes more sense, and should speed up data-entry. –  CaffGeek Jan 20 '12 at 16:56

You're right that a user shouldn't be restricted in the workflow. Forcing users to follow a certain path when there's no causality between the steps creates a few extra problems, such as what to do when a user changes their mind mid-way - they'll have to re-enter data despite the change having no effect on it.

What you need to do is simply work with the analyst to re-write the error message to make sure it's clear what went wrong and how to fix it.

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I am personally in favor of asking users to go through a series of steps which has validation checks built in at every stage along with helpful hints as that would help in reducing the number of potential errors and scope for abandonment.

The problem I have with allowing free entry of data is that users often might enter data incorrectly or in wrong formats (dates can be entered in so many ways depending on background ,preference etc) that if they get error messages every time after a final validation they might just abandon the process

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