Project Management Institute

The usability factor

a follow-up

Concerns of Project Managers


Harvey A. Levine, Feature Editor


One of my favorite pieces of humor is the one where we rank five levels of communication skills. The highest level is “Talks with God,” then comes “Talks with the Angels,” followed by “Talks with Self.” Lower in the order is “Argues with Self” Last is “Looses those arguments.”

I often find myself at level four, involved in a dialog with myself. Fortunately, I get bored before I find out who lost.

From the response that I received, I would have to surmise that the last article in the PM Software Forum (October 1993) was anything but boring. I received several approving comments, especially from experienced project management software users and project management software developers. They unanimously voiced approval of my disdain for those people in the media who would have us choose ease-of-use and associated user aids as the overriding factor in selecting a project management software package.

But, as is customary, I began to question my own position. Just how important is ease-of-use? Had I, in my zealousness to make a point about the importance of functionality, closed my eyes to the need for user assistance? Hence, the personal dialog commenced.

While conducting a public seminar (for Skill Dynamics) on Specifying, Evaluating, and Selecting Project Management Software, I chanced to ask the attendees (those that were using project management software but were considering changing products): “why did you want to switch?” The overwhelming response was “Usability.”

So here I am, re-engaged in my discussion with myself on the issue of usability vs. power.


When serious reviewers of project management software attempt to present their findings, they will often use a graph, placing each product on a grid, with usability on one axis and power on the other. Although the ratings are rarely consistent, they do reflect a legitimate and ongoing concern of project management software users. I was moved to ask two key questions. First: Is it possible to have both high usability and high power, or are they mutually exclusive? Second; Just what is usability?

Defining Usability

Let's take usability first. My dictionary defines usability as the state or quality of being usable. Not too much help there. Usable, in turn, was defined as that can be used; fit; convenient, or available for use. Still not much help.

As a generic software-oriented definition, we can probably say that usability is a set of conditions that supports the effective and efficient utilization of a tool, on its intended applications, to achieve a specified set of objectives. These modifiers (“applications” and “objectives”) are important. We can immediately see the problem with the media's oversimplification of usability issues. I'm not certain that they always keep the intended applications and objectives in mind. If, in fact, a product's usability is tied to the application and the user's objectives, then is it appropriate to rate a product's usability without first knowing these conditions?

Nevertheless, if we can agree that usability is a noble goal, let's probe further into its components.

The first and main area that we usually talk about is what we call user-friendliness. It would be better to refer to them as their two major components: ease-of-learning and ease-of-use. The former is probably the biggest component of the usability equation. If we cannot overcome the impediments to learning the product, we don't get to the use phase.


When we start to use a new word processing product, the learning generally involves only learning how to operate the software. On the other hand, when we start to use a new project management software product, we often need to be guided through both the product and the process. Learning aids, therefore, become especially important. Some of the things to look for are:

Tutorials. The best kind are indexed and interactive. They should be live, onscreen tutorials. The user should be able to select which portions to access, and should be able to note which portions have been reviewed and be able to exit and return at will. We rarely have time to do the entire tutorial at once. We also may wish to “grow” into the program.


Harvey A. Levine, principal, the Project Knowledge Group (21 Pine Ridge, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866) has been a practitioner of project management for over 30 years, primarily with General Electric Company, and is a past chairman of PMI. Mr. Levine has been adjunct professor of project managernent at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, and is the author of Project Management Using Microcomputers, as well as numerous articles.

User manuals. Most of us find these to be a “last resort.” But we should always have a good “printed” reference. In most of today's products, the information in the user and reference manuals is also available on-screen. With many of us traveling with notebooks and laptops (saris manuals), this is especially advisable. Here too, the more usable on-screen manuals will be fully indexed and will support subject and word searches.

On-line help. We seem to have gone backwards in this area. Many DOS-based programs have developed exceptional field context-sensitive help techniques. In these products, the help function is designed to assume that the help request is associated with the current location on the screen, and usually responds with appropriate advice (or a menu of appropriate options). Today's Windows-based software seems to have lost this context sensitivity. Instead, we often get a menu of general help topics and have to search for the appropriate help. At best, the help is associated with the current view, but not with the current position in that view. The result is that we engage in a tiresome search to locate the help information that we need. Ah, for the good old days.

Assist Modes

Several programs offer options to display a continuing help box as a movable window. Project Scheduler 5 and SuperProject are examples of such. These will be helpful to the first-time user, but often get more in the way than help. In general, they tell the user what is expected as input to the area that they are in, but do not provide guidance to the process as a whole. However, since that mode can be switched on and off at will, it certainly is better than not having the option at all.

I recently was shown a product with an exceptional movable-window assist mode. Unfortunately, that product is not being distributed in North America. The help box changes what it displays depending on the current location of the cursor. With the cursor on a table section, it tells you how to add or edit an item. Moving the cursor to the Gantt area changes the information to instructions on statusing, delaying, linking, etc. Move the cursor to the icon area and you get definitions of each icon and other options in the tool bar. I wish all programs had this feature.

Speaking of icons, while an essential component of ease-of-use, I still find them an impediment to learning a new program. How the heck are you supposed to know what they do? The pictures, if you can see them at all without a magnifier, rarely convey a clear message, and there are no standards, as in road signs. Lotus Corporation has recognized this problem, and has programmed the right mouse button to display the icon functions. Can this be that difficult for our project management software designers? (The new Primavera for Windows will have this feature.)

There is a trend toward more process-oriented assist modes, such as those offered by TimeLine for Windows (Co-Pilot), Microsoft Project for Windows (Planning Wizards), and SuperProject (Project Manager's Assistant). The first two (which so impressed one of the media ease-of-use fanatics that he thought that they were the most significant project management software developments in a decade) are of limited use.

TimeLine's Co-Pilot has only eight aid titles, which will only “open up” when the system feels that you might appreciate guidance in those areas. Co-Pilot can be enabled or disabled by an icon (after you figure out that the silly looking person with the goggles is the Co-Pilot icon, and whether the enabled mode is with the goggles up or the goggles down). As a “non-lover” of icons, I really look forward to instructing project managers to flip the goggles on the Co-Pilot to get guidance!!!

Microsoft Project's Planning Wizards also could go further. There are only four titles, which are invoked on demand. A very helpful one is Creating a New Project, which will walk you through the process in great detail. Early reports on the next release of Project mention increased Planning Wizards and something called Cue Cards.

The most ambitious process-oriented assist mode can be found in SuperProject's Project Manager's Assistant. It is both more extensive and customizable. It has a dozen major titles covering most functions. Each of these major titles has 6 to 11 subtitles, providing close to 100 guided and interactive functions. Some of these functions are supplementary analyses, such as comparing up to three schedules. The Fast Start title will bring you into a series of guides for setting up a new project. Project Manager's Assistant is written in CA-Realizer. Users of this programming language can modify the instructions, including adding custom instructions and terms for a particular company's standard practices.

User Interface

This area comprises numerous items. It would be difficult to find two people who would see their needs and preferences exactly alike. There are, however, several features that are universally appreciated. These include high resolution, speedy screen refresh, and user control of visual attributes. There can be no doubt that the OS/2, Windows, or Macintosh systems usually (but not necessarily) provide a more preferable user interface than straight DOS systems. For personal computers, Windows is by far the medium of choice. But how different developers are using this medium varies considerably. The important thing to keep in mind when appraising the user interface is that the interface is a means to an end, not the end itself. A good interface can help you to use the product, but it cannot get the product to do what hasn't been designed into the product as a capability.

Scitor's recent release of Project Scheduler 6 for Windows illustrates the value of a good user interface, and the potential for co-existence of usability and power. Although PS6 has added considerable functionality and versatility (compared to PS5), the well-designed Windows interface helps to retain a balance between usability and power. PS6 does not provide any assist modes, but such aids may not be as important here because of seemingly less involved approaches to such complex functions as summarization and multi-project scheduling.

Recognizing Diverse Users

If we acknowledge that different users may prefer different interface designs, we may also realize that different user types will benefit from having screens and other program features designed specifically to support their needs. The View Library, in ABT's Project Workbench for Windows, supports this approach. In PWW, you can design as many custom views as you need, and add the views to the view menu. The view menu is displayed in collapsible outline form, and can even be saved to more than one views file. Therefore, you can have a separate set of views for each class of user or each type of reporting and updating, with major categories for each function or user within the selected file. Just click on the desired category and the menu opens up to show each of the available, customized views and reports.

The new Windows release of Plan-View 2.0, from PlanView, Inc., in Austin, Texas, carries this approach even further. This client/server solution, based on PlanView's earlier Intelligent Planner software, comes upon the Windows Program Manager screen with icons for each user class. For instance, there are distinct options and input screens for project sponsors (work requesters), project or functional managers (planning and management), and staff (progress and time reporting). And there are separate output options for management graphics and schedule presentation graphics.

Other Usability Items

Error avoidance. Several products will try to warn you when you have created a set of conditions that may interfere with normal critical path or leveling operations. Harvard Project Manager was notorious for repeating “error messages” every time it calculated, even when most of the conditions that it called errors were not incorrect. Today, Microsoft Project has become the leader in error notification. The problem is, again, that many of these so-called error conditions are acceptable situations and the error warnings can become rather bothersome. However, properly implemented, error avoidance capabilities should be an asset.

The bottom line is that both usability and power are required in a satisfactory project management software product. If it has power, but is weak in usability … [or] it excels in usability, but lacks functionality … the software will become shelfware.

Global edit. There will be times when you will want to make changes to a selected group of items, such as reassigning a set of tasks to a different resource. It would be preferable to be able to select and edit the set with a single sequence of keystrokes. This could be via a global edit command, specifying the select and change parameters, or via a multiple task edit form, such as provided in Microsoft Project.

Repetitive tasks and macros. There may be a sequence of functions that you may wish to perform on a regular basis, such as running a series of reports, or updating task status. The ability to create user macros is the way to facilitate this process. Microsoft Project provides a set of such macros, and will allow the user to define additional macros and to add them to the macro list menu.

Print preview. Users should be able to preview printed and plotted output on the screen, or at the very least, should be able to determine the number of pages and the number of records on the last page.

Hardware. There are a few things that you can do, outside of the software product, to make it easier on yourself. You'll appreciate having the fastest equipment available. Today, the 486-DX2-66 is the preferred PC chip. A local video bus may also help. Most project management software is not significantly helped by math co-processors. Screen size and resolution can be exceptionally important. I notice that I really prefer the views on my desktop, which is set to 800 by 600, to my notebook, which is set to standard VGA (640 by 480). In any of the graphic or spreadsheet modes, I can see more at once, and I can tuck any movable forms off in a comer. However, the higher resolution makes the data more difficult to see, unless you also opt for a larger monitor (which is costly). The 800 by 600 mode is about the maximum for a 14” screen. But larger monitors will easily handle higher resolution modes.


Where does versatility fit into the equation. Is versatility a usability item, a functionality item, or both? My vote is for both. Therefore, in our quest for usability, we should look for such versatility items as adjustable column widths, user-defined column tides, user. defined fields, user-defined functions, user-defined views, tables and forms, and user-defined reports.


Let's get back to the question of whether usability and power can co-exist. Experienced users, especially those moving from mainframes to PCs, have pushed for the increase in functionality that we are seeing in many of our project management software products. Even newer users eventually recognize that there is a minimum level of functionality required to achieve useful results. As I've noted many times before, users must invest in learning about project management and the software that they are using. Although the learning process will intensify with the growth of functionality, a highly functional program does not have to be difficult to use. If the user aids described above are effectively integrated into the product, the product can be both user-friendly and powerful.

The bottom line is that both usability and power are required in a satisfactory project management software product. If it has power, but is weak in usability, few people will be able to accomplish their objectives. If it does excel in usability, but lacks functionality, it will fall equally short of the mark. Either way, the software will become shelfware.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PMNETwork • January 1994



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