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Designing for Technicians Working in the Field: Usability Heuristics for Mobile Application Design

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Co-author: Michelle Pickrell

Mobile applications are frequently used by technicians and logistics personnel to access documentation and communicate and log information about the work they do in the field. Currently, however, there are no context-specific usability heuristics for use by designers who are building mobile applications for this sector. By conducting contextual inquiries with technicians and logistics personnel who use mobile applications for their day-to-day work, we identified specific usability issues affecting the use of these applications. From this research, we propose a set of eight heuristics for use by designers and developers creating mobile applications for users in this area. 

This research was commissioned to examine the real-world experiences of field technicians and logistics personnel with the mobile applications they use to do their daily work. To do this, the work practices of technicians working in industrial environments were examined through a combination of direct observation during site visits and in-depth interviews.

The observations and interviews revealed limitations in existing heuristics for mobile application design. ‘Heuristics’ are design guidelines or ‘rules of thumb’ which help designers create effective applications. While there are existing heuristics for mobile applications, they do not consider the specific needs of field technicians and logistics personnel.

From the interviews and observations, eight new context specific heuristics were identified. These are:

H1 - Ensure high contrast colour combinations are used for easy visibility outdoors

Colour combinations for outdoor use, such as dark text on a white or cream background should be used for improved legibility.

H2 - Design applications to reduce strain on device batteries

Designing applications for efficient use of wireless networks/GPS and using display colours which reduce the need to have backlighting on full can reduce power consumption and result in improved productivity.

H3 - Provide users with multiple ways to provide input

Providing many ways for information to be captured, such as image, audio recordings or structured text, allows for easier input by technicians.

H4 - Provide technicians with access to activity histories

Information learned by a technician about a particular client, worksite or piece of equipment should be made available to other technicians working with that client in the future via their mobile applications. 

H5 - Provide technicians with the technical documentation they need to do their jobs through the application

Technicians need easy, reliable access to the information they need to do their job, particularly where this relates to health and safety.

H6 - Ensure the application is able to locally save any relevant data

To reduce the risk of data loss, mobile applications should have the capacity to function offline for at least the duration of the work unit and save the data locally. The application should then ensure data is synced automatically when an internet connection becomes available.

H7 - Provide technicians with an understanding of what the data they input will be used for

Providing technicians with an outline of what the data they input is used for, and access to this information when it is most useful (see H4 & H5), helps them to understand what information they are required to input and encourages them to do this fully and completely.

H8 - Design application workflow around the technicians’ work practices instead of the technical structures of back-end systems

The design of the application workflow should be based on the needs and work practices of the technician, rather than the technical structures of existing systems.

The above heuristics are intended to be used in conjunction with existing well-known usability heuristics to ensure applications are appropriate and effective for field technicians. Using both sets of heuristics, alongside other validation methods, such as usability testing, should result in more usable applications for technicians in the field. 

Co-author Michelle Pickrell is a user experience designer with a background in Industrial Design, PHD candidate at University of Technology, Sydney. 

Download the full paper here. (The study was commissioned by Retriever Communications.)

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