Usability

Imagine you are using a program for the first time. You have no prior knowledge about the program; someone just put the program on your calculator without giving you any instructions and now you are trying to figure out how to use it. After literally pressing all the buttons on the calculator and trying all sorts of key combinations, you give up and tell your friend the program was useless. You then delete the program because you figure it's worthless if you can't use it.

This example isn't based off any one particular program (I don't want to name names, but more importantly talk in the general sense), but it does resonate with lots of program users who have had a similar experience. What this problem really is about is poor user-friendliness — more commonly known as usability. The definition of usability is simply how easy it is for people to use a program, and how much value it provides.

While usability can take on many different forms, there are some essential things that you can do to make a program more user-friendly.

In Game Help

Probably the easiest way to make a program user-friendly is by including some in game help. While you ideally want your program to be so easy to use that a user can simply pick it up and figure out how to play it, not every game is so straightforward, and the average user probably needs some help.

The best place to include help in a program is as one of the options in the program's menu. When the user comes across the menu, they will see the help option and they can select it to view the help. The help does not need to cover every minute detail about the program, but rather just explain the objective of the game and detail what keys are used for controls.

:PopUp {"Option 1","Option 2","Help"},option
...
:If option=3 Then
: Dialog
:  Title "Help"
:  Text "The game objective is ..."
:  Text "Use the ENTER key to ... "
: EndDlog
:EndIf

Because most people do not like using help unless they have to, you should try to limit your help to one or two screens at most. At the same time, if you have an extremely complex game with all sorts of features and lots of keys are needed to operate it, then it would be appropriate to include help for all of those things. The general guideline is that the amount of help needed correlates to the size of the game.

Protect the User

The next thing you can do to make a user-friendly program is to protect the user from themselves. Often times in a program you will want to think about what could go wrong and try to either prevent it from happening or tell the user what's wrong. Preventing it from happening involves you, the programmer, programming in safety protections for the user so that they aren't even aware that something went wrong.

Say the program calls for the user to type in a number between 1-1000 and the user types in 5000. If your program just goes on with this value, it will probably crash at some point later on. Rather, it's necessary to check the value, and ask for the number again if it's wrong. For example:

:Input "Enter a number 1 to 1000",n
:While n<1 or n>1000
: Disp "The number must be 1 to 1000!"
: Input "Enter the number again",n
:EndWhile

Sometimes it might be impractical to check whether an input is valid. In that case, an alternative is to use Try..Else..EndTry blocks. If an error occurs, the program will jump to the "Else" part of the block, with the error code stored to the system variable errornum. You can either display a generic error message, or try to use the error code to figure out what went wrong.

Teacher Key

Another part of making a user-friendly program is to include helpful features. Since the target audience is often in high school, a feature sure to be appreciated is a "teacher key." This is a special key that the user can use to quickly exit the program. When the teacher comes around, they then want to be able to get back to the home screen] so they don't get their calculator taken away.

This problem is quite easy to prevent with a teacher key. In every program there is a main loop that runs throughout the life of the program. You need to add a check for whatever teacher key you want at the place in the main loop where you check for user input. Make sure, of course, that the user knows which key is the teacher key!

:Loop
: ....
: getKey()→key
: If key=<teacher key>
:  Exit
: ....
:EndLoop

Progress Indicators

In games that use maps, the program has to go through the list of maps and then load the appropriate one for the user to use. Depending on the size and number of maps, this can take a while. If the user doesn't know what is going on, they probably will think the program stalled or something else went wrong.

While there are a couple different ways you can cut down on the loading times for maps (see subprograms and compression), the easiest way to solve the problem is by simply telling the user what is going on and showing the user some progress. You don't have to do anything fancy (in fact, you probably shouldn't because that would just waste valuable memory), just something to help the user understand the situation.

For example, say you are randomly placing mines throughout the map (it's a Minesweeper game), you then could just display a "Placing Mines" message on the screen and then have a loop for the progress indicator that matches the current map loading:

:For x,1,20
: © fill the map with mines
: Output 0,0,"Placing mines: "&string(x)&"/20"
:EndFor

The KISS Principle

The last important point of program user-friendly is following the KISS principle. For those who haven't heard of KISS, it is an acronym which stands for Keep It Simple Stupid. The basic point of KISS is to not clutter your program with unnecessary features and useless fluff. It also entails making the program easy to figure out for those who don't have access to a readme.

It is not uncommon to see a TI-Basic math program (i.e. quadratic solver) that has a menu, about screen with scrolling credits, and includes some game in case you somehow get bored solving quadratic equations. While those things by themselves aren't bad, they are completely inappropriate in a math program. There is a certain elegance that comes with "programs that do one thing and do it well." This is known as the Unix_philosophy, and should really be what every program strives for.

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