A new methodology, and proposed usability evaluation framework, for delivering models to users via desktop software and web services

Abstract

There has long been a disconnect between the resources of the web and desktop commodity software, such as Microsoft (MS) Excel. We attempt to unite the world of the Web (through Web services) with the familiarity of desktop applications – in this case Microsoft Excel – and to test the effectiveness of this strategy through a usability evaluation framework. Excel is a widely used spreadsheet package and offers powerful data manipulation features for environmental managers. However until recently there has been no easy way to access, from within Excel, world-wide environmental data and specialised statistical services. Excel has also been shown to give inaccurate results in some circumstances when directly used for statistical analysis (McCullough & Heiser 2008). Web applications are the traditional way to use Web services and this was our first approach. Yet the Web was never originally intended to support the lengthy workflows inherent in tools for environmental data analysis, such as that required by our project (to make Australian water quality data available for analysis over the Web). The web client application (also referred to as the “Web client”) we developed also faced the overwhelming restrictions of slowness in data transmission; difficulty of state persistence; and rigidity in configuration of data source options. However, some of these problems resulted from our inexperience in Web application development and insufficient project time to explore other Web client application examples. Our desire to showcase a range of client options to our stakeholders (and our perceived limitations of the Web) motivated the requirements for an alternative: an Excel tool. We used Visual Studio Tools for Office (VSTO) technology to develop an Excel Add-in (also referred to as the “Excel client”) rich in desirable functionality such as data source configuration and workflows, with the ability to access world-wide environmental data and statistical processes through Web services. One of the challenges for a software developer working in a research environment is the development of software applications in anticipation of users’ needs. The impetus for developing the Excel tool was to overcome the afore-mentioned restrictions of our Web client. So this assumption that a desktop environment provides superior usability should be evaluated. In response to usability problems with the Web client, we developed a usability evaluation framework (built on a previous in-house scoping study) and considered it during development. When our product is released, this framework could be used for evaluating its usability and the results used to inform subsequent client architectural decisions. Development of the Excel tool suggests that while the web is ideal for information delivery and presentation to a wide international audience, the traditional desktop client (when combined with technology for accessing world-wide data and statistics) may have significant usability advantages for the environmental management user sector. And now, with the aid of the usability evaluation framework presented in this paper, this proposition can be tested.

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Cite this paper

@inproceedings{Fitch2009ANM, title={A new methodology, and proposed usability evaluation framework, for delivering models to users via desktop software and web services}, author={P. Fitch}, year={2009} }