Heuristic Evaluation of Bear Facts System

Jean-Anne Fitzpatrick, IS 213, Spring 2001


This report presents the findings of a heuristic evaluation of the UC Berkeley "Bear Facts" system. The evaluation focused on a single task area: checking and updating student mailing address information. For this task, the overall goal of the user is to ensure that mailings from the university are sent to the correct address.

I arbitrarily assume that the user begins at the "Bear Links" page. Since several mailing addresses are stored, and the update function for each is similar, I focused on updating the billing address, as representative of any address update task.The following discussion follows a typical sequence of steps and associated screens that the user will see while performing this task.

For each screen or series of screens associated with a step, a list of problems is presented, organized by the main heuristic guidelines violated (numbers based on Nielsen's useit.com heuristics list). Each problem is assigned a severity rating (Cosmetic, Minor, Major, or Catastrophic) based on its expected frequency, impact, and persistence. The list of problems is followed by suggestions for improving the screen(s).

Screen images are provided at the end of the document for reference.

Step 1: Select Bear Facts link from Bear Links page

At the Bear Links page (Figure 1), the user must determine which "System" or "Resource" to select to perform the mailing address update task.


Heuristic 2. Match between the system and the real world (mapping to task)

The text describing the functions of Bear Facts says only "Student information". This is too sparse to make it clear that this link can be used to update mailing addresses. The user is forced to use a process of elimination, reading the text for all of the links and ruling out all of the others.

Severity rating: Minor (user will become familiar with links to commonly used functions)
In addition, there appears to be a distinction between "Systems" and "Resources". This is not meaningful to the user, and simply adds confusion.
Severity rating: Cosmetic (these labels on the columns may not even be noticed)
Heuristic 10. Help and documentation

There is no obvious location to find additional information about the functions of the links on this page. To find a more detailed description of Bear Facts (without selecting the Bear Facts link), the user must guess that such information can be found under the "Student Information Systems" link, and must guess correctly to navigate through a series of links ("about Student Information Systems", "Central Systems", then "Bear Facts") to get from that point to the actual information required (i.e., Bear Facts can be used to update mailing addresses). Help that is buried this deep is hardly better than no help at all.

Severity rating: Major (new user who is not willing to experiment will never find correct link)

Suggested resolution:

The problems in this page reflect what it is: a set of links to pages owned by different organizations. Making this page genuinely usable would require designing an integrated structure for the entire set of information and functions. Barring this, simple changes in the labeling would help. For instance, the description for Bear Facts could read "View and Update Student Information". The meaningless (to the user) labels "Systems" and "Resources" should be removed. Last but not least, a help page should be created which specifically addresses the question "What are all the links on this page?", and a prominent link to that help should be provided.

Step 2. Select section within Bear Facts

At the Bear Facts main page (Figure 2), the user must determine which link is relevant to the address update task.


Heuristic 2. Match between the system and the real world (mapping to task)

The user is again faced with a process of elimination to select the correct option, since there is no reference to updating mailing addresses. In fact, there is no reference to the fact that any information can be updated. The best "clue" to selecting the link is the inference that one may need to log on to perform an update.

Note that help information for this page is not buried quite as far: the "About Bear Facts" links accesses an FAQ page for the system. However, the information provided is general. Even after reading the FAQ page, the user must correctly surmise that the next step is log on, and must read the fine print on this page to understand that "Student Information" is a link to the log on page.

Severity rating: Minor (user will become familiar with links to commonly used functions)

Suggested resolution:

The text on this page should be modified to clarify the scope of each of the links. For instance, it should be explicitly stated that the "Student Information" allows updating of certain information, such as mailing addresses. The modified text should be user-tested to ensure its clarity.

Step 3. Log on

The user must log on (Figure 3) before proceeding, although at this point, the user may still be unsure that this is the correct path for updating a mailing address. If an incorrect password is entered, the system displays the screen shown in Figure 4.


Heuristic 2. Match between the system and the real world (speak the user's language)

Although apparently quite simple, the log on screen uses terminology that may be unclear to a new user. To successfully log on for the first time, the user must intuit that "CalNet ID" refers to your student ID number (not, for instance, a userid name) and "your PIN" refers to your Tele-bears system PIN number. After the first time, the user must remember to use a password instead of the Tele-bears PIN, which will no longer work.

Severity rating: Minor (most users will be able to guess successfully)
In addition, the statement "The information you wish to see is confidential" is an example of text that has not been considered in context. Specifically, it may add to the confusion of a user who wants to update information, rather than just view it, by implying that this screen is intended only for users who "wish to see information".
Severity rating: Minor (most users will pay little attention to this text)
Heuristic 3. User control and freedom (clearly marked exits)

No options are provided except "Log on". The user is at left at the mercy of the browser Back button.

Severity rating: Minor (at this stage, only one click Back is required to get better navigation options)
Heuristic 9. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors

The error message screen does help the user identify which field was invalid.

Severity rating: Major (a user who enters the wrong student ID may never realize the problem is not their password)
Heuristic 8. Aesthetic and minimalist design

Both the Log On screen (Figure 3) and the associated error message screen (Figure 4) use a difficult to read layout (center-justified text). This is more glaring in the error message screen because there is more text. (This also relates to Heuristic 4. Consistency and Standards, since other pages use left-justified text)

The information provided on the error message screen includes some useful information, such as a reminder that passwords are case sensitive, and what to do if the system does not accept your PIN or password. However, it also includes detailed information that is not relevant to the current task: a description of what constitutes a valid password. Presumably, that information is relevant if you are trying to change your password, but not if you are trying to enter a password that has already been defined and accepted by the system.

The error message screen also uses somewhat non-standard English ("your PIN nor your password" instead of "your PIN or your password").

Severity rating: Major (the useful information may be swamped by the useless information and poor formatting)
Heuristic 2. Match between the system and the real world (natural task flow)

The information on the error message screen is not presented in a logical order related to a typical task sequence. For instance, checking the Caps Lock key would probably be the first thing the user should try. Only after exhausting all other avenues will the user want to visit the Account Services office, but this option is the first item listed on the screen.

Severity rating: Minor (the text is relatively brief, so it is not hard to read the whole thing)
Heuristic 10. Help and documentation

The user is not provided with any resources for resolving questions about the entries required on the Log On page.

Severity rating: Major (new users who are not able to guess cannot proceed)

Suggested resolution:

Improving the text on these screens would resolve many of the problems. Neither screen is crowded, and could easily include expanded definitions for potentially confusing terms such as PIN. The layout should be consistent with the previous pages and in an easily readable form (i.e., left-justified). The order of the items on the error message screen should match the logical order of steps for the user to try, and the extraneous information on valid passwords should be omitted.

The error message display should specifically state whether the entered student ID is valid, rather than just stating that the ID and password do not match. It would be helpful to display the name associated with the student ID if it is recognized. That is, the error message should indicate either "The entered ID number was not valid" or "The entered password is not correct for [user name]". This will protect the user from repeatedly trying to correct the password field when the error is actually in the ID number.

In general, all of the screens should include navigation to the previous level that does not rely on the browser's Back button.

Step 4. Identify and use function to check current address information

After logging on, the user sees the Student Information page (Figure 5). By good fortune, the section relevant to the current task will usually be "above the fold" (depending on browser settings). The button "Display: All" is easy to interpret, and leads to the screen shown in Figure 6.

Note: Only the Addresses section of the Student Information page is being evaluated, although even casual inspection suggests problems in other sections.


Heuristic 6. Flexibility and efficiency of use

Although the Address section is near the top of the page, other tasks would require scrolling to find the correct section. Depending on browser settings, even the Address section could be hidden "below the fold" when initially viewing the screen.

Severity rating: Minor for this task (Address section is likely to be visible) but potentially Major for others
Heuristic 3. User control and freedom (clearly marked exits)

After "Display: All" is selected, the user is provided with no navigation options except the browser Back button. For instance, there is no clearly marked way to proceed to updating an address. (This also relates to Heuristic 2. Match between system and the real world / natural task flow)

Severity rating: Minor (one click on Back will return to page with desired function)
Heuristic 6. Recognition rather than recall (reduce memory load)

If viewing this Address display completed the user's task (i.e., all address information confirmed to be correct), the user must remember to return to the previous display and log out. Particularly since this system is explicitly designed for use at public kiosks, neglecting to log out is a potentially serious security issue. (This also relates to Heuristic 5. Error Prevention.)

Severity rating: Major (this could lead to frequent errors with serious consequences)

Suggested resolution:

The Student Information web page could easily be structured with links to each section at the top of the page. For instance, for the task at hand, a link labeled "Addresses" would be clear, and allow the user to jump to the section of interest rather than scroll and scan the page.

Every page should provide navigation to return to the previous (higher level) display, and every page beyond the log on screen should prominently display the log out function. Ideally, the location of the log out function should be consistent with the Student Information page, which currently has a "Log out" button on both the top and bottom of the screen.

A common task flow will be to check the addresses, then correct one or more of them. The Addresses page should therefore have links directly to the Update functions.

Step 5. Identify and use function to update the billing address

From the Student Information page, once the Address section is located, the Update functions are clearly identified (see Figure 5). Text is displayed which warns that the update function is only provided during certain hours.

When "Update: Billing" is selected, the Billing Address Update screen shown in Figure 7 appears. When "Validate Billing Address" is selected, error messages may appear, as shown in Figure 8.

If no errors are detected during validation, the Save Billing Address screen shown in Figure 9 appears, requiring the user to re-enter their ID and password. If "Save Billing Address" is selected when outside the valid range of hours, the error screen shown in Figure 10 appears.


Heuristic 2. Match between the system and the real world (mapping to task, speak the user's language)

The first line is confusingly labeled "Secondary Info" (the Address page, but not this page, explains that "optional secondary address information" is shown first). Although this is marked as optional, it is easy to confuse this with the "No. and Street" entry, resulting in the error shown in Figure 8. The structure of the address seems to follow a business address model (company name followed by street). However, the addresses being entered in this system will rarely be business addresses.

Severity rating: Major (can lead to frequent errors, especially when entering a previously blank address)
It is not clear what the options labeled "Address release" and "Phone release" mean. In one browser environment, it was also impossible to tell that the "No" radio button was pre-selected. (This also relates to Heuristic 10. Help and documentation.)
Severity rating: Major (user has no way to determine which option to select, and may not even be able to see the default value which is selected)
The error screen when attempting to save outside of the valid range of hours (Figure 10) contains an Oracle error code that is meaningless to the user.
Severity rating: Minor (most of the text is clear)
Heuristic 7. Flexibility and efficiency of use

Although clearly intended to allow entry of international addresses, the form does not support the variation that actually occurs in postal codes and phone numbers.

Severity rating: Major when required (some international addresses may be impossible to enter correctly)
In many cases, more than one of the addresses will be identical. It should be possible to simply set one address to be the same as another.
Severity rating: Catastrophic (it is overly time-consuming and error-prone to require the user to re-enter the same address)
Heuristic 5. Error prevention

Although the Update functions are only available during certain hours, the user is only warned about this at the Student Information page. If the user does not notice this warning, it is possible to proceed through the entire task of updating, cycling through verification one or more times, and attempting to save the validated address, before being informed that the entire task must be repeated at another time.

Severity rating: Catastrophic (user may waste a significant amount of time)
Heuristic 1. Visibility of system status

Once past the Student Information page, the user is not reminded of the time limitation. The user is not shown the current time.

Severity rating: Minor (if the warning wasn't noticed on the first screen, repeating it may not help)

Suggested resolution:

The layout of the page should be re-designed to reflect typical student addresses, but to also allow the full range of possible student addresses. One possibility would be to have an initial form reflecting U.S. standards (omitting the "Secondary Info. field), with an option to select a different form for international / longer addresses.

Help should be readily available to explain the "Address Release" and "Phone Release" options. A page describing these fields actually exists, but currently the user must guess to navigate back to the Bear Facts main page and select "General Information". Correcting this problem could be as simple as adding a "What's this?" link.

In the current design, a user with only one address must re-enter the information two or three times. Ideally, it should be unnecessary for the user to enter duplicate addresses, based on administrative defaults that use the available address(es) in a logical and consistent way. (Outside of the context of this evaluation of the user interface, I know from experience that when no "Billing address" is available, the "Local address" will be used. However, if no "Permanent address" is available, registration documents are not sent to the "Local address", but instead are sent to the student's departmental office.) In any case, it should be painless for the user to make an address the same as one that has already been entered. This could be accomplished by adding check boxes such as "Make same as Local address" and "Make same as Permanent address".

Finally, the user interface should simply not allow the user to attempt an update function outside of the hours when it is available. This should not require actually accessing the database, but could be accomplished with a simple program that checks the server time and day of the week against the valid range. Ideally, the buttons would be presented grayed-out when the functions are not available.

Step 6. Log out

Whether or not the address update is completed successfully, the user must use the browser Back button repeatedly to return to the Student Information page before logging out.


Heuristic 5. Error prevention

As noted previously, this system was explicitly designed for access from public kiosks, and the user should be able to log out from any screen. The omission of the log out option is particularly glaring when the current screen display clearly corresponds to the end of a particular task, such as successfully updating an address. (This also relates to Heuristic 6. Recognition rather than recall / reduce memory load.)

Severity rating: Major (when several clicks away from a screen with the log out option, this error can be frequent, and when working at a public kiosk, its consequences can be severe)

Suggested resolution:

As noted previously, the log out function should be available and prominent on every page.

Figure 1: Bear Link Page


Figure 2. Bear Facts Main Page

Figure 3. Bear Facts Log On


Figure 4. Bear Facts Log On - Error Display

Figure 5. Student Information Page

Figure 6. Address Page

Figure 7. Billing Address Update Page

Figure 8. Billing Address Update Page - Error Display (Secondary Info)

Figure 9. Save Billing Address Page

Figure 10. Address Update Error Display (Update hours)

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