Simple interfaces are important when looking at new CMMS programs

Look closely at the user interface when upgrading your CMMS

If you were to ask 100 random users of computerized maintenance management systems (CMMSs) what is most important to them in any program, "user-friendliness" would be their response. Not that they'd actually use that grossly-overused term. They'd want a program that's simple, easy to learn or easy to use.

However one chooses to describe the user interface, there's absolute agreement as to the importance placed on the CMMS package's usability. An inadequate user interface means a greater number of errors in data entry, reporting and analysis. It also can require users to spend more time completing tasks or finding desired information.

For novices and those not experienced in specific functions such as year-end procedures, a poorly designed user interface makes the learning curve much more steep. It's not an insignificant matter. Minimizing errors, task time and training costs can yield average savings from several hundred to several thousand dollars per user per year.

Eventually, people get frustrated with a package that sports a poor user interface. They stop using it for certain, or all, functions. It's not uncommon to see clerical staff busily entering data and printing reports throughout the day on behalf of maintenance technicians and management who show little interest in using the software themselves. Maintenance staff and managers don't typically take ownership of the CMMS because of the additional time needed to input data and the difficulty in extracting the right information. By reducing the time required, user-centric CMMS packages quickly prove their value and promote a sense of ownership among workers and managers.

Numerous features and functions demonstrate CMMS software user-friendliness. Following are some design issues that can assist users in comparing different CMMS packages.

Task-oriented structure

A CMMS package ought to be organized in a task-oriented way that reflects how users think and function, not by application silos, such as inventory control, preventive maintenance, work order control and so on.

Infrequent users of the system can benefit from "bubble help," the kind that appears when the cursor hovers on a toolbar icon or menu item. Experienced users may benefit from commands connected to function keys.

Menus should be short with minimal nesting. Look for graphics and function keys that support meaningful menu items, such as using a recognizable scissors icon for the cut command and using "Ctrl-C" for the copy command.

Menu items should be grouped logically and consistently, and commands and menu items ought to use clear, action-oriented words. The hierarchy of menus, screens, toolbars and the like should be customized for a given user or user group. The goal is to make it clear where the user is in the program, and how to extract the desired information.

Screen design

Look for features that make it easy for the user to customize the screen design, including adding or deleting fields, changing field descriptors, manipulating field size and location, and changing colors. Information required for decision-making should be displayed clearly and consistently from screen to screen.

Screens should be arranged symmetrically, consistent with the way people read monitorsglancing at the upper-left corner first then scanning clockwise, depending on the use of space, graphics, fonts, color and titles. The screens should have eye appeal, including:

Standard use of uppercase letters.

Readable fonts.

Items separated by white space or borders.

Titles and graphics centered on vertical and horizontal axes.

Lists of data items arranged vertically rather than horizontally.

The software ought to provide multiple options for displaying data, including spreadsheet, tabular or graphical formats, dashboards, ticker tape and embedded hyperlinks. It also should provide logical default values for required fields.

Color

Color should be consistent from screen to screen, and the default, read-only, calculated and mandatory fields should each be distinguished by a characteristic color or shading. Avoid packages that use color overkill, that is, color combined with blinking and bolding, more than five colors per screen and intensive color combinations, such as red on green or blue on yellow.

On the other extreme, the CMMS also should avoid relying on subtle differences in color or gray scale, making it possible for a colorblind user to use the CMMS software acceptably in black and white. Color ought to be used where it adds value, such as to draw attention to something, indicate status or help organize items on a screen.

Finally, color use should customizable by the user.

Messaging

Error messages must be understood easily and display the problem's identity, its cause and suggested potential solutions. Look for messages geared to the knowledge and experience of the user. For example, messages should be expressed positively, as in: "Would you like to add a new piece of equipment?" rather than the flat, "There is no piece of equipment with that number." Messaging should use simple and clear text and avoid uncommon acronyms and short forms.

Messages also should be meaningful in tracking computer background functions, such as displaying the percent complete while waiting for a schedule to be updated. And, of course, the user should be able to customize messages.

Learning tools

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The help function should be context-sensitive, and the user must be able to ascertain where he or she are in the program while using the help function. Users ought to be able to add to the default comprehensive help index. The help function should be supported by clarifying examples. These examples are especially important for procedures, such as completing a purchase order.

Response time

Response time for any given function should be less than two seconds, and feedback should be consistent with expectations during the response, including time remaining until completion and reason for the delay.

Error handling

A warning should precede serious errors. Field-level error checking should monitor range and syntax. There should be a way to back out of errors, such as cancel, undo or undelete, and pre-emptive messages ("Are you sure?") should be used.

When an error occurs, the field, character or graphic in question should be highlighted for easy identification. The software should be flexible enough to recognize user input that is "close enough," for example, answering "Y," "yes" or "YES" to a yes/no question. The CMMS ought to prevent entry errors from causing drastic consequences, such as loss of data, system crashes or program freeze.

Contributing Editor David Berger can be reached at david@wmc.on.ca.

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