10 KEY PRINCIPLES OF USER CENTERED DESIGN

1. Design for the users and their tasks

Isolation does not work for interactive computer systems since they have to support those using them to perform what is required. Centered for support to the users which is key in making them user-centered and task-oriented. During development and this includes the whole period, it is important for the developer to consider the characteristics of the user population, the tasks involved in the real world and the specified environment.

2. Maintain consistency

The users need a system that is easy to learn with minimal and understandable requirements. The behavior of interface elements should be consistent. In fact, consistency will start at the designing phase so as to integrate with the existing components in a computer system. You can have a new design approach to counter interaction but what is most important is for you to look at how well it contributes to consistency issues. This will determine how users will view your approach and the time taken to learn.

3. Use simple and natural dialogue

The core application of a system should be incorporated with proper interaction to enable a dialogue with the user. The user should see only the relevant information that is essential for task completion because each time irrelevant information is added, it puts the user in a more complicated situation. It is advisable for the developer to use plain English and use vocabulary that is relevant to the targeted audience. Define the terminology so that it carries the same meaning.

4. Reduce unnecessary mental effort by the user

Users like to concentrate on the task at hand and worry less or not at all of the tool and its interaction with the designed application. They are more frustrated with complicated interaction with the computer or any other mobile device compatible with the application. Why? They are distracted from the main work.

Too much effort invested in learning the operation part makes them less efficient and prone to errors. This can certainly cost a business that heavily relies on the outcome of a task. The frequency of tasks is necessary since users don’t have to memorize information from a previous part of the system that is to be used in the next part. Instructions on how to use should be clearly defined and can be retrieved when needed.

5. Provide adequate feedback

Users need assurance that their actions have been successfully executed. This can be made evident by a change in appearance when completion is achieved successfully. If it takes longer, an indicator is useful to show that processing is still in progress, and this keeps the confidence of a user in shape. What is kept away is the information providing status about the internal affairs of the system.

Various levels of interaction should be backed up by feedback. At a lower level, confirmation can be received when a control operation is successful. A good example is a button appearing somehow pressed in to indicate that the user has already pressed it. Long operations can be verified by the system upon completion.

6. Provide adequate navigation mechanisms

Users being able to navigate with ease are another vital principle for them to know their position. This is made possible by the application of an efficient and consistent mechanism that assigns titles to the current windows and use of indicators like page numbers and bars for scrolling. Other things that can be included are an overview, history of visited areas and a navigation map.

You need to provide clear routes between the different windows that the user is engaged in. The form of provision should be appropriate for the user while at each stage of the intended task.

Sometimes, users can find themselves in areas that they do not intend to be in. There should be a clear emergency exit that can be used to leave an unwanted state without having to go through it like a Cancel button.

7. Let the user take charge

The user knows what he or she needs, and the developed system provides the solution. For the user to do what is required, they should be able only to take what is required and leave the rest to support an individual request. Constraints evoked by the system should as minimal as possible which prompts the developers to provide easy ways to achieve what is frequently needed.

8. Present information clearly

The arrangement of information is essential to the user while on-screen which enables the user to single out the different elements and data groups. This can be achieved by using boxes, spaces, and visual coding proficiency. Again, developers should not provide more than the necessary information to process a task.

9. Offer Assistance

A user should get all the help needed from a system with minimal use of the document provided. In other words, they should be self-explanatory. Information provided on the window should be in line with the user’s tasks. It is important for you to provide tooltips for icon-labeled buttons.

Online help should be related to whatever interaction is provided on the window. Task-oriented should be the tone with a list of steps to be followed.

10. Error-free

Minimize errors by directing the users towards the right way to achieve their goals. Feedback from users should be constrained to prevent error, were necessary to the task. However, this shouldn’t apply in situations that will end up limiting your users’ the choice in how to accomplish their tasks. Ensure that the system validates data entry as close as possible to the point of input.

Consider expressing error messages in plain language to avoid the use of codes, point out the exact problem, and offer a solution suggestion to the problem.

How to Maximize Usability

To maximize usability, you can employ iterative design, which gradually enhances the design through assessment from the early design stages. These steps enable you to incorporate feedback from the user and client until the system attains an ideal usability level.

The preferred approach for you to ensure usability is by testing actual users on an operating system. For you to achieve significant levels of usability, it necessitates you to focus on the design efforts for the specified system end-user.

Some of the methods to determine the primary users, how they work, and what duties they should accomplish, include user testing on system prototypes, a usability audit performed by specialists, and cognitive modeling.

Scrum methodology for non-technical people.

Scrum and most Agile methodologies are best-suited for projects with a high level of uncertainty.   In that kind of environment, an adaptive approach is needed to learn what works and doesn’t work as the project is in progress rather than trying to completely define a detailed plan for completing the project upfront.

That’s called an “empirical process control” approach.  The word “empirical” means “based on observation”; and, in the context of Scrum, it means that both the product and the process to produce the product are continuously adjusted based on observation to optimize both as the project is in progress.

Scrum is a process through which small teams work in incremental efforts to build large projects, focused on delivering demonstrable results at the end of every two-to-four weeks.

It’s also a method that supports teams to be more collaborative and take more ownership of solutions as they work on a project. This often results in team members feeling more engaged in the work and producing better overall results.

The basic steps of Scrum are:

  1. Gather a list of work that needs doing
  2. Find someone who cares to put it in priority order
  3. Set a time box to focus working on that list in priority order
  4. Do some work
  5. Inspect and adapt the work
  6. Inspect and adapt the process
  7. Inspect and adapt the list of work
  8. Go again

The Truth about Smart Contracts

Much like the words “blockchain”, “AI” and “cloud”, “smart contract” is one of those phrases that get a lot of hype.

After all, what can be better than being able to trust what will happen instead of using the judicial system? The promises of smart contracts include:

  • Enforcing contracts automatically, trustlessly and impartially
  • Taking out the middle-men in contract construction, contract execution, and contract enforcement
  • (By implication) Removing lawyers

I sympathize with the hype. After all, how much more efficient could things be if we could just remove the need for trusting the other party to execute?

What the heck is a smart contract, anyway? And isn’t that the domain of Ethereum? Isn’t this the way of the future? Why would you stand in the way of progress?

In this article, I’m going to examine what smart contracts are and the engineering reality that goes with it (spoiler: it’s not so simple and very hard to secure).

What is a Smart Contract?

A normal contract is an agreement between two or more parties that binds them to something in the future. Alice may pay Bob some money in return for use of Bob’s house (aka rent). Charlie may agree to repair any damage to Denise’s car in the future in return for a monthly payment (aka car insurance).

What’s different about a “smart” contract is that the conditions are both evaluated and executed by computer code making it trustless. So if Alice agrees to pay Bob $500 for a couch for delivery 3 months from now (aka couch future), some code can determine whether the conditions are true (has Alice paid Bob? has it been 3 months yet?) and do the execution (deliver the couch from escrow) without giving either party the ability to back out.

The key feature of a smart contract is that it has trustless execution. That is, you don’t need to rely on a third party to execute various conditions. Instead of relying on the other party to make good on their word or even worse, relying on lawyers and the legal system to remedy things should something go wrong, a smart contract executes what’s supposed to happen timely and objectively.

Smart Contracts are Pretty Dumb

The use of the word “smart” implies that these contracts have some innate intelligence. They don’t. The smart part of the contract is in not needing the other party’s cooperation to execute the agreement. Instead of having to kick out the renters that aren’t paying, a “smart” contract would lock the non-paying renters out of their apartment. The execution of the agreed-to consequences are what makes smart contracts powerful, not in the contract’s innate intelligence.

A truly intelligent contract would take into account all the extenuating circumstances, look at the spirit of the contract and make rulings that are fair even in the most murky of circumstances. In other words, a truly smart contract would act like a really good judge. Instead, a “smart contract” in this context is not intelligent at all. It’s actually very rules based and follows the rules down to a T and can’t take any secondary considerations or the “spirit” of the law into account.

In other words, making a contract trustless means that we really can’t have any room for ambiguity, which brings up the next problem.

Smart Contracts are Really Hard

Because of a lot of centralized marketing from Ethereum, there’s a mistaken belief that Smart Contracts only exist in Ethereum. This is not true. Bitcoin has had, from the very beginning in 2009, a pretty extensive smart contract language called Script. In fact, smart contracts existed before Bitcoin as far back as 1995. The difference between Bitcoin’s smart contract language and Ethereum’s is that Ethereum’s is Turing-complete. That is, Solidity (ETH’s smart contract language) allows for more complicated contracts at the expense of making them more difficult to analyze.

There are some significant consequences of complexity. While complex contracts can allow for more complicated situations, a complex contract is also very difficult to secure. Even in normal contracts, the more complicated the contract it is, the harder it gets to enforce as complications add more uncertainty and room for interpretation. With smart contracts, security means handling every possible way in which a contract could get executed and making sure that the contract does what the authors intend.

Execution in a Turing-complete context is extremely tricky and hard to analyze. Securing a Turing-complete smart contract becomes the equivalent of proving that a computer program does not have bugs. We know this is very difficult, as nearly every computer program in existence has bugs.

Consider that writing normal contracts takes years of study and a very hard bar exam to be able to write competently. Smart contracts require at least that level of competence and yet currently, many are written by newbies that don’t understand how secure it needs to be. This is very clear from the various contracts that have been shown to be flawed.

Bitcoin’s solution to this problem is to simply not have Turing-completeness. This makes the contracts easier to analyze as the possible states of the program are easier to enumerate and examine.

Ethereum’s solution is to place the burden on the smart-contract writers. It is up to the contract writers to make sure that the contract does what they intend.

Smart Contracts Aren’t Really Contracts (at least on ETH)

While leaving the responsibility of securing contracts to the writers sounds good in theory, in practice, this has had some serious centralizing consequences.

Ethereum launched with the idea that “code is law”. That is, a contract on Ethereum is the ultimate authority and nobody could overrule the contract. The idea was to make clear to smart contract developers that they’re on their own. If you screwed up in making your own smart contract, then in a sense, you deserve it. This came to a crashing halt when the DAO event happened.

DAO stands for “Decentralized Autonomous Organization” and a fund was created in Ethereum as a way to show what the platform could do. Users could deposit money to the DAO and get returns based on the investments that the DAO made. The decisions themselves would be crowd-sourced and decentralized. The DAO raised $150M in ETH when ETH was trading at around $20. This all sounded good in theory, but there was a problem. The code wasn’t secured very well and resulted in someone figuring out a way to drain the DAO out of money.

Many called the person draining the DAO of money a “hacker”. In the sense that the “hacker” found a way to take money from the contract in a way not intended by the creators, this is true. But in a broader sense, this was not a hacker at all, just someone that was taking advantage of the quirks in the smart contract to their advantage. This isn’t very different than a creative CPA figuring out a tax loophole to save their client’s money.

What happened next is that Ethereum decided that code no longer is law and reverted all the money that went into the DAO. In other words, the contract writers and investors did something stupid and the Ethereum developers decided to bail them out.

The fallout of this incident is well documented. Ethereum Classic was born, preserving the DAO as written and conserving the “code is law” principle. In addition, developers began shying away from using the Turing-completeness property of Ethereum as it’s proven to be hard to secure. ERC20 and ERC721 standards are the most frequently used smart contract templates in Ethereum and it’s important to point out that both types of contracts can be written without any Turing-completeness.

Smart Contracts Only Work with Digital Bearer Instruments

Even without Turing-completeness, smart contracts sound really good. After all, who likes having to go to court to get something that rightfully belongs to them trustlessly? Isn’t using a smart contract much easier than normal contracts?

For example, wouldn’t real estate benefit from smart contracts? Alice can prove she owns the house. Bob can send money for the house and get the house in exchange. No questions of ownership, trustless, fast execution by the machine, no need for judges, bureaucrats or title insurance. Sounds amazing, right?

There are two problems here. The first is that smart contract execution by a centralized party is not really trustless. You still have to trust the centralized party to execute. Trustlessness is the key feature, so centralized execution doesn’t really make sense. To make smart contracts really trustless, you need a platform that’s actually decentralized.

That leads us to the second problem. In a decentralized context, smart contracts only work if there’s some definitive link between the digital version and the physical version. That is, whenever the digital version of the house changes ownership the physical version has to also change ownership. There’s a need for the digital world to “know” about the physical world. This is known as the “Oracle problem”.

When Alice transfers the house to Bob, the smart contract needs to know that she actually transferred the house to Bob. There are several ways of doing this but they all have the same essential problem. There has to be some trust in some third party to verify the events in the physical world.

For example, the house could be represented as a non-fungible token on Ethereum. Alice could transfer the house to Bob in an atomic swap for some amount of ETH. Here’s the problem. Bob needs to trust that the token actually represents the house. There has to be some Oracle that ensures the transfer of the house token to him actually means that the house is his legally.

Furthermore, even if a government authority says that the token actually represents the house, what then happens if the token is stolen? Does the house now belong to the thief? What if the token is lost? Is the house not available to be sold anymore? Can the house token be re-issued? If so, by whom?

There is an intractable problem in linking a digital to a physical asset whether it be fruit, cars or houses at least in a decentralized context. Physical assets are regulated by the jurisdiction you happen to be in and this means they are in a sense trusting something in addition to the smart contract you’ve created. This means that possession in a smart contract doesn’t necessarily mean possession in the real world and suffers from the same trust problem as normal contracts. A smart contract that trusts the third party removes the killer feature of trustlessness.

Even digital assets like ebooks, health records or movies suffer from the same problem. The “rights” to these digital assets are ultimately decided by some other authority and an Oracle needs to be trusted.

And in this light, Oracles are just dumbed-down versions of judges. Instead of getting machine-only execution and simplified enforcement, what you actually get is the complexity of having to encode all possible outcomes with the subjectivity and risk of human judgment. In other words, by making a contract “smart”, you’ve drastically made it more complex to write while still having to trust someone.

The only things that can work without an Oracle are digital bearer instruments. Essentially, both sides of the trade need to not just be digital, but be bearer instruments. That is, ownership of the token cannot have dependencies outside of the smart contracting platform. Only when a smart contract has digital bearer instruments can a smart contract really be trustless.

Conclusion

I wish smart contracts could be more useful than they actually are. Unfortunately, much of what we humans think of as contracts bring in a whole bunch of assumptions and established case law that doesn’t need to be explicitly stated.

Furthermore, it turns out utilizing Turing completeness is an easy way to screw up and cause all sorts of unintended behavior. We should be labeling smart contract platforms Turing-vulnerable, not Turing-complete. The DAO incident also proved that there’s a “spirit” of the contract which is implicitly trusted and helps resolve disputes more so than we realize.

Smart contracts are simply too easy to screw up, too difficult to secure, too hard to make trustless and have too many external dependencies to work for most things. The only real place where smart contracts actually add trustlessness is with digital bearer instruments on decentralized platforms like Bitcoin.