The choreography of a Mentor Wizard application in operation is quite simple. Each task and sub-task is divided into a sequence of steps. Each step presents one issue to the user. Each task collects some data or defines some actions that the application carries out in support of a business process. This segmentation of an application into tasks is called workflow automation. If operations will be performed that cannot be undone, the user is asked to confirm these operations in a formal confirmation step, usually at the end of a sub-task. In technical terms, this confirmation step commits the collected data in a transaction.
Just what is so special about MentorWizard navigation? On the surface, a Mentor Wizard application looks and operates rather like the typical wizard found in Windows, Macintosh or Unix applications (see Figure 1). The basic operation includes a number of sequential steps, each of which collects one piece of data or displays progress information. Users navigate via buttons at the bottom that are common to all steps. Often an area at the top or left side also displays the same logo or text information.
Figure 1: Typical classical wizard (from Windows 2000).
The MentorWizard display is similar to that of a typical wizard (see Figure 2). The MentorWizard window includes a status panel at the top, a large panel full of widgets that takes up most of the Mentor Wizard's window, and a tool panel of buttons that appears at the bottom. The central panel displays what are called steps.
Figure 2: MentorWizard step prototype.
You interact with one or more controls that appear in a step, and then move to the next step. In other words, the central panel changes like the pages in a wizard or the slides in a power point presentation. The top and bottom panels remain more or less the same. Notice that the tool panel at the bottom includes buttons that allow a user to pend a task and resume it at a later time.
When a step presents mutually exclusive options (for example, like those shown in Figure 2), you can "take" the step with a single click with a mouse or a tap on a touch panel. In a traditional wizard, you must click on an option and then click on the "Next" button. MentorWizard condenses this action into a single click. A green triangle on an item indicates to the user that a single click will do. In addition, step options are automatically assigned accelerator keys and the key label for each option is displayed next to the green triangle. You can tap the indicated key rather than click with the mouse or tap on the touch panel to select an option.
A step can require arbitrary input from a user (example: enter a mailing address) or ask the user to select from a list of options (example: specify a client's citizenship status). In either case, the step presents not only the necessary data input or option selection widgets, but also the information the user needs in order to understand exactly what each datum and/or option means. A short description of each option is presented on the step itself and additional buttons provide access to in-depth descriptions as needed. This descriptive information can be tailored by an application builder to the needs of the workers performing each task.
Step by Step It may seem counter-intuitive to break up a task into relatively small steps and pepper them with help-like information. The classical application typically contains a small number of screens usually fewer than a dozen and each screen often contains dozens of widgets. The expectation is that users will undergo training that teaches them the rules of data entry for each application. If they forget something, users are supposed to click on a Help button or menu item and search for an answer. Sometimes they can get appropriate help by clicking a special key (for example, the "F1" key in Windows). In any case, users are expected to take the initiative to find the help they need, when they think they need it. All too often users either don't realize they are making a mistake and hence don't access the help system, or they do access it and are unable to find what they need.
Mentor Wizard applications take a different approach. The logic of an application is divided up into steps, each of which deals with a single issue or a small data set. In addition, Mentor Wizard is proactive with help information: Mentor Wizard assumes that if help information will encourage a user do the right thing, it should appear directly on the step. It can be easily ignored if it isn't needed. Finally, for users who traverse a set of steps in the same way every time a task is performed, steps can be performed rapidly via the keyboard. Users just type the letters needed to perform each of the steps in a common sequence; Mentor Wizard rapidly performs these steps under the covers, and the user never sees the steps on the screen.
User Safety Nets When you enter data during a step, this data is added to the status display at the top of the MentorWizard screen after the step is completed. You thus always have the option to check what you have done on recent steps. You can display the data entered on all steps by clicking on the "Review" button. In addition, you can see where you are in the current task by clicking on the "History" button that displays a diagram of the task steps taken thus far.
Unlike traditional wizards where the "Back" button only promises to move to the previous step, a MentorWizard step is always totally undone with a click of the "Undo" button. You are free to try out options to see where they lead because you know you can undo back if they take a wrong turn. If you go back too far, you can always recover with the "Redo" button.
Of course there comes a time when the data you have collected must be saved. Once this happens, the undo and redo actions must be disabled. Therefore, before your collected data is saved, MentorWizard presents you with an explicit step so you can acknowledge and confirm this action. You are never in doubt about the state of your data, so you can safely proceed through each task.
User Efficiency For commonly executed steps, users can type in the step selection letters from memory and the options will be selected automatically without any display of the steps. Thus, experienced users can fly through frequently performed steps, yet they still have the information they need to handle less familiar steps.
The user's flow through the steps in a task is enhanced by the fact that only one click, tap or keystroke is needed to select an option and move to the next step. In addition, even though the logic required to identify the next step in the execution of a task may be complex, the next step is displayed so fast that it seems to appear immediately. That is, the user is never distracted by any delay in the arrival of the next step as soon as the user is ready for the next step, it is there, waiting. This allows the user to traverse a sequence of steps rapidly, as appropriate for those who perform business process tasks repeatedly.
Flow An unusual and advantageous consequence arises from Mentor Wizard's efficient operation: it encourages users to enter a state of flow. That is, users have so little between them and the task they are performing that they lose track of the fact that they are using a computer and focus single-mindedly on their current task. This sense of flow is often enhanced when you use a touch panel instead of a mouse.
According to Alan Cooper (Alan Cooper, "About Face 2.0", Wiley, 2003, p. 135.), an application enhances flow when it minimizes "excise" tasks (what the user does to satisfy the computer program) and maximizes "revenue" tasks (what the user does to complete the task). Mentor Wizard minimizes user interactions that serve the needs of the interface (excise), so that nearly everything the user does contributes to the completion of the task itself (revenue). Mentor Wizard applications flow*.
* Flow is discussed in depth by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience", HarperCollins, 1991. Flow is discussed in regard to user interfaces by Cooper ("About Face 2.0", Wiley, 2003, Chapter 9), and by DeMarco and Lister, "Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams", Dorset House, 1987, p. 63ff.