Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The iPod and the O.R. Designer

The web is full of business articles that extol the benefits of a great, overall user experience that has come to define the iPod product. These articles roughly state that we knowingly accepted a discrete approximation of continuous music and enjoyed the experience because it was delivered in a really convenient manner. Business commentators even go so far as to say that features don't matter any more. Not surprisingly, there are huge lessons to be learned for those us who make a living by building apps with 'O.R. inside' for business end-users.

If your OR program in school was part of the Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE) department, then we would recognize that these are not novel ideas. We have seen this before in our ISE labs and it resembles 'Human Factors' engineering. It was always exciting to know what the HFE guys were up to - they were generally designing all this ergonomic stuff - keyboards, wheelchairs, etc. We O.R. grads were optimizing big-deal industrial problems with sophisticated math and did not pay enough attention to such "low-tech and qualitative" HFE ideas. Designing for an optimal business-user experience can be thought of as an area that combines OR with HFE. First a look at a partial checklist of design questions that we can relate to.

Does your O.R. app:
- require the user to have an O.R. PhD to operate?
- feel paranoid about the sophistication of the O.R. technology inside?
- obsess about run time with little regard for quality?
- have bewildering layers of menus filled with dials for 'costs', 'penalties', etc.?
- change answers wildly with small changes in input?
- come back with a blank stare if it encounters infeasibility somewhere inside?
...

You get the idea. An O.R. practitioner not only has to worry about the stuff that is inside - traditionally, we've been good analysts and trained for that, but it's about time we become equally good designers - few, if any, O.R. graduate programs teach that. Perhaps we should be teaming up with our next door HFE neighbors on this. As we continue to explore this theme, we will notice interesting connections between what's inside and outside the app.

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