User Experience and Optimization

As an Optimization Consultant, I spend most of my days working with clients and trying to build models and systems to meet their needs. In general, these are operational systems that run on command and the user sees the results without any human intervention. So they have to be robust to data and user input, which makes this much more difficult than one-off studies where you or I get to massage data and give the user what we want them to see.

An interesting side effect of this is that the models we build are only a portion of the overall system and can have minimal impact on the user experience. Partly this is because we spend a significant amount of time before the models ever go live with users making sure the results of the models make sense and are usable when the model team can still manually manipulate the data and output. But a significant portion of it is because when you are looking at an entire system you can’t focus on finding an error in a single piece of output. Therefore, most of the user experience is dictated by the UI.

On many optimization projects the UI is an afterthought and I think this is a grave miscalculation which threatens to undermine the entire project. The UI is the only interface a user has to see the model results, so it doesn’t matter if the model creates great suggestions and useful data if that doesn’t translate in a way that the user can see and utilize. I’ve seen good models derailed by a lacking UI as well as the effect a good UI can have on the usefulness of a model.

We like to think as OR experts that our models are all that really matter to the client, but in reality clients don’t care how fancy or simple our models are as long as the results they see make sense to them and are actionable. This is especially true as production models become more complex and the input data becomes larger and larger. Anybody else out there have similar results they’d like to share?

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3 Responses to User Experience and Optimization

  1. I concur, and I also blogged about it saying that “optimization is not worth it if the results aren’t understood by the business users. And the best way to make them understandable was to use nice graphics.”
    The full post is there:

  2. I completely agree that the most “right” model in the world is not going to be a success to the users if they can’t visualize and make sense of the results. We have recently started using maps to display model results for large transportation problems and have found that a map is a great way to digest a global solution at a glance.

  3. Pingback: Know thy audience « Scattered thoughts from a scattered mind

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