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Improving Business Through User-Centered
An Interview with UCD Innovators Scott Isensee, Carol Righi and Karel Vredenburg
Conducted via e-mail by
Kerrie Green, Hoover's Online usability manager, consultant and Austin UPA president
(August 1, 2002)
Kerrie: "Tell me about your background and what led to writing
User-Centered Design: An Integrated
Scott: "I have been doing HCI [human-computer interaction] work for 20 years now and my approach has continually been refined as I learn new things. I was working at IBM when Karel started the UCD program there. I joined in that and saw tremendous progress being made. Later I was able to apply those UCD techniques in a wide variety of environments as one of the first employees in a start-up company and as a consultant working with companies of varying sizes."
Carol: "I have been involved in HCI for about 16 years. My formal training was in psychology. While in graduate school, I became enamored of the potential that the new field of personal computing had to offer. I set out to merge my interests, which resulted in a focus on HCI. All of the bits and pieces I consequently cobbled together into an understanding of usability started to gel for me in the early 1990's, when I began to collaborate with Karel and an extended team of practitioners at IBM. This team took all the bits and pieces of what we all had learned and started to gather these into a logical, systematic approach not just to usability but also the more encompassing concept of UCD."
Karel: "I've been involved in HCI for about two decades initially doing graduate research and teaching at university, and then in industry working at IBM. We started the UCD program at IBM in the early '90s and have had great success with it over the past decade. We were asked so often about our unique approach to UCD - its introduction, deployment and optimization - that Scott, Carol and I put together a tutorial that we've been giving at all the major professional conferences over the past five years. That led to further requests to write a book about the approach.
Kerrie: "Define user-centered design (UCD). What are the benefits? Risks?"
Scott: "In our book, we define UCD as 'An approach to designing ease of use into the total customer experience with products and systems. It involves two fundamental elements: multidisciplinary teamwork and a set of specialized methods of acquiring user input and converting it into design.' There are many benefits. The short story is that it results in better products, happier customers and more profit. The risks are primarily organizational. UCD must be introduced and implemented in a manner that is appropriate for a given organization. I like to think of it like planting a seed. In order for it to grow into a strong healthy plant, it must first be planted in fertile soil and then nurtured as it grows. One of the unique things about our book is that it addresses these organizational issues that are so critical to the success of UCD."
Carol: "To dovetail off Scott's response, let me add that UCD is often mistakenly considered a synonym for usability. UCD is much more encompassing - it addresses the total user experience, which is broader than usability. UCD is a multidisciplinary approach. The key benefit, as I see it, is inherent in that multidisciplinary approach. All key perspectives are brought to bear on the design of a user experience. Consider the user experience a coming together of technology: the user's interaction with the offering's user interface, the marketing materials, the ordering process, the aesthetics, etc. No one of these components is superior. The process of bring together all these pieces into a whole that is truly greater than the sum of its parts results in a superior product. The risks of a UCD approach are actually few. It is by definition a low-risk approach in that at every step of the way, the design is validated by actual users. There is more of a risk inherent in not doing UCD that in doing UCD."
Karel: "I'd add that the major benefit is achieving business goals while reducing risk by ensuring that customers get what they want in the form that they want it. It is simply a method of designing solutions to address customer needs, wants and problems together with the customers themselves. It sounds simple and straight-forward, but it is all too often not done especially in the information technology industry. A recent study showed that practitioners across the industry are quite knowledgeable about individual methods but lack the skills and resources to introduce a solid UCD program in their companies. Our book provides this valuable information based on our extensive experience in doing this work at IBM and numerous other companies, large and small."
Kerrie: "What's the difference between UCD and the development process
currently used by most companies today?"
Scott: "One major difference is our emphasis on the total customer experience. In most companies today, usability attention is given only to the user interface of a product. Often products fail, however, because of problems outside of the user interface. It is like a chain that is only as strong as its weakest link. In order for a product to be a great success, all aspects of the customer experience must be excellent and they must all fit together into a cohesive whole.
Carol: "Again, to dovetail off Scott's response, our approach to UCD is multidisciplinary and addresses the total user experience. Many companies address usability as an isolated variable. This often leads to failure. Usability, in order to be a value-add, must be considered in light of the other aspects of the total user experience. Another way our approach is different is that the members of the multidisciplinary design team must work closely with one another. In many companies, the various specialties work in virtual isolation from one another. They throw the results of their efforts "over the wall" to the other specialists. The various factions may wind up going down different paths, making it difficult to reconcile sometimes very disparate visions for the product."
Karel: "Actually, most companies still don't include the user in their development process at all. The ones that do often restrict themselves, as Scott and Carol point out, to a very limited aspect of the user experience, or only to user testing, and don't design for the user. Furthermore, they often still involve a user focus too late in the development process. Our integrated UCD approach as Scott and Carol point out focuses on the total customer experience, starting right at the beginning of the process and involving all disciplines that are necessary to design the total solution."
Kerrie: "How can designers, usability professionals, product managers and
developers encourage senior management that UCD is a more beneficial process with an improved return on investment (ROI)?"
Scott: "UCD is not just something that usability professionals do. In order to be successful, all members of the team must be bought in to contribute to UCD activities. Senior managers typically have profit and loss responsibility so ROI is very important to them. I usually start by providing ROI data for previous projects. There is a lot of data that exists already and it almost universally shows a highly favorable ROI. Senior managers typically respond, 'OK, so this is great stuff, but prove to me it will work in my organization.' You can then start with a pilot project. Once you have shown success with that, the managers will typically demand UCD and you can roll it out more broadly at a rate your resources can support."
Carol: "To many of us usability engineers and UCD practitioners, the value of UCD is so painfully obvious we often feel we shouldn't have to justify the approach with hard evidence. This is a big mistake. If we want to give UCD the credibility it deserves, we need to make the effort to measure the ROI of the UCD approach and communicate this to management. We must, at the least, measure the results of our efforts with user validation studies; better yet, we should measure effectiveness of the product in the marketplace, as that is the ultimate standard by which a product is judged."
Karel: "It is interesting that most initiatives that are started within engineering companies don't have a carefully calculated and articulated ROI (e.g., the adoption of a new technology, a new programming method, etc.). In fact, most other initiatives aren't asked for [ROI] either. However, questions are often asked about the ROI of UCD largely I believe because UCD isn't a natural fit for engineering companies. While it is important to regularly measure and track ROI of UCD as practiced within a company in order to improve the deployment of it and reinforce the benefits achieved, in my experience, senior and executive management often don't need to be convinced about the benefits of designing products for customers when they understand what the UCD approach involves. As we point out in our book, if the appropriate awareness and education is provided, ROI becomes an item that can be discussed as an element of the UCD deployment plan rather than as a requisite to starting a UCD program at all."
Kerrie: "Are there any companies whose track records speak to the success
of a UCD process?"
Scott: "We provide case studies throughout our book that demonstrate how UCD is practiced and the success that has been realized in real world situations. IBM is one large company that has already implemented UCD quite broadly."
Carol: "I think we'll see more and more success stories in the next few years. To date, UCD has not been widely practiced. But as the approach becomes more pervasive, we'll have more data to validate it."
Karel: "IBM and the companies our IBM Global Services staff have worked with are good examples. In addition to the case studies in our book, the
IBM Ease of Use Web site also regularly features successes in this area."
Kerrie: "With the current layoffs and state of the industry, how can
usability practitioners show their value to the company, and does UCD play a role in that?"
Scott: "The evidence shows that UCD clearly does have great value in the companies that have implemented it. Many usability practitioners, however, are not practicing UCD or have not clearly communicated its value to key decision makers. In either normal times or recessions, companies do not want to cut people or programs that are making them money. It goes back to the ROI question earlier. We need to do things that are of clear positive value (like UCD), measure the ROI and communicate it to the whole company - particularly the executives."
Carol: "One of the things usability practitioners can do to show their value is to demonstrate an understanding of the big picture of product development. Too often, because of the way people are trained, the intense pressure of the development environment, and other reasons, those involved in a development project adopt a tunnel-vision approach to their jobs. The usability practitioner is uniquely positioned to instead adopt a wider view of the process. The ability to observe issues that span the total user experience can make the usability practitioner a very valuable team member."
Karel: "A testament to the business value of UCD is the observation that companies that practice it typically don't suffer a disproportionate reduction in their UCD staff during economic downturns as compared with companies that do not practice UCD. What's critical here is the top-to-bottom linkage we outline in the book between executives and practitioners. UCD needs to be practiced at all levels of the company. UCD staff are vulnerable if UCD is only practiced and visible at a first-line departmental level. Their value to the company is much more obvious if the type of UCD we discuss in the book is being practiced."
Kerrie: "What is the future of UCD and where do you see it going?"
Scott: "UCD is an evolving process. We, and many other people, are applying UCD to UCD itself to iteratively improve it. The business community is always trying to make things better, faster and cheaper. UCD must do likewise. We must continue to develop techniques that yield better answers with greater efficiency. One area in which great progress is being made is through the use of tools to automate and assist UCD methods. 'The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades.'"
Carol: "I think at the moment, because of the shaky economy, we may be experiencing a bit of a lull in the evolution of UCD. It's unfortunate that when it's needed the most, UCD and usability funding is often the first aspect of the plan to be cut. But on the bright side, I believe that once the economy rebounds UCD will continue to evolve with regard to approaches, methods and tools. Over the next several years, we'll be seeing more and more people joining our field. It will become incumbent upon us to be sure these people are well-trained and capable of doing the job. We should raise the bar for practitioners, requiring they have a strong theoretical background, analytical skills, design skills and business skills. If we want to have a positive affect on product development, we need to do the extra work required to prove our value-add. Finally, we should all take it upon ourselves to help evolve UCD. We should work within our community to define new methods, tools and approaches. We should share these developments with management and other product team members. We should all act as ambassadors for UCD."
Karel: "At IBM, we're continuing to carry out the UCD approach outlined in our book and we're also building upon it by linking it even further to business objectives and processes, and rapidly implementing the enhancements that we outlined in the 'Future Trends' section of the last chapter of our book, which focuses on methodology enhancement and tool integration. These enhancements are expected to yield a quantum-leap improvement of an already highly successful UCD approach. I agree with Scott that the future is extremely bright for UCD, and I believe if it is carried out according to the methods outlined in our book, it can significantly contribute to the turn-around in the economy that Carol pointed out. Increasing business value is what it's all
Kerrie Green has worked in Web usability and online communications since 1996. She performs consulting services including user studies, expert reviews, the creation and delivery of specialized workshops, and content assessments and development. Most recently, she improved the customer experience for business information provider Hoover's Online. As the company's usability manager, Kerrie created, implemented and grew Hoover's usability program, for which she developed the innovative Design
DialogicsSM methodology to improve the user experience. Kerrie was also instrumental in developing programs for defining target users and their needs, recruiting study participants and implementing successful field studies. Before joining Hoover's, Kerrie worked as a writer, editor and educator. Kerrie's interests include usability-related issues ranging from accessibility, usability ROI, and the creation of usable Web content to methods for translating business goals into customer experience strategies.
In 2001 Kerrie founded the Austin chapter of the Usability Professionals' Association (UPA), for which she holds the office of president. Through that position, she works to advance usability and subsequently has served on panels and delivered presentations to the
Society of Technical Communicators and for the UPA annual conference. She most recently
delivered a presentation at the
2002 UPA conference in Orlando, where she showcased her work co-creating a new tool that helps Web sites improve their information architecture. Kerrie's also working with the Austin UPA chapter to organize a regional UPA conference to be held next year.
Check out User-Centered Design: An Integrated
(Link to Amazon.com)