Business Case for Usability
Article by John
This is a business case for
usability in an organization. It is based on academic research, industrial
research, case studies, consulting experience, and common knowledge found in
the usability community.
Definition of Usability
Usability can be defined many
ways. When life is good, usability is part of the culture of a company
and virtually all processes are built around the true needs of users.
However, for the sake of clarity in this article, usability will be narrowly
defined as a product attribute. In this sense, usability refers to the extent to which a product is designed to fit users' needs or, in other words, the extent to which a product is easy to use.
Product usability is achieved or improved by first understanding users' needs
(i.e., their actual goals, the challenges and limitations they face, the unique or unexpected ways in which they use the product, etc.). These needs are determined by collecting data on actual representative users' interactions with products.
These data are both objective (i.e., based on actual performance) and subjective (i.e., based on user's impressions and preferences) and include measurements such as task time, errors, learning rate, satisfaction, cognitive load, level of frustration, and so forth.
Once users' needs and challenges are clearly defined, this information can be used by engineers and designers to guide critical decisions toward meeting users' needs.
Preferred Design Approach
Many top engineers and designers have recognized that usability engineering is the preferred approach to designing products. This is for a number of reasons. First, since most technological products are designed to be used by human users in one way or another, it makes sense to clearly
define the needs of the users before building the product. Understanding how humans interact with technology is a central focus of the usability engineering process.
Second, it has become clear through research and historical observation that
designers can not effectively speak for users. That is, product designers and developers, by definition, have a fundamentally different understanding of products than users. Designers have different backgrounds, levels of experience, goals, and motivations, from that of users. Therefore, designers should not be guessing about what users need and want.
Finally, it has also been demonstrated through research that
preference does not equal performance. In other words, what users say they need and want is often substantially disconnected from what they actually need and want when faced with using a product to perform a task. It is for these reasons that the only way to effectively determine what is best for users is to observe users performing tasks with the product of interest.
Industry Examples and Case Studies
It is because of the unique benefits of the usability that major players in a variety of other tech industries have made usability engineering a critical part of their product development processes. Examples of such benefits are presented below.
In the automotive industry, testing is regularly conducted by major corporations such as
General Motors to better understand how the placement of the steering wheel, shifter, radio controls, and locks, influence driver satisfaction and ability to control the vehicle. Researchers methodically test and measure drivers in a real or simulated driving environment in an effort to understand not only user preferences but also their actual performance. The benefits of usability, human factors, and ergonomic testing are routinely touted in automotive magazines and trade publications.
In the aerospace industry, everything from pilot cognitive load to air traffic controller visual displays have been analyzed. The idea in the aerospace industry is fundamentally the same as the automotive industry: Understand how humans interact with technology so that the technology can be improved and so customers can be better served.
Software manufacturers have also benefited from usability testing and their usability laboratories.
IBM, along with several other companies, state that for every $1 invested in usability testing on software, the payback is between $10 and $100. Microsoft clearly supports usability as well. With over 30 usability labs, they lead all other software manufacturers. They claim that the usability of their software is one of their key competitive advantages. It is a differentiator in a highly competitive market.
The Palm Pilot is another good example of usability done right. In large part, the success of the Palm Pilot is a result of extensive field studies and user research. The design of the device was a result of watching users carry out day to day business activities. The simple operating system and intuitive interface were created because tests indicated that users wanted, and needed, a business tool that was easy to use and that required few choices. User data also led Palm use the pen-based input system.
On a final note, poor usability and human factors designs can cause serious problems. For example, poorly designed faucets have caused serious burns, improperly designed cockpit controls have caused aircraft to spin out of control, and poorly placed road signs have convinced drivers to plow into oncoming traffic. A more concrete example would be the
Three Mile Island accident, which was the result of engineers lacking information about an open valve because of a poorly designed interface.
Cost Savings via Usability
The cost issues related to usability are well documented. For example,
Sun Microsystems has compiled this useful list:
- Usability engineering has demonstrated reductions in the product-development cycle by over 33-50% (Bosert 1991).
- 63% of all software projects overrun their budgetary estimates, with the top 4 reasons all related to unforeseen usability problems (Lederer and Prassad 1992).
- The percentage of software code that is devoted to the interface has been rising over the years, with an average of 47-60% of the code devoted to the interface (MacIntyre et al. 1990).
- Ricoh found that 95% of the respondents to a survey never used three key features deliberately added to the product to make it more appealing. Customers either didn't know these features existed, didn't know how to use them, or didn't understand them (Nussbaum and Neff 1991).
- 80% of maintenance is due to unmet or unforeseen user requirements; only 20% is due to bugs or reliability problems (Martin and McClure 1993; Pressman 1992)
- Design changes due to usability work at IBM resulted in an average reduction of 9.6 minutes per task, with projected internal savings at IBM of $6.8 Million in 1991 alone (Karat 1990).
General Business Benefits
Usability reduces engineering/development costs and facilitates speed to market.
If the wants and needs of users are built into the product development cycle early enough, a vast number design flaws can be avoided, reducing the necessary development and redevelopment efforts and costs considerably. Even when incorporated later on in the development cycle, usability testing provides objective and subjective data that helps developers and engineers create better products and services. Also, prototyping takes less time in many cases since ambiguity is reduced.
Usability reduces testing and quality assurance costs.
When users are tested, along with a machine and its software, problems are caught much earlier in the design cycle. The corrections to problems are much easier to prioritize also, since customers provide measurable feedback that can then be directly applied to products and services. As expected, usability data augments the quality testing process.
Usability reduces sales costs and shortens sales cycles.
Products that are easier to use are easier to sell. An easy-to-use product provides a company with the ability to more effectively make comparisons to competitor's products. A product with fewer unneeded features takes less time to explain to customers. If a product is easier to use, then it will take a customer less time to set it up and configure for use. All of these advantages can be unique selling points.
Usability can decrease production costs while improving profit margins.
Usability testing can be used to identify extraneous features and unnecessary or inefficient procedures, which can then be eliminated, simplifying the product. This means the product will require fewer parts and less manufacturing, reducing production costs. Furthermore, products with superior usability tend to be preferred by customers.
Usability improves customer Return on Investment.
More usable products are easier to install and easier to maintain. They are also easier to learn to use, meaning they require less training. These things mean that the value of the product is more rapidly realized. This decreases a customer's risk to purchase a product and it improves their margins. These things drive loyalty and repeat purchases.
Service and Support Cost Reduction
Customers consider the service and support offerings of an
supplier to be a key factor in their buying decisions. This heavy reliance on service and support seems to stem in large part from inherent usability problems with providers' products, such as
integration challenges, excessive training costs, etc.
The development of more usable products
would reduce customer reliance on service and support; if a product is easier to use, it is easier to support. If it
is easier to use, it will require less training, and fewer service calls will be logged. If it is easier to integrate with existing products, customers will not need the assistance of
support personnel when setting up their lines. Understanding how users will react is also valuable to designers, engineers, and support personnel. Usable products are also generally easier to repair because they tend to be less complex.
Below is a short list of
deliverables from a usability team.
Usability professionals are able to generate an incredible amount of useful data. This data is then analyzed and research reports are subsequently generated to meet specific corporate objectives. Presentations would be provided to business units as requested.
Internal Consultation and
Members of the usability lab can work with employees from other business units to develop effective customer-centered business plans, products, and services. For example, information about customer habits can be delivered to product teams to help them better address business needs.
Sales and Marketing
Since the usability team will have intimate knowledge of customers' concerns, more effective sales presentations can be developed and marketing materials can be enhanced to better reflect customer needs. Laboratory walkthroughs would be possible to show current and potential customers our commitment to improving our products. Marketing studies, e.g., focus groups, could be conducted during laboratory downtime (i.e., the space could be used for other research).
Acting as Customer Advocates
In design sessions and during planning, the focus of work is often internal and it is often product focused. Usability professionals, armed with data, can work as customer advocates. From a relatively neutral third-person perspective, usability professionals are able to provide the voice of the customer.
While not being designers exactly, usability professionals are able to suggest unique, customer-driven designs. For example, based on research and data, a usability lab can enhance the designs generated by the product designers. Once again, the idea is to help build the customers into the product design cycle to improve the usability and effectiveness of the machine.
Theoretical Research and Knowledge
A usability laboratory can provide designers with theoretical information related to human psychology, marketing, market strategy, sociology, and culture. As part of its research activities, a usability professional can collect and understand information for everything from how humans make buying decisions to how they perceive quality. Information on how humans think as individuals and groups related to our products and services would be provided. Training would be an important part of this activity as well.
Development of Corporate Design
A key idea in usability is consistency for the sake of simplicity and ease of use. A usability lab is able to produce standards on everything from web interface design to machine software displays to keyboard placement on surface mount machines.
Commitment from Management
To be fully effectively, executives, top management, developers and engineers would need to
accept and promote usability. The formation of a usability team and
usability laboratory helps virtually all business units, as they would stand to benefit from the research conducted.
Commitment is absolutely critical.
Usability Lab: Space and Materials
Usability is not just about having a laboratory; it is about understanding how customers interact with products and services. With that said,
a laboratory is highly desirable. A laboratory will augment other usability activities. For example, field studies, questionnaires, pen and paper evaluations, videotaping, task analysis, cognitive modeling, and so forth, would all be done in conjunction with a usability laboratory. Simply watching customers use machines and gathering data about that activity offers a huge payback. However, a laboratory is
often critical to obtaining a longer term, strategic benefit.
Ongoing costs include salaries, travel, reimbursing participants for their
participation, and office supplies. Usability can cost a lot of money. Labs
can be expensive. Usability professionals are well educated and they are
often hard to attract. They are also in short supply. Because of supply and
demand, consultants are often able to charge a premium for their services.
However, it is generally reported that payback occurs in relatively short time (i.e., 3-6 months of operation).
Usability pays for itself many, many times over.
If you are interested in a
laboratory, here are some things to consider:
- Observation of users and machines requires floor space,
for administration, testing, and observation.
- Rooms are required to store paperwork, recording devices, and other such equipment.
- It is good to have a video camera, digital camera, microphones, laptops, and other equipment directly related to testing.
- Depending on the scope of the laboratory, desks, chairs, and other office equipment will be required.
- The requirements for the usability laboratory are very similar to other traditional research laboratories.
If you want to know more about
mobile laboratories or setting up your own full scale laboratory, I
recommend that you visit Ovo Studios. Disclosure: Ovo Studios is a
strategic partner of WebWord.
While usability is an excellent concept, and while the benefits are numerous, there are some risks to consider.
- First, if the data from research is not applied or if it is not applied appropriately, it will waste resources.
- Second, usability cannot cure core business problems and it should not be perceived as the answer to all problems.
- Finally, developers and designers may not accept usability. Cultural barriers may exist that reduce the benefits outlined above.
The primary objective of any corporation is to produce income and profits for stakeholders, including investors, management, employees, and of course, customers. By taking advantage of usability principles and techniques,
companies can increase revenues and profit margins while minimizing costs. The return on investment for all stakeholders is high based on all available research and reports.
It is foolish
to ignore usability. It should be illegal for companies to reject it.
No Pressure Sales Pitch
If you are interested in
learning more about how usability can benefit your organization, or if you
are thinking about doing usability testing, please contact John
S. Rhodes of WebWord. You might also want to visit our services
It is possible that this
article did not answer your questions about usability. If you still need
more information to build a business case or justify usability in your
organization, here are some helpful resources.
Usability (Book: Amazon)
analyses and the importance of usability on the web (Usable Web)
Can I Show That Usability Engineering Saves Money?
Usability Can Save Your Company
Benefits of Usability Engineering
Usability Must Enter ROI Calculus (Internet Week)
Cost of Usability Evaluation Methods
Testing of Documentation has Many Benefits of Unknown Value (STC
Usability SIG Newsletter)
of User Testing a Website (useit.com)
Rate Calculator (Creative Good)
a Business Plan for Web Accessibility (W3C)
Useful Investment (CIO.com)
Is Good Business (Compuware)
Usability Programs (Bohmann)
World Examples of Usability (UPA Association)
Feedback? General Comments?
Send them to me: firstname.lastname@example.org