John Rhodes Working with a Usability Specialist
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By John Rhodes


Most companies are focused on everything but people. I'm certain you've seen the same thing. The focus is on profits, engineering, marketing, operations and so forth. Customers are left in the dust.

This is alarming because business is a human endeavour. To succeed in business you must understand people. You must cater to their needs. You must bend technology, processes and policies around your customers -- not the other way around.

This simply means that products should be built around humans. For example, it is easier to sew together some leather to craft a glove than it is reshape the human hand, don't you agree?

In light of this, being concerned with usability is a business imperative. If you sell products, if you have customers or if you are worried about your competition, usability is a concern. The reason is simple: usability helps your organisation stay focused on customers in exactly the right way.

Usability isn't a bag of opinions. It is rigorous, systematic and scientific. Furthermore, a tidal wave of research has very clearly shown that the return on investment in usability is outstanding. For example, Martin and McClure (1993) as well as Pressman (1992) have demonstrated that 80 per cent of software maintenance is due to unmet or unforeseen user requirements; only 20 per cent is due to bugs or reliability problems.

A usability specialist can help you via user interviews, focus groups, cognitive task analyses, usability reviews, usability testing, and much more. The challenges you face will determine which tools and research will be applied.

The bottom line is that if you aren't focused on your customers in the right way, you won't succeed in the long run. You cannot simply think about customers and expect success, however. You can't make wishes and expect miracles. You have to recognise the issues and attack them in the right way with the resources and tools. You need usability.

Seven signs you need a usability specialist

How do you recognise if you need usability help? You're probably already familiar with some of the red flags that tell you so.

First, you know you need help if you launch a product or service and the quality is low. If you push something out the door and there are issues it often means that you didn't focus on your customers. As I stated in an article titled Business Case for Usability <>, according to Lederer and Prassad (1992), 63 per cent of all software projects overrun their budgetary estimates, with the top four reasons all related to unforeseen usability problems. Similarly, usability engineering has demonstrated reductions in the product-development cycle by over 33-50 per cent (Bosert 1991). Are you facing quality issues that are really usability issues?

Second, you need usability help if your help desk and service calls are going through the roof. Emails and phone calls are generated by people. If these people are satisfied, then they won't jam up your call centre. However, if they are unhappy, you can expect a deluge of incoming complaints. Here's a caveat: I'll boldly state that I've seen low-quality products become insanely successful because the needs of customers were met in the right way. Customer satisfaction can trump quality, but it's rare.

Third, when your internal and external training costs are high, it means you need some usability injected into your products and services. Training is often the paint that covers the cracks in the walls of your products. Problems are pushed to the future. The assumption is that training will solve product problems but the truth is your products should be built around users in the first place. You can drive down training time if your product is simple and easy to use.

Fourth, if you are having problems attracting new customers, it is time to bring in a usability specialist. You can seriously jack up the probability of success by learning more about what makes customers tick. Armed with this knowledge, you can reshape your product to reflect customer expectations. This drives down design and development costs and it gets you to market faster too.

Fifth, when marketing, engineering and operations aren't communicating, it is time for more usability. I've seen the smartest people in the smartest companies talk right past each other. The jargon flows to the detriment of customers. Usability can force your organisation to talk using the language of your customers. This is a good thing, no doubt. When your company revolves around customers, everyone used the same words to describe the issues and challenges. This alignment of language and concepts is what you want because it drives efficiency and quality.

Sixth, if your organisation is unable to generate ideas, usability is the answer. When creativity is in the dumps, working with users in the right way will drive innovation. Your marketing team can learn to think in terms of customers and solutions versus markets, promotions and advertising. The executive team can see how their strategy can evolve or radically shift to accommodate the needs of the people that are spending money.

Finally, when your products reach a point of ridiculous feature bloat and complexity, you know it is time to get some usability help. Many companies recognise that their products are too complicated, but they feel paralysed. They cannot act. Usability can help you sift through the rock pile to find the gems that your customers care about. This is good for customers and it is good for your bottom line.

Four ways to find the right usability specialist

If you're convinced that you need usability help, then consider what it will take to hire the right usability specialist. The tips here are meant to guide you in the right direction.

First, you should ask basic questions about past experience. Look for a background that relates to your business. However, keep in mind that most usability specialists use many tools and techniques. The key is to feel comfortable that the usability specialist understands your business needs. My advice is to work with a usability specialist that can understand not only your customers but also your business.

Second, treat the usability specialist like a partner or high-value employee. Finding the right usability specialist is like headhunting for an executive. I suggest that you treat early interactions like job interviews. Maximising the time you invest in searching for the right one will help you find the right fit.

Third, in addition to asking for references and a list of services, consider asking for case studies, samples or quick proof. Furthermore, look for a person who is on top of their game right now. For example, many people know that I keep up to date with usability because they know about, which is where I regularly update my blog. Blogs and authorship can be a useful way for you to check out the reputation of the usability specialist.

Finally, consider building usability inside your company with usability training. Inject usability into your company to head off problems before they happen instead of trying to buy it to fix a few issues. If you're looking for high value, teach your designers and developers these skills. Many usability specialists are good trainers, so ask about this option to maximise your investment.

These tips will help you quickly weed out people that don't fit with your company. You want the right usability professional on board if you want to make the magic happen.

How to obtain maximum benefit from a usability specialist

I strongly advocate that you should first review your business goals before you obtain the help of a usability specialist. If you have basic manufacturing issues, for example, consider fixing those first. You might be surprised to learn that the return on that investment is much higher than usability. Take care of your fundamental business first and be very aware of what you really need.

Once you have identified your business objectives, think about what kind of help you need. Are you looking for tactical help or strategic vision? Are you looking for a short-term fix or a long-term training program? The better you understand your objectives and your pain points, the better a usability professional will serve your company.

The higher-quality usability specialists will ask excellent questions about your business when you talk to them. They will dig into issues and look for the problems that need answers. If solutions start flying before you've had the opportunity to explore the problem space, then be sure to run like the wind. You want to be sure that the usability specialist has a firm understanding of the landscape. Solutions will follow.

To generate serious value and avoid fallout, consider the output and impact of the usability work completed. Simply stated, the work completed will force changes in your organisation. Prepare everyone for the changes that are coming. Let people know that they will need to accept some risk to make products and services better for customers. Work the appropriate change management channels. I've worked as a usability consultant as well as a business analyst, software engineer and project manager. Trust me; changes are part of the game, so plan accordingly. If you expect any culture change, prepare now to secure the greatest return on investment.

Earlier I wrote about usability consulting versus usability training. Even if you opt out of training, be sure to have your usability specialist spend some time on knowledge transfer. Bake that into the proposal and the project. Keep in mind that usability folks have broad knowledge and expertise, at many levels. This means that you can probably extract a lot of value. Also, I know from personal experience, that it is a good idea to load your budget with this in mind. Be fair.

If you are working with a usability professional to explain or sell usability to others in your organisation, consider using analogies and case studies. Recently, I was working with a potential client about his internal sales efforts. It was very useful to explain the usability maturity model in light of the Capability Maturity Model (CMMI) and Six Sigma. He used this information to properly place usability in reference to known executive models.

Sometimes usability is a tricky animal. Getting exactly what you want can take some time. In other cases you just need the magic usability dust sprinkled on the project. I'm being a bit facetious, but your needs will wax and wane over time. Therefore, you should consider a retainer. The better usability specialists appreciate such partnerships. They tend to have vision and they continuously seek to drive returns for companies and users alike.

I'll end by reiterating a comment made earlier. Definitely make sure that you have the usability specialist interact with many different people in your organisation. Usability isn't a singular activity with a singular purpose. It is multifaceted. Make certain that the usability professional spends some time with your marketing team, product develop group, operations division, designs, developers and executives.

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