Usability for the enterprise

In many enterprises, usability, if it exists at all, remains an isolated and inconsistent experience. The amount of importance attached to user interface design or the wider user experience often varies according to the level of epiphany within individual project managers or developers. Indeed in some large development projects I’ve seen usability commitment (and commensurate quality of the output ) vary between developers on the same project.

The challenge for the enterprise therefore is establishing some consistent approach to usability across the organisation that

  • Recognises the varying usability needs of the project (the steps appropriate for a command-line interface used by 3 senior administrators must be different to those for a GUI used in front of customers across 2,000 bank branches)
  • Recognises the varying skill and exposure levels of the involved parties
  • Works with the above two constraints to maximise the cost-benefit of usability activity.

In brief, this post explains an approach that we implemented for one organisation that works very well in engendering usability with minimal up-front upheaval.  In essence only three steps:

  1. Make usability assessment a mandatory step within the project planning process
  2. Simplify and distribute the fundamental usability activities
  3. Standardise and centralise the advanced usability activities

Make usability assessment mandatory

The trick in this step is to make the assessment of usability needs mandatory, but not the conducting of any activity. The purpose of the assessment is solely to determine what activities are appropriate for the project.

This assessment can be easily quantified via some form of checklist or score sheet, tailored to the particular needs of your organisation. Have your project managers review their project against your checklist and output a score and/or recommended level of usability activity.

In developing your score sheet, here are some attributes to consider:

  • Audience: internal or external users? Education/experience levels? Prior exposure to tool/concepts? Number?
  • Platform: web-based vs. native app?  GUI vs. mainframe/terminal?  Availability of support resources (online help, tooltips,..)?
  • Timeliness:  How time pressured are users?  Is it critical to complete fast?  Are customers watching?
  • Location: for use in a quiet office or on a noisy factory floor? To be used outdoors? Underwater?
  • Risk: what are the implications if the customer gets it wrong? To them? To us? What’s an acceptable error rate?
  • Alternatives: availability of training developers? or classrooms?

In its simplest form, have your project manager score their project on a 1-5 scale for each chosen attribute. Then get them to compare their total with your own guidelines (a la most personality quizzes in the Women’s glossies):

  • If you scored < 5, your project has low usability requirements. We recommend (a).., (b)…
  • If you scored between 6 and 10, your project has medium usability requirements. You must complete (a..). We recommend (b)…, (c)…,  etc

The checklist provides the project manager with a list of required activities, and a list of recommended activities.   Give some flexibility since human nature (and most project managers are human) welcomes a semblance of control and personal decision-making. It also accommodates differing levels of commitment to usability within your organisation and encourages those who are ahead of the curve and recognise the value of completing more, rather than less.

In outlining the required and recommended activities, also provide some estimates of the work effort, scheduling and resourcing needs. This gives the project manager all the information needed to produce a project plan that correctly integrates the new activities in the tasks to follow.

Note: These implementation guidelines need to reflect your organisation’s own development methodology: waterfall, agile, etc.  The aim is to make it easier for the project manager to add these activities (and mitigate risk/fallback to them once project is implemented) than to ignore them.

Simplify and distribute the fundamental usability activities

Within your list of required or recommended usability activities there will several that are so fundamental you’d be recommending them on most projects. They’d also be activities that most project managers would say they do already (to some extent). These are activities like:

  • Contextual inquiry
  • Paper prototyping
  • Design walkthroughs
  • Usability walkthroughs, etc

Such activities can be defined to such a level that project teams can take responsibility directly for their completion. The role of the central usability team is to support them in that regard by:

  • Providing clear instructions on how to most effectively conduct the activity
  • Developing and issuing related resources or tools (for example, interview checklists, prototyping templates, etc)
  • Offering in-house training or support

Where the line is drawn between the fundamental and the advanced activities will vary from organisation to organisation. And will vary with time. However initially focus on those activities project managers would expect (or believe) their project team is already completing themselves. Even getting to a standard definition and implementation of a usability walkthrough would be a great improvement for some organisations we’ve worked with.

Standardise and centralise the advanced usability activities

When the usability needs for your development become significant it is time to call in the big guns:

  • Interactive prototyping
  • Heuristic evaluation
  • Formal evaluation
  • User survey, etc

These are the skills your project managers/teams are not yet skilled enough to conduct themselves (heuristic evaluation), or that it is easier to always manage from a centralised location (user survey).

These may also be skills that you would want to always retain central control over. This is particularly the case if working with external developers/vendor companies. As part of the contract you’d be happy/expect them to conduct the fundamental activities but would manage the advanced activities in-house to (a) ensure they are completed satisfactorily, and (b) to make the outcomes a guaranteed part of the development obligations.

Note: Longer term the organisational goal should be to inculcate usability so deeply into standard project management practice that you are able to push activities “down” from this centralised/managed position to the fundamental. There is no reason why your usability lab cannot become another resource (like an OHP) to be booked for project meetings.

Alternatively, investigate replacing some of the complexity with technology. For example a tool like allows anyone with a Mac to conduct an in-depth usability evaluation complete with recordings of on-screen behaviour and user reactions/responses. No need to buy that two-way mirror!

Conclusion

Usability is far too important to leave to personal preference. Make identification of the need (and risk) standard for all projects and you’ll be in a position to use that identified need to drive adoption and the subsequent performance benefits.

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