With all of the economic doom and gloom being reported in the news media on a daily (….oh alright…hourly) basis, everyone is reacting by buckling down and tightening their belts. Any expenditure considered a luxury or “nice-to-have” is being cut off or put off indefinitely. Don’t get me wrong…I’m not about to argue otherwise – now is the time to cut frivolous spending and focus spending on initiatives that will have long-term and lasting benefits to the organization.
If you are a product company or online service delivery company, that means taking a closer look at your product or service value proposition. I am here to tell you that usability (be it design or user needs research) is NOT a luxury – in fact usability can help you refine your value proposition, make your product more competitive and positively impact your bottom line.
I’m always surprised to find that organizations follow the same process time and time again but continue to expect to get different results…build feature list, implement feature list (often without proper user research and testing), deploy product and then spend 200% more money fixing problems post-product release when users start using the product. This is a costly cycle! According to the Standish Group, only 28% of software projects actually succeed. By succeed they mean ship on time, within budget and with all the features. This % is likely lower when you take into consideration user satisfaction and product/service abandonment rates. Projects and products fail and become costly because of lack of contact with users or understanding of user requirements.
You may be asking… “Exactly what can companies do to stop this trend?” The answer (at least part of it): incorporate user-centered design methodologies/activities into your product development process. Think of usability as a form of risk management. Usability allows you to balance business requirements, user needs and technical constraints. Consider this – we recently conducted user research and testing which indicated that users wanted to be able to do multi-dimensional filtering on two separate databases AND they wanted the results within a 30 to 60 second time frame (not the 5 to 10 minutes it was currently taking). This was identified as THE most important aspect of our client’s product that needed to be fixed. Of course, when we took this to the client they said “no way”. Technically there were issues, time was a consideration (especially given they had other “features” they wanted to include), and even if they could figure out how to do it, they said it would be impossible to meet the 30 second requirement. So our usability experts worked with the client to overcome some and work around other technical constraints. Without giving too much information away, we helped the client prioritize their product feature list (some things got dropped) so that the developers now had more time to focus on what users were identifying as a major shortcoming in their product. In addition, we got over the 30 second hump by immediately displaying the results as the software was working away in the background. In the end, the users and client were both happy. By employing a user-centered design process, you can reduce churn (that ever-changing feature requirement list), focus on high value/high priority requirements, reduce the number of change requests, and save maintenance costs.
Still don’t believe me. Let me provide you with another example. (I’m quoting statistics from an article published in the January/February 2005 edition of ProductMarketing.com; you can read the full article here: http://www.pragmaticmarketing.com/publications/magazine/3/1/0501bh/?searchterm=McAfee).
McAfee Inc., decided to take a different approach when they developed and deployed their “Protection Pilot” software. Their main goal was to reduce antivirus management time for their system administrator users to one hour or less per week. To do this they made user-centered design a priority throughout the project. Guess what happened? They reduced their customer support calls by 90%! According to the case study, within 10 weeks, users downloaded 20, 000 copies of the software but McAfee received only 170 calls to their support lines. Now we weren’t involved in this project in any way, but we can tell that this case study is just one example of what can happen when you focus on the user experience design.
Here’s a short list of things we recommend our clients do when they are trying to save costs associated with product development (and ultimately improve sales and customer satisfaction):
Collect user requirements (before you start building) – this means finding out who your users are, what their specific goals and needs are, and the context within which they are using your product/service. Let’s take the iPOD as an example…I am a music lover (user), and I want to access and listen to my music (goals/needs), at home, at the office and while I’m enjoying my daily run (context).
Retain focus on the user experience design – Your user requirements should inform the overall design of the product. This includes everything from defining the “feature list”, designing the architecture, user interface and visual design right down to coding and deployment.
Test early and test often (if possible)…and by “test” we mean conduct one-on-one usability tests with representative end users or potential customers. Don’t be afraid to put product concepts and wireframes in front of your users. This will allow you to identify issues and fix them before you get too far down the product development road.
Is Usability free? No, but the return on investment can be huge. Focusing on usability will help you increase overall usage of your product or service and save you time, money and heartache in the end. As Jakob Nielsen remarks in his latest post (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/intranet_design.html), “good user experience doesn’t require size or humoungous budgets; it requires talent and emphasis on meeting the user’s needs.”
About the Author
Lorraine Chapman is a management and User Experience Research professional at Macadamian Technologies. In addition to her role as Director of User Experience Research, Ms. Chapman has provided a broad range of clients (within the Healthcare, Telecommunications, Government, and Finance sectors) with strategic direction on business, product and customer issues. This experience includes product value analysis, user requirements research (both qualitative and quantitative) and usability analysis/evaluation of websites, services (eCommerce and eBusiness), applications, software, hardware and documentation. Lorraine can be reached at email@example.com