Usability: The Key to Product Success

By Kipp Lynch, Simon Gillmore June 20, 2007

The usability challenge

Everybody wants a usable product— it’s absurd to suggest that a product manager should address the team at the beginning of a project and say, “Make sure to include all the user’s needs in the specifications; it doesn’t matter how you do it, just make sure you do it.”, but often that is how the process goes. Even though one of the team’s goals may be to produce a usable product, the design and development process often treats usability as a “feature” or as something that can be tacked on at the end; build a prototype, bring in some users, give them a few tasks and see how they perform. Then correct the errors and behold “a usable product.”

Unfortunately, the outcome is rarely a usable product; more likely it’s an application that has some threshold level of frustration that users are willing to tolerate—until another company delivers a product that addresses the same functional challenge (or in some cases not), with a user interface that is more intuitive or just “simpler.”

This “usability challenge” is faced by many companies that are heavily reliant on their software products to attract new customers, build loyal communities of users, improve their client’s effectiveness, and generally help a business be better at what it does. In each case, the launch of a product that has not considered the “usability factor” poses a significant risk to the business, and provides an opportunity for competitors to gain an upper hand.

I spent time researching what the user wanted, so why isn’t my product scoring high in user experience/usability?

Customers are rarely quiet and, if given the chance, have a lot to tell a company that is willing to listen. Amidst all that chatter—the help desk logs, focus groups, and site visits—a product manager might find some gems that point to features for the next generation product. What will be missing is how to make the product more usable. Undoubtedly the customer will often say, “it would be nice if this were a dropdown instead of a textbox” or “you really need to add more keyboard shortcuts” but those incremental changes only turn an unusable application into a tolerable one. In other words, all customer data is not equal—work practice and improved usability is not gathered in the same manner that one captures the details within a functional specification.

Usability is not an end product; rather it should be thought of as an emergent property. Good usability does not come from knowing where to place buttons, or even how to display complex information. It arises by innovating on current work practices and integrating that with potential product requirements. In other words, usability starts from the beginning, and in the beginning there is the customer.

Current approaches to user interface design are a combination of guidelines and seat-of-the-pants decision-making. Design decisions are usually made on an ad hoc basis with problem analysis performed on the fly and from wildly varying empirical bases. What we generally have is TLAR, or That Looks All Right to me. We ask our co-workers, the marketing department, defer to the boss, the client, and fiddle around on a trial-and-error basis until the results meet some, usually unspecified, criteria. Various goals often compete. Technology and time constraints determine much of the decision making, and there is usually very little real information to guide decision-making. Many of the changes take place in the design and iterate phase, with scant empirical support for changes.

This is very apparent during design reviews. In a typical review, especially during expert evaluations, team members argue their points based on what is more logical. But often logic is not the proper measure for determining how an application should behave. Real people rely on rapid categorization and pattern recognition not “if A then B.” Though the intent, again, is to create a usable product, the end result is often one that makes sense to the development team, but not to the actual end-users.

In the design of complex applications, an in-depth understanding of the user population is critical. Unfortunately, the majority of projects find ways to circumvent the process. Knowing others is hard work—even in our everyday life, we have ways of cutting corners. We jump to rapid conclusions about the behaviors and motivations of others, which is an efficient tool for decreasing our cognitive load, but not a good method for creating a usable product.

During the product development lifecycle there are two major obstacles to creating a usable product; information degradation and responsibility transfer. As information is translated into various forms; from customer workflows and needs, to product requirements, use cases, technical and User Interface (UI) prototypes, to the final product, it undergoes both information loss and translation. Some of the changes are positive and are the result of refining the product, but many changes result from the need to simplify the design process and get the product to market.

Similarly, responsibility transfer comes as each department within a company has their own specific goals/milestones that need to occur during product development. Though lip service may be given to the idea that the product must solve the user’s problems, immediate department needs often supersede this. Marketing wants a usable product, and the UI team starts off with that goal, but as time-pressure mounts, the UI design suffers and responsibility still sits with Marketing, who, as the development process continues, takes on less and less of a role. By the time coding begins, the developers are concerned with creating innovative error-free code, not necessarily a usable product.

Addressing the usability challenge

Contemporary usability practices include augmenting the standard marketing approach with a specialized contextual method of understanding the user and their needs.

This approach begins with observation and contextual analysis of the user wherein the user is interviewed in their natural environment and asked to share day-to-day activities as they relate to the product being designed. This observation/interview method provides a clear understanding of the user and their needs as well as key areas where a user is struggling to effectively do their job. The output from this process is provided to a User Experience (UX) analyst who uses their expertise to synthesize this information, develop user model(s) and produce design recommendations.

The output from the observation and analysis phase is then applied as an input to the software design and development phase. This input is provided in the form of user requirements, an approved interaction model and high-level conceptual design(s). The ability to carry responsibility for the user between the analysis and design phases is a significant step in determining a successful product outcome.

During the design phase, it is critical that proposed concepts are validated with users. This validation is used to ensure that the direction for the product UI is meeting the needs of the user and triggers the commencement of detailed design and development.

Toward the end of the development phase, evaluation of the (almost) completed product begins. This process involves the usability testing of the beta product, during which any task-focused issues can be addressed and overall usability improvement can be determined prior to release.

Justifying usability

Contemporary approaches to good usability can help produce a better product; however, it also makes good business sense. Implementing a product development process that includes usability tasks and deliverables will develop an enhanced appreciation of the user, address the challenges posed in this article and deliver the following business benefits.

Reduced time to market

Methods of product development that do not adopt a pre-emptive approach to usability rely on a laborious process of gathering market feedback to refine the prototyping of a product. Even when some form of usability testing (e.g. expert evaluation or scenario-based usability assessment, with real users) is included in the development process, the tendency is still to use a prototype approach and iterate until user feedback is deemed positive enough to launch.

Establishing usability as an impartial advocate that supports every phase of the product development cycle ensures that users’ needs and expectations are understood.

Translation of user needs, so that appropriate solutions are implemented and validated prior to a product being released to market reduces the number of delivery cycles to bring a product to market.

The reduced number of iterations provides significant cost savings to the organization. Once an application is developed, it costs 10 times as much as it does to correct a UI problem during design.

Reduced support

One of the largest cost savings can be realized by a significant reduction in the support the product requires when it reaches the market. In 2004, McAfee®reported a 90% reduction in the expected support of their product by implementing an innovative method of user interaction (i.e. a dashboard-type management console).* The company attributed this improvement to the enhanced product design and the significant role that usability played in the need for user help requests.

Brand value

Increasingly, the impression of a company’s brand is linked to the usability of its products. Some companies differentiate themselves by improving usability of existing products, and others base their entire brand on product usability. Whichever the path, when an organization finds an innovative way to solve a problem, the result positions them as an innovator and brings value to the brand.

Apple® demonstrated their UI innovation skills back in the early Apple vs. PC days with a graphical user interface—a whole new approach that set the “tone” for Mac® advocates today, “Mac’s are simply more easy to use.”

It is not only innovative design that can help a company enhance its brand value; a usable product should also strive to provide more relevant or useful output based on a user’s need. Google™ demonstrated how this can be done by entering an otherwise commoditized market with a product that was more user-centric. Its success comes from taking the same input as its competitors and producing a more desirable output. The resultant brand is an unquestionable success.

In each of the cases above, concern for the user is key, whether it produces a smarter or easier to use interface, the result is a great user-centric design.

Competitive advantage

In a competitive and commoditized market, companies need to be able to differentiate their products. Usability provides a tangible way of addressing this differentiation in a variety of ways, some of which include; bringing a more usable product to market first, patenting a user-centric design, or simply producing an easier-to-use product to which customers will gravitate.

Smaller, more agile firms in rapid growth industries (e.g. Biotech) are placing a greater emphasis on usability, allowing them to reduce time-to-market with products that address existing problems in established markets.

For example, FlowJo™ is a software product that is having a disruptive effect on the flow cytometry market. It was developed by a company that doesn’t make Biotech instrumentation, but it has gained significant market share due to its usability. Incumbent organizations that struggle to incorporate usability into their software products lose a key differentiator for their combined instrumentation/software products. The result; competitors instrumentation (in a commoditized industry) when partnered with the FlowJo product are not only competing, but are taking market share.

Usability support

There isn’t a simple magic potion that can be applied to a product to ensure good usability, but there are some key pointers that will go a long way in helping to build a usable product.

  • Engage usability expertise if you are serious about improving your product and need support to deliver enhancements in design or greater value to your evolving user community.
  • Employ actual/real users. Complex applications require domain-specific knowledge. Though it might be easier to enlist someone from another department to run through a quick user test, the results are likely to be questionable.
  • Include representatives from all critical departments. Too often, testing and user-research limits the participants to UI designers and Marketing. Developers, business analysts, and technical leads should play an active role in the usability process.
  • Test early and test often. Usability testing should continue throughout the design and development cycle. The most common mistake is to test an application when it is near completion—at a time when changes are most costly.

Consideration for good usability is not required to deliver a product to market, but it is required to bring a good product to market. It also helps you manage the process of delivering users’ needs and is cost effective. A good usability consultancy will help you balance the prioritization of usability vs. the cost of delivery. They will also manage the entire process for you. The only thing missing is the desire to provide your user with what they will inevitably want.

* “Clean, cutting-edge UI design cuts McAfee’s support calls by 90%,” article located at www.softwareceo.com


Copyright © 2006 Limina Application Office, LLC

Categories: Requirements
Kipp Lynch

Kipp Lynch

Kipp Lynch PhD, Senior Consultant; has worked in the human factors and user interface design field for 14 years building and leading cognitive design and user experience teams. Contact Kipp at klynch@limina-ao.com


Simon Gillmore

Simon Gillmore

Simon Gillmore, Director of Client Services at Limina Application Office, specializes in software usability and has managed the delivery of technology-based products and services for the past 15 years in the USA, Europe and Australia. Contact Simon at sgillmore@limina-ao.com or visit www.limina-ao.com

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