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Usability: A Business Case

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What is Usability?

Usability has quite a simple definition — it means people’s ability to use a product easily and efficiently to accomplish their tasks.
Usability or user engineering is a significant advancement in the process of developing products, such that they satisfy and delight users as well as stakeholders who invest in bringing them to the market.

A usable product must be:
• Easy to learn
• Efficient to use
• Easy to remember
• Enjoyable to use
• Visually pleasing
Additionally, it should provide quick recovery from errors.

Value Proposition
Usability requires an innate understanding of value propositions — values sought by users, how a product will provide those values, and values sought by the business delivering the product. The goal is to achieve a balanced design that provides value for the business, stakeholders and users alike.
Benefits of Usability
Usability engineering offers significant benefits in terms of cost, product quality and customer satisfaction:
• It improves development productivity through more efficient design and fewer code revisions.
• It helps eliminate over-design by emphasizing the functionality required to meet the needs of real users.
• It helps in early detection of design problems in the development process, saving both time and money.
• It results in greater cost savings through reduced support costs, lesser training requirements and higher user productivity.
• It enhances satisfaction of customers and improves reputation of the product as well as the organization that developed it.

Preferred Design Approach
Many top engineers and designers recognize that usability engineering is the preferred approach to designing products. This is for the following reasons:

• Since technological products are designed for use by humans, it makes sense to clearly define their needs before building products for them.
• It has become clear through research and observation that product designers and developers cannot effectively speak for users. Designers have different backgrounds, levels of experience, goals and motivations from those of users. Therefore, designers should not guess or make assumptions about users’ needs and wants.
• It has often been seen that preference does not match 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.

Therefore, the only effective way to determine what is best for users is to observe them performing tasks with the product of interest.
Cost Justifying Usability
Enhancing the usability of software-based products (and services) is smart business. Usability improves productivity, enhances customer satisfaction, builds customer loyalty, and inevitably results in tangible cost savings and profitability.
Since user-interface (UI) development is an important part of product development, and the cost for UI development is included in product development costs, it pays to do it right at the very first attempt.

Some important statistics for cost justifying usability:
• It is about 400 times more expensive to fix problems in the maintenance phase of a project than in the design phase. E.g., if it cost $10 to make a program change during development, it would probably cost $400 to do it after the system is in field.
• Around 63% software projects exceed their cost estimates. The top four reasons for this being:
o Frequent change requests from users
o Overlooked tasks
o Users’ lack of understanding of their own requirements
o Insufficient communication between users and analysts, leading to lack of understanding
• Only 33% of the maintenance effort is spent for debugging and therefore, 67% effort is needed for changing the system.
To learn about more such statistics, please click here.
Return on Investment

Most software and website development managers treat the money and effort spent on usability as unnecessary. In the first 10 per cent of the design process, key system design decisions are made, which can determine the rest 90 per cent of a product’s cost and performance. Therefore, usability techniques come in handy to keep a product aligned with company goals [1].

Contrary to popular belief, usability offers significant returns on investment (ROI) to products developed for either internal use or sale [2]. The ROI can be internal as well as external.

Internal ROI:
• Improved user productivity
• Reduced user errors
• Shrunk training costs
• Savings from making changes earlier in the design lifecycle
• Lesser user support

External ROI:
• Higher sales
• Reduced customer support costs
• Savings gained from making changes earlier in the design lifecycle
• Slashed costs of training (in case training is offered by an external vendor)

For more statistics, please read the white paper titled ‘Return on Investment for Usable User-Interface Design: Examples and Statistics,’ written by Aaron Marcus here.

How to Convince Clients to Pay for Usability
Do your clients assert that there is no reason to test an application’s design, since you were hired because of your proficiency in creating good web applications and the design was expected to be flawless?

It is widely believed that asking a design to go through user test might challenge the design firm’s skills and expertise. It might make people question, “are designers so uncertain and unsure about their own work that they need to test it?” In reality, using sound methodology is the cornerstone of professionalism, as is knowing how to manage a project by planning for the necessary steps.

Consider this: If developers were hired to code a piece of custom software and they claimed that there was no need to debug the code, they will be considered as crazy. In software development, we know from experience that all code has some or the other bugs. It’s impossible to write perfect software right at the very first attempt; the only way to deliver high-quality programs is to use a sound development process with explicit steps for several types of testing.

Modern user interfaces are just as complex as software in terms of the number of different variables considered. Moreover, many years of usability engineering experience has proved that it is impossible to design the perfect user interface at the first try. Even the world’s best designer cannot instantly produce an interface that is perfectly simple, meets all users’ needs, and never induces a user error. It is simply not possible. It is reckless to bet that your project will be perfect without iteration(s).

Professional organizations user test their designs, which is a challenge, to enhance the value they deliver to their clients. However, the bigger challenge is to get clients to understand the benefits of a solid development methodology.

Read Jakob Nielson’s article titled ‘Convincing Clients to Pay for Usability’ for more information on the subject here.

Usability Engineering Techniques
Usability engineering includes a variety of techniques to provide information on how customers might use a product. Different techniques are used at different stages of a product’s development. Also, there are many techniques that can be applied to enhance the usability of a product. However, no single technique alone can ensure usability of a product. Usability is an iterative process, just like software development. Usability engineering works best when done in partnership with product development.

Some usability techniques are:

• User and task observations: Observing users at their jobs, identifying their typical work tasks and procedures, analyzing their work processes, and understanding people in the context of their work.
• Interviews, focus groups, and questionnaires: Meeting with users, finding out their preferences, experiences, and needs.
• Benchmarking and competitive analysis: Evaluating the usability of similar products in the marketplace.
• Participatory design: Participating in design and incorporating user’s perspective into the early stages of development.
• Paper prototyping: Including users early in the development process through prototypes prepared on paper, before coding begins.
• Creation of guidelines: Helping to assure consistency in design through development of standards and guidelines.
• Heuristic evaluations: Evaluating software against accepted usability principles and making recommendations to enhance usability.
• Usability testing: Observing users performing real tasks with the application, recording what they do, analyzing the results, and recommending appropriate changes.

Though it is hard to evaluate the economic impact of usability, it is imperative for organizations to understand and accept it. Software products with poor usability may not serve the purpose and waste people’s time, frustrate users, cause errors in systems and leave tasks unfinished.
The evidence, though, for usability’s cost-effectiveness is strong. Moreover, the likely beneficiaries of usability are not just the end-users, but also organizations that develop software products or systems. Good, usable systems evoke a sense of confidence and trust amongst users, and trust and confidence in an organization’s product.
[1] ‘Developing Products in Half the Time’ by Preston G. Smith and Donald G. Reinertsen.
[2] ‘Cost-Justifying Usability: An Update for the Internet Age’ by Randolph G. Bias and Deborah J. Mayhew

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