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How to Embed Usability & UCD Internally

, 17 Nov 2007
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Integrating usability into any organisation can be a difficult and isolating experience. Get the lowdown on how to achieve this within your organisation.

Introduction

Trying to get the spirit of usability and user-centered design (UCD) established internally can be a difficult and isolating experience, even for the most determined user champion.

Introducing change of any kind in organisations is difficult at the best of times, doubly so when you have to break through the concrete walls of 'process' and 'methodology'. The emotional journey of trying to introduce usability is no different to that of a revolutionary, desperately trying to change the status quo through various guerrilla tactics.

This article offers practical advice of what a user champion can do to introduce and embed usability and user-centered design within a company.

Find your Knight in Shining Armour

Trying to get usability established in a hostile environment is very difficult and often very frustrating. The most effective way of gaining support for your cause is to get a senior executive sponsor on-board.

Pick your 'knight in shining armour' carefully and you could soon be responsible for introducing the term 'usability' into the everyday vocabulary of your colleagues.

An executive sponsor will further the cause by:

  • Raising awareness of a user-centered design approach with the senior management team
  • Fighting for budget to resource usability projects with skilled professionals
  • Promoting usability success stories across the company
  • Supporting organisation change to help institutionalise usability

The support of a marketing or communications director or a chief technology officer (CTO) is worth its weight in gold. But, without a strong business case or the promise of increased conversions it may be difficult to win them over. The key is to build a strong intellectual argument or to piggyback on organisational priorities.

Demonstrate the Proof of the Pudding

Getting stakeholders to take the leap of faith into usability can be difficult without any existing data or evidence. Marketing departments will often commit significant budgets to market research and CRM analysis to measure the effectiveness of their campaign efforts. However, getting buy-in to perform a usability test of a product before launch can be stressful.

The following practical suggestions are likely to put the usability approach on the marketing radar and may result in the allocation of budget:

  • Collaborate with market research and CRM groups to raise the profile of the usability cause among marketers and communications stakeholders
  • Piggyback on their market research efforts to collect additional information from users
  • Talk to call centre staff to hear about the reported issues affecting end-users
  • Argue for the use of greater user-centered methods such as focus groups and user interviews to formalise future product user requirements

It can sometimes be difficult for a user champion to differentiate market research from usability but the risk of having no data is a greater risk to establishing usability internally. Market research and CRM professionals can be strong accomplices and may provide compelling user evidence when trying to get a senior executive sponsor on-board.

Focus on the High Priority Projects

Companies typically structure themselves around organisational functions but high priority projects tend to be cross-functional in nature. Establishing which projects are of paramount importance to the company is essential to getting usability established. The programme managers responsible for delivering these number #1 priorities are much more likely to be open to recommendations due to the severity of the risk of failure.

Build a list of high priority projects and work out a plan for pitching to the top 3 programme managers. Focus on convincing them of how the project delivery approach could be improved through usability and user research.

First Steps to Getting Usability Implemented

Getting your professional colleagues to take small, comfortable steps can mean major change in the long-term. It should come as no surprise that project or product managers often welcome the risk-reduction qualities of a user-centered design approach. They can be strong, secret allies for the cause and should be encouraged to think about their end-users.

Consider doing the following:

  • Identify tactical quick wins that can be implemented easily to demonstrate the spirit of user-centered thinking
  • Persuade them to add product usability issues into their bug tracking systems for future development effort
  • Once usability issues are logged in the bug tracking system, gather support to increase the priority given to such requests by providing clear solutions
  • Support them by attending project and product review meetings and discuss the positive steps that can be taken to improve the situation
  • Encourage them to add usability work into their risk register if it can't be added into the project plan (these risks can be used to create a link between risk reduction and a user-centered design approach)
  • Work with them to build a business case for taking a user-centered design approach to their project/product

Such guerrilla tactics can be useful in raising awareness and may lead to establishing a limited budget for usability work in the short-term.

Sell, Sell, Sell

Trying to establish usability is an ongoing sales job. Raising awareness about the benefits of taking a user-centered design approach is the name of the game. There are a number of activities that can be used to build interest of usability in the company.

First off, identify stakeholders from across the company that are essential to your plan for embedding user-centered design. Then, build a highly targeted communications message for each individual stakeholder or group by:

  • Working with editorial teams to introduce better web copywriting standards to raise awareness of usability
  • Encouraging your professional colleagues to attend training courses around usability topics and to add this into their personal development plans
  • Influencing large groups of stakeholders with an interesting blog or regular newsletter, which could be published on your intranet or through other internal communication channels

More targeted communications can be achieved through workshops or seminars to discuss specific projects or products, always being careful to invite key stakeholders.

Integrate Usability into Product Development Processes

The long-term nirvana of establishing usability can mean big changes to product development processes.

The most effective method of getting user centered design in the process is through usability testing. Invite key stakeholders to watch the usability testing sessions. Usability testing is a real eye-opener and once observed most stakeholders find it difficult to ignore the user as part of the production process. (The most appropriate stakeholders are likely to be project managers, user interface designers, creative personnel, developers and business managers.)

Argue for periodic usability testing during the process to validate design decisions and test assumptions. This way, user requirements will be tactically brought into the process and will result in more relevant products for your audience.

If your company has complex production processes, consider getting a specialist usability consultancy in to help build a customised user-centered design approach. Once the new process has been created, a usability consultancy can provide on-going support and can even advise on how to bring usability capabilities fully in-house, if that's desirable.

In a Nutshell

Establishing a user-centered design approach internally requires commitment and determination. But most importantly, it requires a user champion that's willing to build bridges across the company by changing attitudes, hearts and minds. Get your knight in shining armour on-board, then hopefully its power to the people!

This article was written by Ismail Ismail. Ismail's crazy about usability - so crazy that he works for Webcredible, an industry leading usability and accessibility consultancy, as their client services manager. He's very good at eye tracking and can often be found conducting a website review.

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About the Author

Trenton Moss
Web Developer
United Kingdom United Kingdom
Trenton Moss is crazy about usability and accessibility - so crazy that he founded Webcredible, an industry leading user experience consultancy, to help make the Internet a better place for everyone. He's very good at information architecture and interaction design.

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