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Why a Serious User Experience Design Practice Needs an Executive Champion

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This chapter reviews the arguments for the value and criticality of creating a user experience design practice within your organization, so that you have the information readily available when you need to convince others that usability is worthwhile.
This chapter is from the book
  • We don’t need a train wreck—most executives are interested.
  • The value of classic usability.
  • The value of advanced user experience design.
  • The CEO wants a great customer experience now—don’t fall for usability fads or half-measures.
  • Who can be a champion?
  • The role of the executive champion.

Today, thankfully, few organizations need a disaster before they can get serious about usability. Most executives understand that customer experience is a key foundation for business success and a key differentiator. Many understand that the user experience of internal staff is also critical, and they will talk about ensuring that the organization is a “great place to work.” For most of us, then, there is little convincing about the value of usability needed at the senior level of organizations. We don’t need to wait for a “wake-up call” in the form of a decline in market share, rejected offerings, or rage in the social media space. For the most part, executives know that user experience design is important (even if they don’t really understand what it is or what it takes to make it happen).

However, initiating or even discussing a serious user experience design practice often entails describing its exact benefits. The setup of a serious practice will usually cost $800,000 to $1.4 million, with an ongoing operation amounting to about 10% of the overall design expenditures. Those are numbers that require more justification than just a gut-level desire and some encouraging press.

The fact that you are reading this book suggests that you know that there is an ironclad case for user experience engineering. Nevertheless, this chapter will review the arguments for the value and criticality of this work so that you have the information readily available when you need to convince others that usability is worthwhile. Keep in mind that it is very rare to find an organization that decides to do serious usability work based solely on numeric calculations (such as ROI). Most organizations seem to need more—they need to see the work pay off in their own environment.

The Value of Usability

The need for basic usability is very real. It is really a hygiene factor, a basic requirement in most industries. Both consumers and technology companies have accepted that if a product is easy to use, more units are sold and the product requires less maintenance. There was a time when you needed to argue that point—but no longer. Usability specialists ensure that software is practical and useful. Primarily, though, usability work focuses on user experience and performance. These elements can be measured and quantified in terms of characteristics of the user:

  • Speed
  • Accuracy
  • Training requirements (or self-evidency)
  • Satisfaction
  • Safety

By applying usability engineering methods, you can build a site or an application that is practical, useful, usable, and satisfying.

In a Dilbert comic strip, Scott Adams had Dilbert present his manager with a tough choice: either spend a million dollars to fix the incomprehensible interface, or close your eyes and wish real hard the users won’t care. The manager is left with eyes closed, wishing intensely, and thereby saving all that money.

Usability does require an investment. It costs money to provide staff, training, standards, tools, and a user-centered process. It takes time to establish the infrastructure. You may need to hire consultants and new staff.

Is it worth spending this money and time setting up a usability effort? Harley Manning, Vice President & Research Director of Customer Experience Practice at Forrester Research, posted on one of the studies that have shown a correlation between capability in user experience design and stock price [Manning, 2011]. While many factors affect share price, companies that are customer experience leaders clearly do better than customer experience laggards, even in a bear market. It really seems like investors have understood the criticality of customer experience. When HFI awarded ROLTA a certification for its usability practice, an article in Yahoo Finance (“ROLTA India Accelerates on Receiving an HFI Level V Certification”) cited a 5.33% increase in share price. It is actually not a very surprising result when you look at the more detailed numbers.

It is common for a usable website to sell 100% or more than an unusable one [Nielsen and Gilutz 2003], and for site traffic, productivity, and function usage to more than double. Unfortunately, it is also common to see developers build applications that users reject because of lack of usability. For example, clients who have come to HFI recently include a major service provider whose new sign-up process had a 97% drop-off rate and bank with a voice response system that achieved only a 3% usage level. There is no question that usability work can prevent these types of multimillion-dollar disasters.

If you follow a user-centered design process, you can expect to spend about 10% of the overall project budget on usability work [Nielsen and Gilutz 2003]. This includes everything—from evaluation of previous and competitive designs to data gathering with users, to the design of the structure, standards, and detailed screens. It also includes usability testing.

There is a lot of work to do, and 10% is a big fraction of the budget. The good news is that the overall money and time required to create an acceptable site or application are unlikely to increase. In fact, the cost is likely to go down for several reasons, some of which are discussed in the following subsections.

Reducing Design Cycles

Today, it is still common to have projects that require major rework because the application does not meet user needs or is unintelligible to users. Implementing good usability practices greatly reduces the chances of having to rework the design. The cost of retrofitting a user interface is always staggering. The cost can be substantial if the detailed design must be improved. Nevertheless, these changes in wording, layout, control selection, color, and graphics are minor compared with the creation of a new interface structure.

When people use a site, Web application, software, camera, or remote control, the part of the product that the human interacts with is the interface. The interface, therefore, is the part of the product that gets the most usability attention. The interface structure determines the interface design—it defines the paths and navigation that the user of the product will take to find information or perform a task. If usability engineering is not applied at the beginning of interface design, the interface structure is where serious usability problems emerge. Because 80% of the usability of an interface is a function of its structure, a retrofit often amounts to a redevelopment of the entire presentation layer. That is why the best solution is to design the interface right the first time.

Avoiding Building Unnecessary Functions

Often, users evaluate software against a checklist of features, and companies feel compelled to include these features to be competitive. In fact, users may not need or want certain functions. Discovering this earlier—before the product is fully designed or coded—makes the user interface better because there are fewer functions to manage and the interface can become cleaner. There is also a huge savings in development and maintenance costs. Unnecessary functions need not be designed, coded, tested, and maintained.

Expediting Decision Making

There is a great deal of research on how best to design interfaces. For example, it is well known that using all capital letters slows reading speed by 14–20% [Tinker 1965, 1963], that using three nouns in a row confuses people [Waite 1982], and that users expect to find the home button at the top left corner of webpages [Bernard 2002]. This means the development team need not spend hours second-guessing design decisions of this sort. Familiarity with these and other usability research principles saves development and testing time and contributes to development of a more usable product.

Increasing Sales

If you are developing a product for sale, a usable product will sell more units. If you are developing a website to sell a product or service, a usable site will sell more products and services. Usable products mean more sales. For example, an insurance company has a site that is currently feeding 10 leads per day to its insurance agents. The company could be feeding them 15 leads per day, but it is losing 5 leads per day because of usability problems. Visitors are dropping out because they can’t figure out how to contact an agent or finish using the “insurance quote application” on the site. If usability became routine in this organization and those usability problems were fixed or prevented, how much would the company be able to increase its sales? The answer can be determined with a few simple calculations.

  1. The company estimates it is losing at least 5 leads per day from usability problems, which is 1825 leads per year.
  2. The company assumes that for every 5 leads received, it can get 1 customer. This means the company is losing 365 customers per year.
  3. Each customer provides an average of $600 in income from premiums per year. This means the company could increase sales in the first year by $219,000 if did not lose the 5 leads per day.
  4. Using an average customer retention time of 12 years, fixing the current usability problems could increase the company’s sales during those 12 years by $2,628,000.

Avoiding “Reinventing the Wheel”

Good usability engineering, much like other engineering processes, means designing with reusable templates. There is no need to reinvent conventions for the design of menus, forms, wizards, and so on. This saves design time. Moreover, because it is easy to create reusable code around these templates, they save development and testing time as well.

Avoiding Disasters

Users are highly adaptable. Even when an interface is poorly designed, some users have enough motivation to keep trying to use the product, even if the application is remarkably complex and awkward. But sometimes a design is completely rejected. The people who are supposed to use the product may refuse to stick with it; they go back to their old ways of getting the task done, buy elsewhere, or just give up. These are usability and product disasters. It’s best to get it right the first time.

For all these reasons, the 10% of the budget you should be spending on usability work is easily saved on every project, in addition to the benefit provided by the improved value of the end design. Even if you take into account only the typical savings from working with reusable templates, usability work pays for itself—it is really free. However, the decision to begin institutionalizing usability requires more than a simple calculation of benefits. The organization—and particularly the executives in the organization—need to understand how implementing usability means changing the way their business is done. For this realization to occur, a strong wake-up call is often required.

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