Institutionalization of UX: A Step-by-Step Guide to a User Experience Practice, Second Edition (2014)
Part III. Organization
Chapter 13. Projects
With a solid infrastructure and good staff, user experience design work will be effective.
All project directors will want user experience design work, so you will quickly be short of trained staff.
Prioritize projects by criticality (gold, silver, bronze, and tin).
Put the best people on the high-priority projects, and place new user experience staff on less critical jobs.
Use developers and others trained in user experience design to help, if necessary.
For critical projects, get contract staff from user-centered design consultancies.
Use some top user experience design staff as consultants to help the newer staff (especially on higher-priority projects).
Cut corners when planning user experience design work.
Cut out functions.
Focus user-centered design work on just the critical modules (forget the administrative interface).
Carefully scale back data gathering and usability testing.
There are several ways to estimate your requirements for user experience design staff. Make an effort to get close to the required level, or the entire institutionalization effort may be wasted.
With a mature practice in place, user experience design work will be quite different: it will be faster, cheaper, and better. The time in which the user’s needs were not formally addressed in the development process will be over. User experience design staff will no longer run about wildly trying to make ad hoc improvements to projects that are in flight (the “finger in the dike” approach). Methods will be selected and assigned with an appropriate amount of time allocated to allow success. This is the efficient, effective way to do the work. Perhaps surprisingly, the very success of your institutionalization initiative means that you will run into another problem.
When user experience design has been instilled in the development culture of an organization, lines-of-business managers begin to look routinely for a user-centered process for their projects—and for skilled practitioners to do the work. The result will be a severe shortage of user experience design staff.
There is a natural tendency to react to the shortage of practitioners by spreading people thin and giving each practitioner many projects. This approach will cause their work to become less effective, with the result that personnel up and down the organization will wonder whether there is much value to this highly-touted user-centered initiative. Resist the impulse to overextend your staff! This chapter explores better ways to use a limited number of practitioners to good effect, assuming that your organization is unable to explore an offshore model similar to that mentioned in Chapter 12.
Doing It Right
Assuming you have established the methodology, infrastructure, organization, and staffing—and have gained organizational acceptance of user-centered design—it is now time to begin the routine application of user experience design in your projects.
A mature user experience design process has many hallmarks. The work starts automatically, very early in the development cycle, as soon as the business need and the strategy are identified. Trained and certified practitioners—the leads on the project during the early stages—ensure that the strategy is refined and fully reflected in the actual site or application. The user experience design staff harmonizes the needs of the organization with the realities of user needs and limitations, creating a user interface (UI) structure that makes the navigation simple and straightforward. Because the UI is not developed or tested by untrained staff, there is no need to make frantic attempts to repair a flawed design.
Managing by Project Importance
Any site or application worth building is worth making usable, but there are differences in the criticality of user experience design work. An intranet facility that will be used by a few internal staff to maintain management accounting information is simply not as critical, from an experience engineering viewpoint, as an e-commerce application that will be the company’s sole channel for sales. Under the pressure of insufficient time and resources, it makes sense to do a bit of triage based on such priorities. You can assign a level to each project—gold, silver, bronze, or tin—and then give the most critical projects the highest level of attention.
• Gold—Give the most user experience design attention to projects that are mission critical to the company—projects that will make a big difference to the ongoing success of your organization. These gold projects have a lot riding on the user experience and performance. Usability may be important because there are many users, the users are difficult to serve, or the performance stakes are very high—large amounts of money or even lives may be at stake.
• Silver—It is likely that the bulk of your projects will be important but not wholly critical to the organization. These are usually not publicly sold applications or websites accessed by customers; instead, they might be extranets used to access vendors or internal systems used to track and manage work. For each high-profile public site operated by a company, there are probably 10 supporting applications (ordering, shipping, inventory, and so on). While these are not examples of mission-critical programs, basic user-centered design issues matter. You might apply performance engineering methods (which ensure that the application is easy to use) without attending to emotional design or persuasion engineering. The resulting ease-of-use may support the ability of hundreds of users in the organization to perform efficiently; improvements in such areas can limit the need for training, reduce task time, and control errors. Many projects also have an impact on the company’s vendors, such as widely used accounting and management information systems, and need serious user experience design support. Nevertheless, they are less critical than your gold projects.
• Bronze—Many projects do not really need a major user-centered design process. They are simple facilities—perhaps an informational site with only a few users, where user experience and performance are not really in jeopardy. (A very simple site is harder to make incomprehensible than a complex site.) It is not worthwhile doing much user experience design work on these projects, even when more resources become available in the future.
• Tin—User experience design practitioners should probably do no work at all on some projects. Occasionally, a project has almost no user interactions to worry about because it is entirely focused on internal database processing. In addition, there may be some legacy “disaster” projects that have been poorly managed, have not had user-centered design methods applied, and are in trouble. You can decide to intervene and try to save the project; however, it is often wiser to let it go without completing it because the chances are good that the project will be scrapped.
Who Will Do the User Experience Design?
Ideally, all user-centered design activities can be completed by fully trained, experienced practitioners from the central team (in small companies) or by practitioners reporting to lines of business (in larger firms). There are some alternatives to these approaches, however. If the quality and timeliness of work cannot be allowed to lapse even briefly, consider using contract staff from user experience design vendors. This is the common solution for an insufficiently staffed gold project. Contractors may not know much about your organization, but they are experienced with design activities, can adhere to your specific customized standards, and should do a good job.
For silver projects, trained staff members who are not professional user experience design practitioners can complete the user-centered design activities. While it is not an ideal situation, business analysts, systems analysts, programmers, and user representatives may perform credibly in this role. The usability of the site or application is likely to suffer to some degree, but you can take measures to minimize the problem.
If other staff members stand in for user experience design practitioners, they should have solid training. Without it, progress will be slow, and the work will likely be of poor quality. This training can and should take place both in the classroom and on the job. Practitioners with more experience and training can act as guides or mentors for newer individuals as they work on projects. This ensures that the work does not stray far from the chosen path. Even a few days of mentoring from an experienced consultant can prevent well-intentioned teams from taking expensive detours.
For bronze and tin projects, less investment is justified. You might have project staff members undergo a few days of training in basic usability design, but the project is unlikely to merit much consultative support. Developers must then make do with their training and the organization’s overall user-centered design infrastructure.
Different Strategies for Practitioner Involvement
Some companies advocate that the best way to deploy practitioners is to make them part of a development team that designs by committee. If this is your corporate design process, it will prove helpful to have a user experience design professional in the mix. For significant development efforts, however, designing the user interface by committee is remarkably inefficient. User-centered design work is best done in cycles of data gathering and quiet work. While it is important that this work involve others (e.g., developers, graphic designers), for significant development efforts, the user experience design practitioner must be able to complete design work without interference by committees—that is, by studying users and finding out how they react, digesting these insights, and then making design changes individually or in a very small group. It is painful to see committees discuss the wording of a link for a full hour. With 15 people working, that link costs 15 person-hours to draft! It is fine to have a committee participate in a walkthrough, but this approach is a poor way to do design, even if plenty of experience design practitioners are available.
It is also unlikely that a good UX strategy and interface structure will evolve through the scrums and sprints of a rapid development process (such as Agile). It is imperative to do your structural design before beginning the rapid development process. With this approach, the chances are far better that the detailed design can be executed within the rapid development process.
When working on a silver or bronze project with limited resources, the user experience design staff can take an evaluative role. In other words, the project team creates designs, and the user experience design staff reviews the work and provides feedback. The project team analyzes the feedback, makes changes to the designs, and returns them for another usability review if necessary. This process involves risks, however, and it may be inefficient. For example, if the data gathering with users is poorly done, the staff might spend valuable time on unneeded or incorrectly structured screens. Many review cycles may be needed to reach a good design, which can be frustrating and even a bit adversarial. (In time, the developers will flinch just seeing the user experience designers.)
While this is not an ideal strategy, limiting his or her involvement to evaluation of the project team’s work does use less of the experience engineer’s time: you can support an entire project with just a few days of help from a practitioner. Although this approach may be feasible for a silver or bronze project, it is not acceptable for a gold project.
For silver and some lower-end gold projects, one alternative often has great success: the user experience design practitioners take full control and responsibility for the development of the user interface structure only. This means that they do not design every page or screen, but simply the critical structure. To accomplish this, they may have to review or test the original application or site. The practitioners use data gathered from users to structure a site that is practical, simple, and efficient to navigate. They then test this design to confirm that it is self-evident and that the graphic treatment supports the brand values of the organization. At that point, the design can be given to personnel with basic training (e.g., business analysts), who can use the standards to proliferate the detailed pages needed under the structural design. The user experience design staff can provide coaching and review the detailed designs created by the developers. This approach brings scarce practitioners in only for the most critical work.
Recall that 80% of usability is determined by the structural design.1 If the structure is right, not much can go seriously wrong with your detailed design. This is particularly true if the work is done under standards. The detailed design requires less demanding work (but often takes 80% of the time), and it can be completed by staff members who are more numerous and may actually be more familiar with the detailed requirements than new user experience design practitioners.
1. This figure is based on HFI’s 20 years of experience with hundreds of clients, across thousands of user-centered design projects.
For high-end gold projects, there is no alternative except to employ skilled and experienced practitioners. They must certainly do the structural design work, and it is also advisable to have them complete—or at least lead—the detailed screen design and usability testing. This yields the best-quality designs in the shortest time.
When the shortage of user experience design practitioners is acute, a number of strategies can help alleviate the pressures on those personnel. While it is easy to become alarmed by the magnitude of the problem and frantically try to do everything at once, this is the time to get organized and plan carefully. Staying up late on the project just makes you inefficient; you will have to fix fatigue-induced errors in addition to handling the onslaught of new work. Instead of panicking or pulling all-nighters, work smart.
• Trim unnecessary functions. User experience design practitioners can often identify functions that are not needed at all or are at least secondary. It is often possible to trim the size of the deliverable and still end up with a useful offering; many projects benefit from having excess features trimmed, in fact.
• Focus the experience design on important modules of the interface. You can apply the same project triage principles discussed earlier to the modules of an application, rating them as gold, silver, bronze, or tin. For example, you might find that the product display and checkout pages are gold, whereas a whole set of administrative screens will be seen only by a few highly trained, motivated internal systems administrators. Thus you can rate the administrative module as a bronze project and not worry too much about it. You can use the same schemes to assign personnel within the project as we have suggested for whole projects. A systems analyst might design the administrative module; the user experience design practitioner reviews this module, but is otherwise busy perfecting the checkout process essential to the project’s success.
• Use an effective but scaled-back testing strategy. For example, you would not want to eliminate data gathering and testing early in the process—these tasks are essential and relatively inexpensive. You might be able to test fewer participants, however, or test in fewer locations. If pressed for time, you could eliminate the final usability testing; it is expensive and tends to merely fine-tune the design.
• Consider using remote testing. Being face-to-face with users during data gathering offers real value, as the nuances of facial expressions can give user experience design specialists important insights into directions of inquiry. Nevertheless, remote testing is often a viable alternative. Remote testing methods may even help cut the time required for simple testing. The methods themselves can be very simple as well. For example, you can simply send an image or questionnaire to the participants and then talk to them by phone.
• Consider the possibility of sharing testing sessions between projects. If more than one project is targeted at a given user population, it may be possible to test both projects at once. The main cost of a data gathering or usability test relates to getting the participants in the room, so extending a test session from an hour to 90 minutes may let you gather data to support two programs in a single session. Beyond 90 minutes, participants will be too fatigued to yield good results.
• Scale back the number of participants in studies and the number of geographies tested. You can get good usability testing data from as few as a dozen people, and testing in many different regions of the United States, for example, tends not to yield many new insights. These are reasonable areas in which you can scale back. Do not scale back by using internal staff members as stand-ins for actual users in data gathering and testing, however. Internal staff members are almost always different from typical users, and their input can lead you astray. It is also not recommended to reduce the number of participants to fewer than a dozen, because it is too easy to be overly influenced by an unusual person who just happens to show up in a small study. You’ll also really know there’s a problem only when you encounter the same failures repeatedly. If you test five people and one makes an error, you can’t tell if it is a fluke or a significant problem.
• Have a single practitioner work on a number of different projects. This can be a great way to stretch your scarce user experience design resources. Having one user practitioner working on several different projects can pose challenges, though, and not all practitioners can juggle projects well. A practitioner in this role should be providing guidance/advice only.
Efficient Project Planning
Much can be done in the project planning stage to make the work faster and more efficient.
• Use standard project planning techniques to track phases and activities.
• Watch for cases where a critical path can put the whole schedule in jeopardy. For example, when working on an interface structure, start working out the details of participant acquisition for the data gathering sessions the day the project is approved. Although data gathering is the third or fourth activity in the sequence of user experience design steps, lining up participants can take weeks. If this task is not started immediately, filling your sessions could delay the whole project.
• Work concurrently. Experience design work often allows for concurrent activities. For example, graphic artists can be working on designs while user experience design practitioners are writing questionnaires. Similarly, results can be tabulated for the first day of testing while the second day of testing is in progress.
• Be ready to make adjustments. User experience design work is often influenced by outside factors such as developer activities and business needs. Be prepared to review your project, plan often, and make adjustments.
• Hold firm. People tend to think that experience design is an area to modify or cut back when time is limited. Do not let others force you into agreeing to perform a task in less time than it will take. Produce less if you must, but make sure each deliverable demonstrates that value of the field.
Estimating Experience Design Work
As you plan and manage the flow of projects given a limited set of practitioners, it helps to accurately estimate the requirements for different projects. This information allows better allocation of the resources available and can provide a good estimate of the number of user experience design staff members you will eventually need within your organization.
Organizational Support for Usability
Dana Griffith, CUA, Web Consultant—Interactive Media, American Electric Power
The people at the highest level in my group believe in usability. For them, it has become part of the process of creating a new site or revising a site, so we probably have a little different approach to the question of institutionalizing usability. Because we manage the corporate website and the company intranet, we are able to address usability at the point when design decisions are being made, without holding up the project for any measurable length of time.
For gold and silver projects, you can usually get a good idea of the level of effort needed for user experience design work by gauging the percentage of the overall project effort represented by that work. Very small projects end up with large percentages of usability work because there is a limit on the amount you can reduce the interface development effort. No matter how simple the project, for gold and silver projects, you need to access data from users and test the design concepts. That said, you are likely to see a maximum of perhaps 25% of the project effort spent on user experience design. With larger projects—say, a typical e-commerce site costing $5 million—you might spend 10% of the budget on user experience design. As projects become larger, you may be able to take advantage of economies of scale for a further reduction—down to about 7%. If your plan for a gold or silver project has allocated less than 5% of the budget for user experience design work, you are probably making a mistake.2
2. The figures in this paragraph are based on HFI’s experience with its customer base. In addition, the 10% figure is cited in a report by Nielsen and Gilutz .
You can also make estimates based on the type of experience design work being completed, as shown in Table 13-1. This approach is more accurate than taking a simple percentage, but it is still an estimate; your results may vary. For example, an inexperienced team may take a much longer time to complete a task than a seasoned one. Other factors can affect boilerplate estimates, such as the complexity of the application or product, the number of different users, and the need to develop a product for use across different languages or cultures.
Table 13-1: Estimated Time Frame for Usability Activities
The efforts you have made to build an effective infrastructure with high-quality staff are sure to bring you a certain amount of success. However, managing projects carefully is still an imperative. By following the tips and strategies in this chapter, you should be able to maintain a good level of momentum. The next chapter elaborates on some of the ongoing activities and responsibilities of the established usability group.