Institutionalization of UX: A Step-by-Step Guide to a User Experience Practice, Second Edition (2014)
Part IV. Long-Term Operations
In building a practice, we must always think about sustainability. In the words of Bob Dylan, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” We have to design an organization that constantly moves forward—that constantly proves its economic value, and that protects its quality and capabilities.
The UX field will always keep growing. People are complicated, and their expectations and needs keep changing. Push your team to expand their skills and knowledge. A business needs to provide a better customer experience than the competition, and a mature UX practice is a key differentiator.
There is a whole set of new frontiers that our field will face. The globe is large and cultures are diverse, so we need to manage our design of international delivery. And the future will bring a whole set of new realities, new frontiers, and new technologies, to which we will need to adapt a human body and nervous system that evolved for life in the savannah.
Chapter 14. Long-Term Activities of the Central Team
The central user experience design group is responsible for the overall corporate initiative toward user-centered design. Keep the user-centered viewpoint vibrant, effective, and respected.
Don’t be marginalized, ignored, or diverted back to a technology focus.
Maintain momentum by building excitement and visible progress into your development and design plans.
Evangelize user-centrality by frequently hosting events to share lessons learned and convey excitement about the value of experience design.
Train new personnel to keep the knowledge of user-centered design in your organization. Also, enhance and update the skill sets of existing staff.
Mentor staff working for project teams.
Update the design standard and provide consultation to help developers follow the rules.
Form a community of interest. Support formal activities, such as information-sharing sessions, that provide mutual support.
Conduct usability tests objectively, as outsiders to the project team.
Measure the value of user experience improvements to show your investment is working and to highlight areas for improvement.
Take responsibility for experience quality throughout the organization.
Report your progress and achievements to executives.
In the Long-Term Operations phase, the full infrastructure and the central team become operational. User experience design is now a routine part of every project.
• You have a solid UX strategy that describes what will motivate users to engage with your organization and how the various channels will align effectively into a coherent overall experience.
• You no longer build a site or application first and then merely hope it will be what users actually need.
• You do not let the technical design of a system alone drive the selection of controls for ease of use.
• You will be ahead of your competitors if they have not completed their own experience design efforts—this is a significant benefit to your brand and corporate efficiency.
The organization is working effectively at this point, but there must be an ongoing process of renewal, evaluation, and enhancement. User-centrality is not such a simple issue that the organization will continue to flourish without attention from the executive level and ongoing excellence from within the user experience design team.
Once you get the infrastructure in place and the organization built, the central group must maintain and grow the user experience design process, continuously reinforce the value of good experience design, and integrate the user-centered methodology. While working on projects, practitioners follow the methodology, use the best research and principles available at the time, call internal consultants and specialists from the central usability team for support, and occasionally demonstrate and promote the success of the user-centered perspective.
The executive responsible for the central group may provide resources and encouragement and may clear obstacles from the pathway to growth, but the heavy lifting of the continued user experience design process falls to the central team. This chapter focuses on the most important activities the central usability team can perform to keep the institutionalization current and vibrant.
Maintaining Respect and Negotiating Effectively
User experience design practitioners usually face some degree of resistance on an ongoing basis—it is the nature of the development process. User experience design groups need to maintain respect so that they can ensure that users’ needs take precedence over prioritized technology or design function lists—and avoid being marginalized themselves.
For example, a user experience designer may tell a developer that users need a display that collects all their data in one place. The developer quickly sees that this display will require a lot of work to support: it will be necessary to link calls to a number of databases, and will require greater processing power. The developer wonders whether this practitioner knows what is going on. Will this feature really make a difference to the user? Will it benefit the business?
First, the practitioner and the developer should need to agree on a solution based on a mutual understanding of the user issues and technical constraints. If they cannot come to an understanding, a consultant from the central group needs to review the conflict and quickly decide whether the user needs are, in fact, critical. If they are not, the central team needs to be realistic and negotiate something different.
The central team may occasionally correct a recommendation from a practitioner on a project team. Once reviewed and confirmed by the central team, the recommendation must be supported with research studies or examples from the literature that demonstrate the effect. Usually, coming up with just a few studies earns the team a reputation for making research-based recommendations—so that eventually it will not have to defend many of its decisions.
Of course, that does not change the fact that practitioners will need to step in at various times and push the user’s perspective against coding convenience throughout the organization. As such, the ability of the practitioners to manage claims about technical feasibility takes on particular importance. Developers commonly claim that a recommendation is not feasible when it is, in fact, possible to implement. The practitioner needs enough technical savvy to understand both sides of the interface. The user experience design staff should get in the habit of digging deeper into claims of infeasibility. What does “That will take too long” really mean? Does it refer to coding time, response time, or something else?
When the technical staff attempts to overpower a less experienced practitioner, the central consultants must step in. They must know enough about the technology to be able to accurately assess the situation. The practitioner might need a course in technical limitations so he or she will make fewer infeasible recommendations in the future. More often, however, technical staff members need to be shown that “technobabble” will not be accepted as a substitute for the hard work needed to meet the user’s needs.
Respect is important for the competitive health of the user experience design organization. Organizations that marginalize user experience designers in favor of coding ease eventually get nasty wake-up calls.
It is critical to keep the momentum going to motivate the user experience design staff and the development team. The user-centered effort does not need to be too aggressive—companies that mandate an optimized user experience design and try to implement it instantly do not do well. Yet while disseminating a user-centered perspective throughout the organization takes time, there must be forward movement.
The Value of a Research-Based Approach to Usability
Janice Nall, Managing Director, Atlanta—Danya International, Inc. Former Chief, Communication Technologies Branch, National Cancer Institute
At the National Cancer Institute (NCI), we needed a research-based way to make decisions about the way we design Web sites.
We developed research-based guidelines, and that was the turning point. With guidelines in place, it’s not a manager saying what to do, and it’s not the head of the Institute saying it. It’s the users saying it, and it’s the research—the literature. In our culture, that’s what it’s all about. So it’s making what we do work within the culture here that’s important.
I think the guidelines have given us a much more powerful voice than we expected originally. We developed them from a research-based approach because we thought it was the right way to do it. We truly underestimated the power of having the data and having the user’s voice represented. Very few people aren’t willing to make changes based on the evidence-based guidelines.
The largest amount of hard-core resistance we see tends to come from programmers and some graphic designers. That’s why we try to get them to attend training or observe testing. If we sense any resistance to usability from developers or designers, we test the current site or some other site and force them into the observation room so they can see people struggling, and it helps them understand the process. We try to do it in a very nonthreatening way so that they’re part of the team helping us try to make it better.
One trick to gain initial momentum is to stay focused on smaller projects as you begin your UX effort. Even if your resources are limited, you can turn one or two projects into showcases. In this way, even a small commitment becomes visible and motivating. After that percolation period, you can start to tackle larger projects. Make sure you don’t have practitioners trying to work on too many projects simultaneously. If you have a small number of staff servicing a huge organization, your efforts will be invisible and you will lose momentum. The practitioners will find themselves dashing from one design session to another, making wild guesses, yet letting everyone feel that user experience design has been executed.
Roadblocks in the Path to Good Usability: The IT Department
Harley Manning, Research Director, Forrester Research
One change that has to happen to make usability part of the culture is to get your IT act together. Otherwise, even if you design a great product, it won’t materialize.
The IT department can be a big impediment to getting more usable digital channels. It’s not intentional; rather, it’s that “easy” means something very different for them. If you’re an application developer, for example, you probably know three or four different programming languages and maybe have a good grasp of systems architecture—even the most opaque user interface looks easy to you.
So the IT folks are not exactly your typical business user, nor are they necessarily sympathetic to your typical business user. And they’re not typically evaluated on how well they deliver usable software, either. They are—to steal a phrase—“the inmates running the asylum” [Cooper 1999]. They have different goals and different things they’re trying to optimize.
We did a survey in this area a few years back, and you know what? The number one consideration for IT managers buying enterprise software was whether it was compatible with the rest of their architecture. Usability was near the bottom of their decision criteria.
Today IT leaders are shifting their focus from reducing costs to improving business agility, and from developing back-end “systems of record” to creating customer-facing “systems of engagement.” But these trends are dangerous unless IT departments develop sound usability practices and engage with their business stakeholders.
The bottom line is that business leaders are not going to have good usability if they don’t engage with their IT counterparts in a meaningful way—and that way is not the old “waterfall” approach, where they would send their prototype off to be coded, and it came back working differently and looking differently than what they sent in.
Orchestrating that level of collaboration leads inevitably back to the top of the organization. Because who is the common manager of IT, marketing, and the customer experience or user experience group (if one exists)? It’s someone with a title like COO or CEO.
The central group must provide information and share lessons learned on the value of user-centered design, which means making presentations on a regular basis. These presentations can share project examples, new research findings, and progress in the metrics of user performance and conversion. Beyond formal presentations, it is necessary to have a process for constant communication with individuals and small groups, including quiet lunches and personal exchanges at social gatherings. Practitioners need to exploit every possible venue for communication and sharing. Most importantly, team members need to convey their excitement about and commitment to the user experience design effort—they need to evangelize!
When missionaries travel to new countries, they translate their beliefs into the local language, making their ideas and value systems fit with local traditions and needs. In a similar way, the user experience design evangelist must speak the business language of the organization. He or she needs to translate the value of user-centered design so it meets the objectives of development teams and other groups. Dropping UX terms such as “cultural dimensions,” “scenarios,” and “function allocation” can be impressive, but particularly at the beginning of the institutionalization process, it’s important to couch user-centered design ideas in the local language. With business people, for example, you should talk about conversion rates and call time.
The Role of the Central Usability Team
Arnold Lund, Connected Experience Labs Technology Leader, Human–Systems Interaction Lab Manager—GE Global Research Former Director of Design and Usability, Microsoft
My design and usability team should be a place where we learn and build our intellectual capital around good design. It should be where we abstract from the many projects we’re doing those lessons and insights that cut across releases and products. The resulting intellectual capital should make us more and more effective over time, and I would hope that eventually what we learn would work its way outside of Microsoft and into the broader user experience field.
One goal we have in Microsoft is to build community across the corporation and then advance the community. As Microsoft design and usability managers, we are creating a long-term plan for the company about where the user experience practice within Microsoft should be heading. The plan is based on a view of where the company is going, how technology is evolving, which user experience methods and tools are emerging, and what that means for a vision of design and usability five years out. We are trying to figure out where we need to be to maximize our contribution to the business and to our customers in that time frame. We will then draw out the implications for career growth, for skills growth, for new tools that we need to develop, for design and usability, for techniques and methods, for hiring, for internal training—indeed, all the things we believe we will need to do to advance the community and practice of design and usability within Microsoft.
As I think about promoting an understanding of the importance of design and usability within Microsoft, I think about what we do already and what we can do in the future. There is a corporate newsletter, of course, where stories about product successes and individual usability group case studies appear. I think we can leverage that more. Design and usability are built into the corporate training that all new employees go through, into individual internal courses, and into corporate events. We had a Design Day a couple of months ago that a lot of managers attended (along with the design and usability communities). Several of us spoke, there were panels, and there were booths. We were able to play an educational role and network in ways that helped grow our impact. There are many opportunities to do the public relations that opens doors.
One of the results of the focus on personas within Microsoft is that the personas get turned into posters that are mounted on walls. They direct people’s attention to the users and heighten awareness of the research behind the personas. Here in our organization we are talking about creating design walls and user experience walls to surround the project teams with information about the users and the emerging designs. It keeps them focused on the users and what we do, and it engages them in where we are going and how we are thinking about it. It invites their input. We always try to get people involved in lab testing. We have even been taking advantage of the ability to stream the video from the testing over the intranet so product teams can participate from their desks without having to travel to the lab. The goal is to get as many people on the teams as possible engaged in the user-centered design process.
It is hard to estimate the time required to evangelize. It is closer to a lifestyle than a specific task, but certainly there are presentations to prepare and meetings to organize. The concrete elements of the evangelization role probably add up to a half- or full-time position in a large organization. The manager of the usability team often assumes much of this responsibility.
Evangelists must have a certain charisma that expresses itself as a burning desire to share the knowledge of user-centered design. They must create excitement as they show how user experience design can directly transform the listener’s life. The commitment of an evangelist is contagious—and it’s very necessary: if the central group staff becomes complacent and bored, the whole effort is likely to flounder.
During the initial phases of your institutionalization program, a series of training classes probably brought people up to speed and conveyed essential skills. While this training was imperative, training is never completely finished in a competitive organization. The internal user-centered design team should take charge of the ongoing training program. The team may not need to be responsible for all training, however—in most organizations, it doesn’t make sense to maintain the more complex and infrequently used courseware, nor are there enough presentations of most training classes to keep trainers fully occupied or their memory of the course material fresh. Nonetheless, the central group must assume overall responsibility for the training program.
User experience design training should be a part of the orientation of new staff. If not, the user-centered perspective—and its benefits—may be slowly diluted by new staff members who have not received a solid UX orientation. In addition to the basic orientation, some new members need to learn specific skills to work on particular types of projects or particular user experience design activities. You may need someone to specialize in wireless devices, for example, or persuasion engineering or usability testing.
Over time, your ongoing skills training will probably need to cover the full range of user experience engineering capabilities as new staff members come on board. That includes initial orientation to the user-centered perspective—including skills training, training on standards, and training on aspects of user experience design engineering specific to the organization’s domain—as well as training on new and special topics.
Existing staff members also need continuous training and professional development. Personnel in the central group may benefit from attending technical conventions, where they can learn about new research or methods and share problems and tips with colleagues in other industries. User experience design staff can also benefit from taking advanced courses. These courses may cover such topics as research updates and new usability methodologies (e.g., remote testing).
It is motivational for team members to see that the process is working. It also motivates them to have a growing set of credentials showing their competency. Many benefits accrue when staff members gain advanced degrees and certifications: coworkers in other groups develop more respect for the user experience design team; the field stays new and interesting to UX staff members and their skill sets increase. Credentials are also a confidence builder—even certificates of completion can build confidence.
User experience design staff members working on project teams have a “dotted line” relationship with the central group: the central group cares about them, advocating for them in political and policy matters and helping to handle problems. Most directly, however, the central group should be available to mentor usability staff on the project teams. Depending on the corporate culture, this could be either a very formal process or an informal one.
Mentoring is challenging because there is no single path to follow. Some staff members need insights into data gathering methods; some need to build confidence so they can run their first solo usability test; others need help interacting with developers.
Mentoring may be only one part of a person’s job, and it generally requires a different perspective than a practitioner has while working on projects. The mentor should attend to the growth of the practitioner without worrying about meeting deadlines and ensuring the efficacy of design on a project at the same time.
In the Setup phase of UX design institutionalization, the organization created a set of methodological standards and interface design standards. Developing these standards required a big investment, but the standards will not endure or even be used unless they are supported.
Standards are living documents. New and improved procedures will be added to the methodology, and new page types and additional rules will be added to the design standards. The user experience design team must constantly monitor the design process and find opportunities for improvement. Innovations rarely come from theoretical analysis of existing standards; instead, they emerge from observations of the direct contact between the standards and the design work. Necessity spawns invention, and the user-centered design team must gather these inventions and add them to the standards.
The time required to collect new methods and add them to the standards varies based on the complexity of the design challenges involved, as well as the process required for getting consensus and approval for changes. At HFI, for example, we have four cycles of upgrades to our methods and templates each year. The GUI standards require fewer changes by now, but the browser standards are still growing. The time required to collect enhancements and facilitate the approval process might amount to a half-time job.
There is little value in having a methodology or a design standard if there is no one to go to with questions. No document is so thorough that issues will never crop up regarding the design decisions. Inevitably, special needs emerge based on users, taskflows, environments, technologies, and business strategies. Sometimes design teams need someone to talk to—someone with wider experience and the ability to provide definitive guidance on methods and design. Team members need a consultant—and they can talk to one on the central team.
Advocating Usability through a Strong Sense of Community
Feliça Selenko, Former Principal Technical Staff Member, AT&T
I think one of the most important ways to share an understanding of usability is to do it one person/one project at a time. Usability experts need to take the time to look for and take advantage of every opportunity to advocate usability, its bottom-line cost benefits, and the respective user performance research. They need to have their “soapbox” and a usability road show ready to go at all times, so as to support any and all requests for information about usability and its benefits. This creates a strong network of supporters and “prophets” to help spread the word.
Colleagues have said that my enthusiasm and consistent commitment throughout the years have kept the team going through any hard times experienced by the telecommunications industry. The words that come to mind that create a sense of community are enthusiasm, camaraderie, empathy, dedication, sincere support, responsiveness, optimism, and fun—really believing in the value of the usability discipline and treasuring the community we have. Logistically, we have a grassroots, committed, cross-organizational team that meets monthly on a two-hour conference call. We discuss everything: project dilemmas, rumors, industry articles/conferences, organizational issues, usability tools and standards, as well as personal changes and triumphs. Because we keep it practical, focused, and fun, we all look forward to maintaining our connection.
It is important to have consistent guidance from the central group regarding standards issues. This is not a call for rigidity—standards need to be interpreted in each context—but a recognition that there must be coherence to the answers that teams get from their standards consultants. Therefore, it is best to charge just one or two people with handling this task. If two people are assigned to fill this role, they should work closely together. For most organizations, however, a single person can answer standards questions, and in smaller organizations this might be half of one person’s responsibilities.
In addition, tools need to be supported. This may include getting the best software and usability testing equipment to be used in the methodology, or working with systems staff to select content management systems and other productivity-enhancing applications to ensure that the user-centered design process is supported. This will be a half- to full-time job in most organizations.
Supporting the Community
Often, user experience design practitioners will quickly form a community of interest within their company. Even if they are not formally connected within the organization, they have traditionally banded together. In the past, the user experience design team typically consisted of a small group of people who were undervalued and often under attack. Developers saw UX practitioners as an annoyance, obsessed with a “soft,” unimportant area, and tried to marginalize them. Generally, a persecuted minority clings together, and user-oriented staff members were no exception. That mutual support—often all that sustained the effort—provided a conduit of information and resources as well as a source of mutual emotional support. Alone, surrounded by people with a system-centered view, it was easy to start thinking you were crazy and to lose the will to keep working. That small circle of colleagues made all the difference in keeping the momentum going.
Fortunately, user experience engineering communities are seldom the same small, surrounded groups today. The user-centered focus is more likely to be accepted and routine. Even that cultural change poses its own challenges, however: we need to work to keep the UX community’s identity, mission, and spirit lively.
The simple act of working together increases group cohesiveness, creates relationships, spurs on the institutionalization effort, and increases the transfer of information and support. For this reason, the central group should engineer shared projects that can bring practitioners together. These projects may include standards, tools, or collective presentations to management.
Another powerful method is the project-sharing presentation. Periodically, practitioners can share presentations with one another to recount the best insights and breakthroughs from their projects. These aren’t long-winded process discussions or explanations of the whole project—each project team has only a short time, perhaps 15 minutes, to share major insights and innovations. Teams can even present skits or interactive demonstrations. Concrete before/after examples, preferably with metrics of success, are a quick, powerful way to share lessons learned among the community of practice.
Performing Usability Testing
Practitioners on project teams can certainly do all their own usability testing and other types of evaluations. There are two major reasons to have some of the testing done by the central group.
The first reason is the ability to economize. You can easily and practically maintain a small pool of usability testing staff members who are not experienced or trained in a complete range of user-centered design tasks but are knowledgeable about running usability tests. Running A:B tests, surveys, and other metrics is primarily a technical task (once those tests are set up).
The second reason to have the central group support assessments is objectivity. Some practitioners, while good designers, have trouble accepting the idea that users might find problems with their designs. Some will even argue with usability testing subjects to try to convince them that the design makes sense. Once, I watched a developer try to explain to a participant the difference between the OK and Apply buttons. With enough explanation, the participant seemed to agree that there was a difference (more likely, he was bored by the discussion and just wanted to move on). In such a case, it helps to have someone else run the test.
Focusing on Metrics
A common management principle advises, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” By measuring user experience, you can determine whether your investment is working. You can tell which areas need more work and can improve your process. The central team needs to create and maintain the usability metrics that make sense to your business.
One type of metric describes the process of user-centered design. For example, it is a good idea to track the number of staff hired and trained, the number of people working on user-centered issues, and the number of projects that do or do not apply the user-centered methodology. The main purpose of these metrics is to validate that user experience design work is actually being done, and to show the growth and stability of practice within the organization. Such metrics are basically means of cost accounting. Although you may be happy to see a solid investment in the UX design process, it does not really measure anything valuable from the perspective of the organization. With an indication of the costs in hand, there had better be a solid improvement in the business results to justify these expenditures.
Given this fact, it is helpful to have periodic, empirical demonstrations of the value of user-centered work. These focused studies generally look at a very specific before/after design scenario. For example, the site may have a point of high drop-off. If user-centered design work can reduce this drop-off, you may be able to attribute a significant improvement in sales to that change. If specific functions in an application can be improved, those improvements can be measured and reported.
Be wary of being satisfied simply by hearing that “the users liked it.” This kind of anecdotal feedback is better than nothing—and certainly better than being told the users have created their own system on Excel as an alternative to your dysfunctional design. Nevertheless, it is far better to have specific data and surveys showing a specific movement in the rating for the site or application. Even more encouraging would be a 25% drop in the time needed to complete a checkout process. But the most compelling information is directly tied to the business needs—how much money the usability effort makes, how much money it saves, and how customers have responded (i.e., a specific, quantifiable increase in customer satisfaction).
If you do not know where you have been, it is hard to demonstrate progress. A summative usability test at the end of the design process reporting that applications for insurance are completed in 2.5 minutes is rather difficult to interpret. It seems like a reasonable time, but is it an improvement? This is the reason you need benchmark testing. In a benchmark test, participants complete a set of representative tasks, and usability testing staff measure time, error rate, and subjective ratings. A similar group of participants completes the same testing with the same tasks every 6 or 12 months. By examining these results periodically over time, you can see whether your changes have affected the user experience or performance. This practice also allows you to benchmark the time required for expert users to complete the representative tasks. Collectively, this combination of data gives a very good indication of progress.
Many metrics look at user performance and subjective reports from customers. These kinds of metrics are interesting, but can be misleading. Jared Spool, founding principal of User Interface Engineering, had the following insights on privacy and the Internet, demonstrating that you cannot rely only on what users say:
1. From a letter to Human Factors International, September 2003. Reproduced with permission.
Different business models require different objectives to measure the metrics directly connected to the success of the site or application. It could be the sale of an application, conversion of site visitors, size and breadth of the shopping basket, cross-sell volume, average call-handling time, or qualified leads generated and resulting sales. There are potentially hundreds of useful metrics. In the end, however, they need to be tied firmly to business results. While it might be encouraging to learn that 92% of customers responding on a questionnaire say they would purchase something on a Web site, it is much more meaningful to see how many actually make a purchase.
The central group takes responsibility for user experience throughout the organization. This responsibility includes an attitude of involvement and concern, as well as a set of specific activities. The central group should watch for projects that need user-centered design help and areas of the company business that will benefit from such work. The central group needs to make sure that the projects get the attention they need. We must drive for routine inclusion of user-centered design methods in every design program.
Ensuring that there are user experience design practitioners working on every important project is the primary goal of the central team. After assigning a practitioner to a project, the organization must provide the necessary skills, methodology, standards, tools, and channels of communication to that project. In addition to a constantly review of the internal process, the central group must consider the lessons learned and opportunities uncovered.
It is challenging to quantify the time it takes to do this type of management work, but it should be noted that much of the work occurs in the context of other activities. For example, a central group consultant reviewing a voice response system might hear about issues on a new project or might find a new menu type such as “Skip and Scan” that applies to all voice systems throughout the organization. If this new menu reduces drop-through to a human operator by 5%, the modest savings seen from a single, small application can be vastly multiplied if applied throughout the organization. The central usability team is the only group likely to be a good conduit for such insights.
Reporting to Executives
Adopting a user-centered perspective is one of those challenging, yet valuable initiatives that does not happen on its own. In addition to ensuring that user experience design is taking place within the company, the central team must maintain a usability presence within the executive suite.
Such an initiative will include many different elements, and few you can afford to forget. You must address complex issues of change management and acceptance. Management will eventually understand that user experience metrics are as critical to the business as gross sales and support costs. The executive champion helps deliver this message, but the content of the message comes from the central group. The members should have examples that demonstrate how user experience design makes a difference and the metrics to prove it. This group must understand the champion’s strategic perspective and move forward on that track, improving the process and ensuring its continuation.
Some of the central group’s attention must always be focused on the executive champion and the other key executives in the organization. The amount of time required for that effort varies depending on the dispersion of the executive team. A closely knit team, all in one location, is easy to manage. Doing so takes only a few days of effort each month. Once key people are properly briefed, there is little more to do. By comparison, with a more complex executive team, it can be nearly a half-time job keeping everyone apprised of the progress, value, and needs of the user experience effort.
My Nine Principles to Keep Institutionalization Motivated
Colin Hynes, President, UX, Inc. Former Director of Site Usability, Staples
1. Go deep first and that will help you go wide later. Get the solid gains first and don’t try to sell yourself too thin. If you work on 10 different projects with three usability experts, you won’t do any of them well. Then you’ll just be perceived as a veneer on the process instead of having real impact. When we started this group, I knew we needed to get some solid wins in a very deep and effectual way. We did that, and then we went on to other projects that helped us spread our influence as we built the group.
2. Quantify gains made from projects that were led or deeply impacted by usability and translate that into ROI. We have held up the improvements that usability made to the Staples.com registration process as one of our hallmark projects. We improved the drop-off rate—the percentage of users leaving our site—in that area by 72%. As I speak about the usability group, I constantly reference that number and say, “Look what happens when you include usability and then tie that back to numbers.” The business folks listen when they see these types of gains.
3. Create a selling document with video clips and numbers that resonates with budget owners. I spent a lot of time putting together a usability document a while back. One high-level goal of the document was just teaching people what usability is and why it’s important. However, the document also gets into the deep details of how we use usability at Staples relative to our structure and how it has produced measurable gains. I structured the document so it could be discussed in about an hour, so that it could be scheduled more easily into the calendars of busy senior executives. Some video clips show folks struggling with applications. Whenever somebody says, “What is usability and how does it work?” I use that document to educate them and get the point across.
5. Create a differentiated team. For example, all my permanent employees and consultants have a master’s degree or above in human factors, cognitive psychology, or a related discipline. Many people with great talent in usability do not have these academic credentials. However, having staff with these backgrounds has helped me greatly in selling the usability competency as science throughout the company. Also, I started building the team with the hope that someday we’d move from our original Staples.com roots into other areas of the organization. So I hired folks with backgrounds in retail environments, back-end applications, marketing materials, and paper catalogs. They also had dot com experience so that until we expanded past dot-com, they would be able to fill the immediate need. As we have grown to support the paper catalog, retail environment, AS-400, and so on, these key folks have been able to grow into other areas of the company.
6. Tie the group’s performance reviews to measurable business metrics. In the annual performance reviews of my group, I ask them to meet certain measurable criteria. For example, how are we going to increase the conversion rate or decrease drop-off in Checkout or BizRate Ease of Order survey scores? By tying the group to these metrics, I’m making the statement, “I am a business owner.” It helps socialize the idea of usability as a business group. In addition to keeping the usability group focused on business goals, it’s a great supplement to having actual profit and loss responsibility.
7. Work closely with PR to tell the story. A lot of people may say, “Instead of spending time talking to the media, you should be doing project work.” While I agree that spending too much time at conferences and in interviews takes you away from core responsibilities, press coverage has been extremely valuable for us for two reasons. First, it helps get out the positive customer message, which is core to Staples values. Second, publicity is extremely valuable in hiring—we have a great PR halo over the usability group. We do good work, but we also talk about the good work that we do. I hope that it helps the usability industry as a whole, but it certainly helps us in hiring. When people say, “Wow, there’s a job opening at Staples. Those guys are so focused on usability—I would love to work there,” it helps us build a great group.
A couple years ago, I was fortunate enough to take a taxi back from a store to the airport with Tom Stenberg, who was our CEO at the time and is the founder of the office supply superstore concept and of Staples. He said to me, “I read something the other day about the good work your usability team is doing. It must be gratifying to see all the visibility that usability is getting in the press.” So when people who are this high up in the organization read the stories, they internalize the ideas. It really helps the internal communication about usability and certainly the external communication about customer focus.
8. Join professional groups and leverage free advice. There’s lots of free advice out there, from people going through the same things we are, whether it’s SIGCHI, or UPA, or HFES,2 or other groups. There’s a lot of good information you can get from picking those brains, and lots of value you can add in return by sharing your own experiences.
2. The Special Interest Group on Computer–Human Interfaces of the Association for Computing Machinery (SIGCHI), the Usability Professionals Association (UPA), and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES).
9. Pick your spots. Speak with passion when necessary—but know when something is good enough. That’s a hard thing for a lot of people, especially usability perfectionists. But you need to embrace “good enough.” You can’t be someone who cries, “Wolf!” all the time. Not everything is the biggest issue to ever happen to the site or the product. You have to keep a sense of perspective. Is this a page that’s going to be out there for two days and 10 people are going to see it? Or is it something that’s going to live with us for years so that millions of people will see it? Pick your spots and don’t be a “Chicken Little” whose sky is always falling. It’s a basic engineering principle, too. “The perfect is the enemy of the good” [Rubinstein and Hersh 1984]—if you try to do everything, you can’t get anything done. You have to be a pragmatist.
The level of effort and commitment displayed by the central user experience design team will pay off in the long term only if team members allow time for maintenance, reinforcement, demonstration, and integration. Together, the team must continue to focus on these goals to keep user-centered design a vital focus of the organization.