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Tuesday 19 June 2007

Let me do Usability...

A common refrain I hear amongst usability practitioners is that they are not allowed to do usability but asked to design. What they mean is that they are not being allowed to meet users, understand user tasks and yet required to come up with the "screens".

Obviously the guys asking them to do this magic are "stupid" (and i shall not be polite). They are asking the designer to design in the blind. Its like asking a developer to write code without doing the requirements. But then you always meet "stupid" clients and you have to earn your bread from them. So what do you do?

As a usability professional you have to understand that you design your product both for your users and your clients. So you are basically a facilitator of the design. While its important for you to align yourself to user requirements, its equally important for you to align with your clients' business goals and needs. Once you can align with your clients' goals and needs, you will become a trusted friend and your advice will be followed.

In the beginning, you will not be using a lot of your usability expertise. You will mostly be designing in the blind doing probably a combination of the following:
1. Removing clutter
2. Organizing and grouping content and layout
3. Optimizing tasks
4. Suggesting incremental improvements
5. Reviewing and suggesting future direction

The above can actually improve the product a lot, and bring an almost "crappy" interface to a professionally designed level. It may not be the most usable yet - but it will add such tremendous value that it will help you gain trust.

Once the trust is gained, you have done 50% of your job. You now need to start getting the users perspective into it. Armed with knowledge about the product and the trust of your client, you will be in a position to now influence your client to do user research/testing and move the product to the next level.

However, this is easier said than done. This step needs a certain skill - the ability to move and shake and push things - if you are now going to give up and not push ahead, you will never be able to and soon you will lose the trust you have gained. Only a pro-active stance, a sharp mind and the ability to grasp situations and provide direction helps here - remember you are an expert and have been called for either as a usability or a design consultant. Sometimes this calls for you to raise your level to one of your client's level. Many projects my team and I work on require us to work with CEOs and VPs, many of them from ivy-league US Business schools with several years of experience and a razor sharp mind. We are mostly required to rise above our own capacities and perform. A few ideas on how this can be done are:

1. Read, read and read - not just about usability, but business, technology and everything that you can lay your hands on.
2. Connect the dots - reading is not enough unless you can assimilate what you read and build them into a model that helps you make sense of the world around you.
3. Apply the knowledge - once you have learnt things, put them into action. Don't be afraid of failure - you never know which idea of yours might just click.
4. Share what you learn - only the incapable are insecure. Once you have learnt, go ahead and share it, so that others can learn, comment and help you refine your ideas.
5. Communicate - as you refine your thoughts, try and articulate it. Soon it will become a habit and you will be able to communicate with the best, including your clients.

Doing usability or design is a tough job. Only if we do it responsibly, while building trust and providing value, will we be allowed to do it.


Nupur said...

"This is easier said than done...
Doing usability or design is a tough job. Only if we do it responsibly, while building trust and providing value, will we be allowed to do it."

We sound good in theory, but its not just a matter of showing return on investment. It’s a problem of cultural fit in the decision-making process. I find the "push" approach the reverse of what really works in most organizations. The question is, at what level does it make sense to lobby sponsorship? The key may be to integrate it as a competitive advantage within each of our organizations, uniquely. Then we may find our success in integrating UX, and with it our human and user-oriented values, within the business processes that affect the user experience. However winning over the people in one project, and then one significant product, at a time can only infuse UX into projects, processess. To sum up the key is to build formal processes only to the extent projects and practices can handle, and then capture the gains and promote the success. Only then, we will find our project and product managers championing the successes of user-centered design.

Now reflect on what we want as individuals. What do our values, commitments, and career call us to do? Some of us are researchers, driven to understand human behavior and interaction. Others are entrepreneurial, finding better ways to do business focused on the user. It may be fair to say we want to have more influence or may be pitch usability or good design higher up the chain. But if we push too hard for a seat at the table, we may find ourselves in marketing’s fate. After all Usability is not operational excellence, nor growth starategy nor achieveing business goals. Therefore its important for all of us to understand that management wants an integrated approach to organizational problem solving, and not a “new fix” from an underappreciated discipline that may already be successful right in their midst.

saumitri said...


Nupur, it seems you are talking about establishing UX within the organization. Interesting topic - and I think i should write about that too sometime.

que sara sara said...

nice one especially about how to do it :)

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