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Usability - Recipe for fortune or flop?

The value of usability is underestimated!

By Alexander Piatidis and Richard Whitehand, December 2002

Hi-tech companies rarely keep quiet about how their new technological solutions will allow us to do new and wonderful things. Unfortunately whilst lots of resources are put into developing these new technologies, all too often development teams are not given the resources to understand how users will interact with and use these new solutions. (Infact its not uncommon to find technological solutions that end-users don’t particularly want in the first place!).

Still, as development projects progress then the focus often tends to me more and more on ‘getting the technology to work’. The success of a project in the eyes of project managers would seem to be ‘technology that works’, rather than ‘technology that works for users’. Where budgets are tight (and they usually are) then given the choice between (a) a fully functional product that very few people can effectively use, and (b) a partly functioning product which most people can effectively use, then its rare to find a project where the later is chosen. This is despite the fact that the majority of functionality in most IT products is never actually needed by the vast majority of users.

Reliance on telephone support helpdesks, manuals, and users that eventually figure out what to do if they persist long enough, would appear to be the answer. Conveniently, these are also often resources which the original development project doesn’t have to budget for. Working with usability issues during development is therefore still felt by many as being unimportant, demanding too many resources and risking project schedules.

Fortunately times are changing, and as slowly more and more organisations begin to work with usability and user-centred design approaches, evidence of the benefits of dealing with these issues is accumulating...

Recent press articles (Computer Sweden, 2002, nr 127) about work at Boeing, one of the worlds biggest aeroplane manufacturers, indicated that they saw potential savings equivalent to about 45 million U.S. dollars (approx. 400 million Swedish kronor) through using a new standardised approach to reporting usability tests. Boeing’s standpoint is that usability ought to be an equally important criteria as functionality, price and system requirements. Boeing see usability as an important cost-of-ownership factor, and one which influences the cost of post-release modifications.

In November this year the Nielsen Norman Group released a report on the findings of usability tests of the intranets of 14 large organisations. They concluded that huge savings could be made in the time spent by employees using the Intranet to support their work. Indeed, the report indicated that its quite possible to save 20 times the money invested in usability as a resulted of improved employee productivity.

Novo Nordisk, a Scandinavian pharmaceutical company, has recently worked with the usability of several of their web sites, including a Swedish information site for diabetes patients (www.alltomdiabetes.se). After carrying out changes based on usability testing they found that the number of site visitors quickly rose to double the original number. Sara Jensen, infomaster for the site said "We were surprised by the effects that the usability improvements made". She, like others who have observed tests with real end-users, saw the value of a structured method for testing site usability.

Föreningssparbanken is another example of an organisation that has seen the value of working with usability. As a result of one piece of usability work with the navigation to their Internetbank they doubled the number of online customer orders for new products/services. Users were simply able to find the order functions more easily. Imagine the benefits of usability work with other types of e-commerce service such as online shopping!

There are many convincing examples of the value of working with usability - in terms of increased end-user productivity and satisfaction, greater profitability, improved competitiveness time, reduced support costs, and so on. More individual projects are working with these issues, but there are still too few cases where usability issues are dealt with in a stuctured and systematic manner throughout organisations.

Swedish companies are still some of the best in the world in attending to employee work environment issues, and involving employees in decision-making processes. Unfortunately when it comes to the software those employees may be using, or the products they are developing, there is a long way to go before end-users are involved in ensuring good usability.

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