Developing a user experience / usability practice

February 20, 2011 | choose the value, Introduction of Usability

I saw a post the other day on Linkedin  that asked the forum about developing an in-house Usabilty Lab / Department and it reminded me of an earlier part of my career when this as the topic of choice amongst aspiring and practicing Usability and Human Factors professionals.

It was so topical that we got together with Lesley Trenner and Joanna Bawa  in 1996/7 and a large number of practitioners, myself included (Alan Arnfeld) contributed our experiences and practical advice to a book published in 1998 by Springer called The Politics of Usability.  During preparation I was working with Janet Saunders running a group at Thames Water focussing on Usability and Product so we were glad to contribute a Chapter focusing on how to make usability part of the culture.

I decided to reflect on those themes and the guidelines provided then are still as relevant today as they were 15 years ago.  So then I was thinking what could I add to the discussion.  Since working at Thames water I have moved through a series of other organisations and at each one I have introduced Usability and user centred design best practices – but each time a little differently.

This post is a personal reflection on some of the key activities that took place in those organisations and is my personal opinion of the situation at the time, it of course is not an official communication of those companies.

At Sema Group plc, at the time of working there it was a 20,000 european consultance firm with consultants all over the place.  It has seen moved through several aquisitions and a large part of it is now within the ATOS Origin group.  I was a consultant, one of 20,000!  How could I influence best practice?  At Sema I worked with another senior manager and we set up a working group across the company of professionals interested in Uasability and Product Design.  e produced guidelines and best practice documents that became available to all 20,000 consultants.  Was that a great success?  Well – to be honest I would say no.  It was run very much as a part time activity, even for me between assignments and it was not the focus of activity for any of the participants.  We did not achieve a senior champion and we did not achieve a milestone case study project that we could hang the business benefits from.  In short we did not follow the advice from the book!

At Yahoo! Europe – the experience was completely different.  I joined Yahoo! in 2000 in the European Headquarters.  At that time it was relatively small and did not have the resources available in the mother ship in the US.  In the US HQ Usability design and user centred best practices were well established with a substantial Design group including Usability Professionals , Labs and all the equipment you could imagine.  In Europe, although we had this best practice model to follow, we were really working as  a start-up in other respects and so Usability practice had to be sold to management and shown to be the right investment choice.

We started with some relatively simple studies by Survey across the consumer network in 8 European countries and this worked well to show that with a small amount of effort we could gain substantial insight into user behaviour for our flagship product – Yahoo! Search.  In Europe there are some international and behavioural differences as well as different competitors and markets.  European insight into search was well received.

At Yahoo! Europe this was followed up where I invited a sample of our customers to come the London office and carry out some standard Usability exercises.  Without a lab and other high equipment we made a makeshift set up by converting an office and borrowing some recording equipment and cameras.  This worked and Usability testing as part of product design and development gradually became standard practice.

We still had to keep costs desperately cheap but with high deliverables.  One of the solutions I introduced was to cut out the time consuming and expensive recruitment process by going out into the field and carrying out large numbers of test in one day.  I arranged a partnership with an internet cafe chain – called Easy Internet Cafe.  This used to be part of the Easy Group but has since been devolved to its franshisees.

We had an arrangement that for  a small fee 2 Yahoo!s could take a station in one of their London Cafe’s, we had a poster to explain Yahoo! were carrying out user tests and we wore T shirts to explain and authenticate who we were.  We simply recruited visitors to the cafe as they left and had finsished their visit and asked them to stay for 10-15 minutes longer for which we wouold pay them £10.  It worked extremely well.  One of the projects this was especially good for was a development of the Yahoo! mobile service to download Logos and Ringtones.  We were trying to find a way to enable Yahoo! to take a fee from the mobile phone of £4.50 and at that time it was only possible to take a £1.50 at a time.  Every week we would return to the internet cafe with an alternate design and try it with members of the public until we got it right.

Across Europe we were also able to carry out cut price contextual studies visiting peoples homes in Germany and carrying out trials in Spain, Germany and UK.  We used interpreters and a portable suitacase containing cameras and recording equipment.

When back at the office we always completed the cycle of test planning, stakeholder review before a test, carry out test, write up and share results with the stakeholders with both a quick wins report within 2 days and then a fuller report and highlights videos a little later.

I later joined Cheapflights – a price comparison site for flights.  This as a much smaller organisation of 50 people.  As site director I was responsible for conversions and so it was key that we understood and improved the user experience.  Again taking a cut price approach, we converted one of the 3 meeting rooms into a private meeting room and invited members of the public to try out our website so we could see in more detail what was happening.  In this case the meeting rooms all had glass walls so we covered the walls with brown paper.  As is often advised for getting buy in, we got the COO and CEO to sit at the back of the room and observe.  The actual user behaviour was a real eye opener for them and this , as had become a pattern now, enabled the development of an in house team and investment in carrying out research also in the US office based in Boston. 

At Achilles Group, a B2B organisation, I was faced with a new challenge.  Achilles focusses on B2B services throughout the world.  We have introduced Usability but as with a name that is perhaps more acceptable to the environment we find ourselves.  Usability is everyone’s responsibility.  At Achilles I am responsible for a Product Team or Product Managers and we have allocated one of those people to be concerned with Business Validation.  This is to ensure that our Business Units and customers accept and contribute to the product development process and through a process of evaluations we collect business input along with product and usability enhancements.  We operate Business Validation in a similar way to a Usability test, following the preparation process, test plan, stakeholder review before and after the test along with production of quick reports and follo up documents.  Where we have extended the usability model is to take the findings from a study and then review every single one of them with the product and IT teams and find a home for each item.  A home may be to extend the defect list, to add an item to the product roadmap/ backlog or to carry out further research. 

The studies are carried out as trials and generally involved 10-30 people in 5-10 countries around the world.  Participants are given different roles to conduct wach with a bespoke pack.  We have become quite adept at making these packs a little more automated and this has become part of standard practice, for every release of the product platform we will run 2-4 business validation rounds on average.

Very recently we have also introduced remote testing of non Achilles staff using a remote testing tool provided by a , there are a number of providers in this space but we have found again a new way to promote and ember usability best practice into the organisation.  By using this remote testing service we are able to carry out micro studies for around £100.  These micro studies are proving enormously useful and again allow us to have a usability department – but we do not call it that.

One of the key  learnings from my journey through these companies is that it is better to focus on the business need and readiness of the organisation to accept the new processes rather than focus on naming a specific department.  Allow the department or sub department to grow organically as a result of introducing key usability interventions.  the days of presenting a huge business case for a large team and laboratories are over, and now we can lead other team members – interested in the field to take on Usability activities and make it truly part of the culture.

I am very interested in comments you may have.


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