Top 10 Barriers to User Experience Effectiveness in Large Organizations

Rami Tabbah - October 6th, 2011

Many organizations have user experience teams or hire consultants. However, user experience is not always a success and many organizations are unable to benefit from the full potential and power of usability and cognitive ergonomics.

I define usability as the tools, processes and methodologies that help engineer user interfaces and measure their success. Cognitive ergonomics is the underlying science behind usability. User experience is a mix of usability, art, branding and marketing that mainly focuses on emotions. If the usability and cognitive ergonomics elements are not dominant in user experience, the results can only be described as random.

When I started to work in the field 20 years ago, we were still in the industrial design and human factors era. Graphics User Interfaces were new and there were very few practical books about usability. Usability practitioners were either pure researchers like those at Xerox Parc or developers with user interface focus working within development teams.The focus was on research and application design.

I remember an interview I had 12 years ago at a software company in Ottawa. The interviewer had a PhD and told me how the company fired 3 very experienced PhDs before her because they could not demonstrate the value of usability. The failure was due to using expensive research without demonstrating ROI. They had not applied Nielsen's 1993 "Discount Usability Engineering" concepts. They required expensive usability labs and statistical numbers of users for their research.
The challenge at the time was to convince clients they needed usability then convince them there was value behind it.

Today, the landscape changed. The domination of the Web, the rise of many other interactive gadgets and the ease of designing using previously used patterns, skins, and more, made design seem simple. Many stakeholders feel they can have design opinions because it seems simple. Many designers switch to user experience from other fields and do have the required scientific background. Many agencies use user experience to sell development and other services and offer template-like reports and superficial research. In many cases they use superficial usability arguments to convince clients to cut functionality and reduce the scope of work. Nice looking interfaces are designed. However, they fail the effectiveness and efficiency tests and therefore are not technically usable. The challenge today is to sell "real" usability and demonstrate the difference between properly engineered user interfaces and opinion based user interfaces. As always, design can succeed without proper usability, but this is pure luck and huge risk.

Usability is now more mainstream and more acceptable. The challenges evolved as well. Very few usability practitioners know how to create value and design truly usable products, and very few organizations know how to manage a user experience group to get strategic and competitive advantage from their work.

I remember a 10 years old research by Gartner highlighting the relationship between usability competence and consciousness in E-business organizations. They concluded that, in order to get a strategic and competitive advantage out of usability, organizations needed to be usability conscious and competent. I found and still find that very true. More and more organizations are usability conscious but very few are competent. Over the years and through working with many organizations, I could identify a number of barriers that prevent organizations from becoming usability competent.

1- Distorted understanding of User Experience

User experience is a measurable end to end process. It affects every aspect of a product and has a role in every step of the product life cycle. The earlier it is considered the better the results. Yet, many stakeholders still need to be educated and evangelized. Here are few distortions:
  • User experience teams are usually called after requirements and use cases are written. Task analysis, a fundamental pillar of usability, can completely change use cases. In my experience, use cases get rewritten few times after UE specialists get involved. Considering personas and developing scenarios with use in mind can change requirements and even the shape of the solution.
  • Many stakeholders think that design is mainly about layout. Does that mean that, if requirements, processes and use cases lack usability, some makeup will be sufficient to give the user the illusion of a good product? We are not in the business of magic, we are in the business of engineering.
  • If there is no access to UE specialists, a business analyst designs wireframes. Even if the design seems simple and templates are offered, a business analyst did not study usability to know how to apply the proper design standards. He cannot measure how successful a design is.
  • User experience is confused with customer experience. The issue is that customer experience focus is mainly procedures and operations and this happens after the product development is over.
2- Who do User Experience specialists report to

In start-ups or in relatively smaller organizations, a UE specialist can report to the CEO or the product owner. In large organizations, because of their size, UE specialists, even if directors or VPs, have very little influence on how products are designed especially when it comes to strategy, design and development framework. This is mainly because a product is usually affected by decisions from different groups that do not report to the same person and that do not coordinate their priorities or time lines. This creates user experience gaps between products and lines of business.

User experience needs to report to the highest levels, be considered a business role, work on all products and projects and work on research projects that fill the gaps between projects and products. This is realizable in a well engineered matrix organization. This can significantly change how products are created and delivered.

3- Is there a User Experience strategy?

When reporting to the top of an organization, the head of a UE department will be in a position to create a user experience strategy with measurable targets. He can be a super product manager that has long term plans, tracks design changes, feature changes, customer support performance and everything that relates to products and users. He can use predictive models to predict changes in user behaviour or performance in case changes are introduced. For example, in a bank, a product manager can change the fee structure to increase revenue or to focus on a a specific group of customers. The head of UE, given his usability experience will know what impact this can really have on clients. He will know how to communicate the changes properly and through all the channels. He will know if clients will react badly and will have recommendations on how to manage the situation.

4- User Experience is usually applied at a project or product level
Users use multiple product and have no product in mind when they look for a service. They don't even have a channel in mind. They have flexible dynamic scenarios of use. They interact with organizations in different ways to achieve different goals.

The role of an organization is to be at the right place and the right time to answer questions and offer solutions. This requires a deep understanding of scenarios of use and more importantly, not to can scenarios in a single product or service. User experience has a very important role to play not only in product design, but cross product and cross channel "scenario discovery" and possibly cross channel and cross product "product design". User experience can fill the gaps no one sees and create opportunities no one thinks of.

5- User Experience is not used to mitigate risk

Before seeing visuals, stakeholders are hit with long requirements and use case documents. Their attitude is usually "everything looks OK on paper" but actually it is “this looks OK until I see it working”.

The beauty of user experience design and usability is that we can prototype a design,  measure its success and predict users reactions before there is a product. This should be an integral part of the business case. Before spending on development teams and involving a large number of stakeholders, user experience teams with the help of a limited number of business analysts and stakeholders can demonstrate whether the new product or idea will fly. Start-ups learned this lesson. If they do not discover the acceptability of an idea early enough, they burn their money and go belly up. Large organizations can survive failed projects, but can be much more efficient by investing in user experience at the business case level.

6- Legal recommendations are not questioned

Legal departments are too busy and many stakeholders try to integrate legal requirements to the letter and are reluctant to push for more details or explore alternatives. In fact, legal departments do not have the time to really understand the scenario and adapt their recommendations. Only when user experience teams develop wireframes, it is possible to see the legal requirements in context. In many cases, a good design can make them completely transparent to users. The alternative is usually a complicated process that deters users from using the product.

7- Design is a fiesta for some stakeholders

Design sessions are considered the fun part for many stakeholders and they want to participate, which is good. The issue is that because it seems simple to those who do not know what usability is about,they feel that they opinions have the power of their positions and can block or distort parts of the design canvas without seeing the impact on the bigger picture and the overall user experience. It is very important to know their input is important but the final decision on design is a user experience one. Features may come from business but how they are designed is not their forte.

8- Badly designed User Experience teams

User experience practitioners come from different backgrounds. Obviously, anyone you hire should have the proper education and experience. More importantly, the team profiles should be complementary and adapted to the task. Researchers and different from visual designers and are different from usability engineers.

9- One methodology for all

In many cases, user experience teams develop an in-house methodology and try to apply it to multiple projects. In my experience, this leads to failure. Each project is different and requires a different approach. The teams need to have at least one very experienced individual that can adapt the methodology to each project.

10- Documentation is your enemy

I will not talk about agile. Large organizations have templates and these templates are usually very badly adapted to how to capture user interface designs. There are often repetitions and cross references that make a developer open 7 documents at the same time to figure out how something is supposed to work. No wonder making a work bold in an existing application is a half a day job. Designing these templates is a user experience job that should follow a user and task centric methodology to optimize the use of these documents. They are after all user interfaces.

I am confident that overcoming these barriers can make organizations usability conscious and competent. Remember, because usability is not fully explored,it can have a greater ROI than almost any other strategy you adopt.