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How to Embed Usability & UCD (User-centered Design) Internally

by Ismail Ismail

Published September 2007. Copyright © 2007 Ismail Ismail. All rights reserved. Published at with permission.

Trying to get the spirit of usability and user-centered design (UCD) established internally can be a difficult and isolating experience, even for the most determined user champion.

Analogy: trying to unlock a brick wall. Created for by SKDesigns. Copyright © 2007. All rights reserved. Introducing change of any kind in organisations is difficult at the best of times, doubly so when you have to break through the concrete walls of 'process' and 'methodology'. The emotional journey of trying to introduce usability is no different to that of a revolutionary, desperately trying to change the status quo through various guerrilla tactics.

This article offers practical advice of what a user champion can do to introduce and embed usability and user-centered design within a company.

Find Your Knight in Shining Armour knight in shining armor

Trying to get usability established in a hostile environment is very difficult and often very frustrating. The most effective way of gaining support for your cause is to get a senior executive sponsor on-board.

Pick your 'knight in shining armour' carefully and you could soon be responsible for introducing the term 'usability' into the everyday vocabulary of your colleagues.

An executive sponsor will further the cause by:

The support of a marketing or communications director or a chief technology officer (CTO) is worth its weight in gold. But, without a strong business case or the promise of increased conversions it may be difficult to win them over. The key is to build a strong intellectual argument or to piggyback on organisational priorities.

Demonstrate the Proof of the Pudding

Getting stakeholders to take the leap of faith into usability can be difficult without any existing data or evidence. Marketing departments will often commit significant budgets to market research and CRM analysis to measure the effectiveness of their campaign efforts. However, getting buy-in to perform a usability test of a product before launch can be stressful.

The following practical suggestions are likely to put the usability approach on the marketing radar and may result in the allocation of budget:

It can sometimes be difficult for a user champion to differentiate market research from usability but the risk of having no data is a greater risk to establishing usability internally. Market research and CRM professionals can be strong accomplices and may provide compelling user evidence when trying to get a senior executive sponsor on-board.

Focus on the High Priority Projects

Companies typically structure themselves around organisational functions but high priority projects tend to be cross-functional in nature. Establishing which projects are of paramount importance to the company is essential to getting usability established. The programme managers responsible for delivering these number #1 priorities are much more likely to be open to recommendations due to the severity of the risk of failure.

Build a list of high priority projects and work out a plan for pitching to the top 3 programme managers. Focus on convincing them of how the project delivery approach could be improved through usability and user research.

First Steps to Getting Usability Implemented

Getting your professional colleagues to take small, comfortable steps can mean major change in the long-term. It should come as no surprise that project or product managers often welcome the risk-reduction qualities of a user-centered design approach. They can be strong, secret allies for the cause and should be encouraged to think about their end-users.

Consider doing the following:

Such guerrilla tactics can be useful in raising awareness and may lead to establishing a limited budget for usability work in the short-term.

Sell, Sell, Sell

Trying to establish usability is an ongoing sales job. Raising awareness about the benefits of taking a user-centered design approach is the name of the game. There are a number of activities that can be used to build interest of usability in the company.

First off, identify stakeholders from across the company that are essential to your plan for embedding user-centered design. Then, build a highly targeted communications message for each individual stakeholder or group by:

More targeted communications can be achieved through workshops or seminars to discuss specific projects or products, always being careful to invite key stakeholders.

Integrate Usability into Product Development Processes

The long-term nirvana of establishing usability can mean big changes to product development processes.

The most effective method of getting user centered design in the process is through usability testing. Invite key stakeholders to watch the usability testing sessions. Usability testing is a real eye-opener and once observed most stakeholders find it difficult to ignore the user as part of the production process. (The most appropriate stakeholders are likely to be project managers, user interface designs, creative personnel, developers and business managers.)

Argue for periodic usability testing during the process to validate design decisions and test assumptions. This way, user requirements will be tactically brought into the process and will result in more relevant products for your audience.

If your company has complex production processes consider getting a specialist usability consultancy in to help build a customised user-centered design approach. Once the new process has been created, a usability consultancy can provide on-going support and can even advise on how to bring usability capabilities fully in-house, if that's desirable.

In a Nutshell

Establishing a user-centered design approach internally requires commitment and determination. But most importantly, it requires a user champion that's willing to build bridges across the company by changing attitudes, hearts and minds. Get your knight in shining armour on-board then hopefully its power to the people!

About the Author

This article was written by Ismail Ismail. Ismail's crazy about usability - so crazy that he works for Webcredible, an industry leading usability and accessibility consultancy, as their client services manager. He's very good at eye tracking and is passionate about user research.

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