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by Whitney Quesenbery
With usability gaining greater visibility, this is a good time to implement a user-centered design process. This article looks at ways that the approach and techniques of such a process can be applied to the task of introducing a new process.
In the life of a character actor there are four stages in a rise from obscurity to the end of a career: "Who is that guy?" "Get me that guy," "Get me someone like that guy," and finally, either "Who is that guy?" or that guy becomes synonymous with the kinds of characters he played. Business ideas have a similar life-cycle, starting with a small group of evangelists, moving into the mainstream and finally either achieving true acceptance or fading once again into obscurity.
Usability is emerging from the first stage to the second. A few years ago, most people in product development had never heard of usability. They were focused on creating application development processes, understanding and serving the customer, quality, time-to-market and a host of other business imperatives. But in the last year or so, the word "usability" has begun sneaking into the business press. Executives have started to talk about usability as a critical success factor.
For those who are interested in usability whether long-time advocates or newly introduced this is a good time to introduce a user-centered design process. But introducing a new process, even on a small scale, can be a challenge. The goal of user-centered design focuses on the actual users of the product, but the users of a process are the members of the product development group itself. It is too easy to see them as the enemy the people who have failed to serve the needs of users. The problem is that such a combative attitude rarely succeeds in the long run. A more positive approach is to treat the implementation of a user-centered design process as a user-centered design problem, applying its approach and techniques.
A USER-CENTERED DESIGN PROCESS
A typical user-centered design process has three major phases of the work analysis, design and evaluation - with iterations that cycle between each phase. Cognetics Corporation defined a framework for user-centered design called LUCID, for Logical User-Centered Interaction Design. This framework allows specific methodologies to be formulated to meet different product development or organizational needs.
The six stages in LUCID are:
Each of these stages, fits together into a project plan that covers the complete life-cycle of a project. The stages may iterate, but both within an iteration and for the overall project, the deliverables from one stage are the input for the next. In addition, assumptions about users and usability requirements are continually tested during the entire life-cycle.
The work of envisioning the product to be created may be the single most important activity for the success of the product. It is often overlooked, or done incompletely, leaving gaps in the understanding of the scope, concept and function.
Ideally, this work is done with all of the stakeholders, including marketing, product development, design, support, training and product management. As each team begins to work, it is critical that there be a clearly enunciated, shared vision.
The envision activities end with the creation and approval of a Vision Statement which defines the product concept, target users, usability goals and early requirements as well as any technical or market constraints and key functionality.
Analysis activities include all user and task analysis as well as coordination with business requirements analysis.
In some projects, the analysis activities are completed before any design is begun. However, in projects using a phased or iterative application development methodology, the analysis, design and evaluate activities are repeated for each phase. Typically, the first round of analysis covers high-level issues such as building an interaction model that matches the users mental model, while later rounds focus on detailed task analysis for specific functions.
The design phase is one of the most iterative. It begins with a simple key screen prototype and continues until all critical design decisions are made.
Typically, this progression of prototypes builds from a main menu or home page and sample work pages to include the design outline or style guide for all screens to support the product functionality.
User feedback is collected through rapid, informal usability techniques on each iteration of the design. This ensures that the design matches users mental models and meets usability goals before complete detailed design is begun.
Evaluate and Refine
At key milestones, user evaluation is critical to ensure that the product will meet user needs. These evaluations give the design team an opportunity to test their assumptions and the emerging design.
It can be difficult to create a project plan that includes a final revision phase at the end of each activity, but leaving time for refining the design based on the results of evaluations is critical.
The implementation activities include the creation of detailed designs and accompanying specifications for the developers as well as monitoring the development process to solve any problems which are found.
The degree of formality during these activities depends on the structure of the team and, in part, the scope of the project. Without clear communications during implementation, the process can become chaotic, wasting time and energy.
During the design process, users have supported the activities with their participation and input. Successful rollout of the product requires attention to how users will be supported. Planning the release, installation, awareness or training programs and initial support should be part of the project from the beginning.
In some cases, the designers may work with the technical support group to anticipate problems, or to plan ways of collecting usability information during support calls. Other ways of collecting information about the success of the rollout include user satisfaction surveys some time after release, follow-up site visits and focus groups.
All of these activities help the designers learn what techniques worked well, and which should be changed or improved in a future project.
IMPLEMENTING USABILITY IN YOUR PROCESS
New usability practitioners are often surprised to find that the rest of their development team does not share their enthusiasm. They can be met with outright rejection or more subtle resistance. One solution is to apply user-centered design to the process of introducing usability.
Looking at the entire product development and support group as the "users" of a new process provides some useful guidelines and insight. The LUCID framework can be applied to designing a process as well as designing a user interface.
Envision the End Result
Rather than simply diving into usability activities that sound interesting, take the time to create a shared vision of the result of implementing a new process. This includes a lot of "homework" but is an opportunity to explore the development process in some detail.
In other cases, learning what problems need solutions might change ideas about the first activities to be introduced. In either case, the goals for the user-centered design process become part of the general goals of the company or product group.
Analyze Your Environment
Any user-centered design process requires user analysis and the process of implementing a process is no exception. Whether the change will be a momentous one, or a small refinement of a mature process, it will force people to change how they work. It is important to know who will be affected, and what their goals and requirements are.
Design (and Prototype) the Process
Rarely can a process or methodology be imported wholesale into a new environment. Take the time to design it to take advantage of the user analysis, making the connections explicit. Making decisions traceable to identified user requirements is just as powerful in a process design as in an interface design.
Evaluate and Refine the Process
Few things are done perfectly on the first try. Plan for feedback and refinement as part of the normal course of action. That way, any problems or setbacks are not disasters that can derail the process, but part of an expected period of adjustment. Although much of the focus may be on the success of the activities themselves, use this evaluation period to make sure the process is working as you envisioned.
Is new information about users having an impact on design?
Build on Successes
Moving from a pilot to full implementation can be difficult. The emphasis of the process shifts from the isolated tactical projects which needs only one sponsor to winning company-wide sponsorships. One of the biggest mistakes is to assume that one successful pilot can be automatically turned into a new approach. Even if the success of the initial project is obvious and universally acknowledged, it takes work to build it into a standard procedure.
Support Usability During the Rollout
Designers and technical communicators can be too modest. Accustomed to working quietly on their projects, they fail to share their successes. Be sure to:
Each company, each product development environment, each collaboration is subtly different from all the others, so each methodology also has its unique characteristics. LUCID is a framework rather than a methodology in acknowledgement of this fact. The framework provides an approach, milestones, goals and some activities, but the work of creating a methodology for each company must be a user-centered one, taking into account the specifics of each circumstance.
Choose the Right Problems To Work On
In choosing the first usability problems to work on, look in two areas: business impact and customer satisfaction. Business impact issues are those that cost the company time or money. They include technical support problems, inefficient functions, delayed time to market. Satisfaction issues to consider are things that users dislike enough to cause them to abandon the product, not recommend it, or return it.
Look for problems with:
This paper was published in the Proceedings of the 48th Annual Conference, Society for Technical Communication, 2001 as "Applying a UCD Process to Implementing a UCD Process"
The URL for this article is: http://www.wqusability.com/articles/ucd-on-ucd.htmlWhitney Quesenbery works on user experience and usability with a passion for clear communication. She is the co-author of Storytelling for User Experience from Rosenfeld Media. Before she was seduced by a little beige computer, Whitney was a theatrical lighting designer. The lessons from the theatre stay with her in creating user experiences. She can be reached at www.WQusability.com