Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Presentation: Selling Usability

At ASI, I was able to move into the first user-advocate position ever for the company. Some of that focus comes naturally from being a communicator and documenting the product. In addition, I read extensively and did research in the software usability field. Management was very supportive and sent me to excellent training opportunities.

I was asked to present my experiences to the Management Track of the Society for Technical Communications (STC) Region 5 Conference in October, 2003. The following is the accompanying paper for the conference Proceedings document.

Selling Usability: Technical Communicators as User Advocates
Beth Schrader, STC Austin

Now, more than ever, we must prove how technical communications departments contribute to the company’s bottom line. By aligning your department with your organization’s goals and business strategies, you can position your group as a vital part of the success of the company.

One way to achieve this is to move your department into the realm of usability expertise. There is a synergy between the type of user advocacy that technical communicators perform as a part of their documentation duties and the user advocacy needed in designing usable products.

We will review a number of departmental strategies for moving your department into the usability sphere. These are suggested strategies and must be tailored to your organization and your department. You, as a manager, will be dealing with change management inside your department and in your group’s relationships with other departments. A long-term strategy will be the most successful, but you will also have short-term successes to publicize.

Departmental Strategies
Some factors that determine which strategies will work for your department include:
· Company politics
· Organizational structure
· Department reputation
· Department skills
· Personalities
You must take these factors into account when planning your strategy. If your company already has human factors specialists, you will need to plan how to support that group and not infringe on their turf. Usually, there is much more usability work to be done than staff to do it, and they will likely welcome “assistants” in their work.

You will be managing vast changes in the way your department operates and its interaction with many other departments. You must schedule time in your schedule and in your group’s schedule to tackle these tasks. In addition, you can start discussing these concepts with your group and identify the member(s) in the group who “get it” and are interested in broadening their expertise.

One way to implement this change is to apply usability standards to your own documentation products, publicize these successes, and then slowly move to influencing product design. The following steps could be undertaken one at a time or in parallel phases, depending on the available resources:
1. Clean up your own house
2. Publicize your successes
3. Evangelize
4. Present the business case
5. Start slow with product involvement
6. Document your successes
7. Ramp up your involvement
8. Persevere

Clean up your own house
The first step is something you, as the manager, can control and prioritize without worrying about company politics or turf battles: produce usable documentation. This sounds obvious, but how often do we go through the steps usability professionals use?
· Conduct user surveys and interviews
· Perform user and task analysis
· Document the goals for the project
· Define measurable heuristics
· Design each (documentation) product to meet the needs of defined users
· Perform consistency checks
· Carry out user testing
· Quantify results
· Write the report
By completing these steps, your group will learn a lot about the basics of usability and will be able to customize checklists and guidelines for future use.

In parallel, schedule time for your group to learn about usability. Designating a half-day each week for “special projects” helps ensure that it gets done and is often a morale booster.

Publicize your successes
Next, publicize the results of your usability project: increased customer satisfaction, reduced support calls. Get quotes from your support specialists or trainers (or even better, customers!). Distribute this information as far and wide as possible. Offer to hold a “brown bag” session to discuss what the group has learned and what was accomplished.

After your documentation usability project, or in parallel with it, start evangelizing about usability within your organization. Some suggestions that should be tailored for your situation include:
· Rename your group. (Information Development, User Information Group)
· Add a tagline to the signatures of the appropriate people in your group. (User Advocate, Improving the user experience)
· Hang posters about usability in your group’s hall, above the printer, and in the lunch room.
· Find one or more champions: Sales, Product Management, or Quality Assurance. Publicize your department’s knowledge and interest in producing usable products to these champions.
· Share the knowledge. When you read an interesting research report about an issue that is applicable to your company’s products, email it to your champions and to members of the project team. Hold meetings to demonstrate examples of third-party products which are very usable or extremely un-usable.
· Send updates on accessibility standards and government requirements to the people who are planning future releases and to those who are preparing quotations or bids.

Present the business case
Learn the buzzwords and goals of your corporate leaders. Then, map your department’s goals and accomplishments onto that structure. Use documented cost savings associated with usability improvements to make your case. (See the list of resources at the end of this article.)

Some savings to consider:
· Decreased customer support costs
· Decreased training
· Decreased development costs: A change during the design phase that costs $1 costs $10 to change during the development phase and $100 to change after the release.
· Decreased software maintenance costs: Catching inconsistencies before release reduces maintenance.
· Decreased documentation and training: If a product works as the user expects and has meaningful labels and onscreen text, less documentation and training are required.

However, don’t buy into the myth that if a product is usable, NO documentation or training will be needed. This depends on the complexity of the tasks users will be completing.

In addition, emphasize:
· A usable product gives a good impression in demos.
· A usable product results in increased customer satisfaction, and customers giving praise about your product to other potential customers.
· If the product is a website, a usable product means increased customer retention and increased sales.

Start slow with product involvement
Which product-oriented usability projects you take on depends on the current level of awareness and existing processes in your company. Some suggestions to help your group become more involved in usable design for your company’s products include:
· Offer to edit error messages, onscreen labels, and mouseover text. Any improvements you make in these items greatly improve the customer experience.
· Write a message guidelines document and distribute it to developers to help them be more efficient. Both generic and specific examples are useful.
· Offer to do a consistency check of the interface. This may involve actual testing with the Quality team, or making a checklist for others to use to check for consistency.
· Gather usability issue information from technical support and sales personnel. Document the findings as user input, not interface design failures.
· Define and document the users for the products: Conduct customer interviews, define personas, construct a user matrix, write use cases. Send the report to product management and to the development project manager.
· Perform a task analysis for each product. Distribute your findings.
· Attend specification and design review meetings. Offer input on usability, not as criticism, instead focusing on business goals. Keep in mind schedule and budget constraints.
· Offer to document interface and usability decisions and post to the intranet so development and QA can access the up-to-date information.
Pick your battles. Your goal in this phase is to be seen as a responsible team player. If other departments make a mistake with a usability issue, it will become apparent later in the project and you will gain more converts.

Document your successes
After your department has started to be involved in product usability, make sure you document your successes. It is politically advantageous to describe the featured usability improvements as an accomplishment of the entire project team. Some of the successes to document include:
· Decreased hours for documentation (clearer interface, fewer changes at the end of the release cycle or after release)
· Reduction in technical support calls and time answering interface questions
· Any and all improvements that can be tied to your company’s business goals

Ramp up your involvement
After these successes, you will probably have support for your department to take on any aspects of usability that do not have any/enough resources to cover them. Work with your project management teams to define higher-level usability responsibilities for your group.

Depending on the size and commitment of your company, your group could offer to:
· Write and maintain the UI/Usability Guidelines for the products
· Develop checklists on various aspects of usability for developers or testers
· Mock up screens for a new product
· Document workflows
· Perform competitive usability analysis
· Edit error messages and onscreen text directly in the code files
· Write onscreen directions or wizards for complex tasks
· Design an embedded assistance/performance support system for the product
· Perform or help with user testing, write the report
· Be the point person for usability issue tracking. Set up the defect tracking system to allow several types of UI issues to be entered and be responsible for adding your input and forwarding the issues to the appropriate person.

Perseverance counts when it comes to changing a company’s mindset. Your team might get discouraged when they are overruled or their suggestions are ignored. This is your opportunity to stress the long-term plan and to suggest communications strategies that your team will need as they become instrumental to the success of your company’s products.
Have fun!
Beth Schrader has been a technical communicator for 15 years in a variety of hardware and software companies. She moved into the position of usability and accessibility advocate at Advanced Solutions International, Inc. over the last two years. Beth lives in Austin, Texas and has held several positions in the Austin STC chapter.

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