How Usability-Focused Companies Think

by Tara Scanlon

I recently came across an intriguing article called “How Thin People Think.” By revealing the thought processes of people who’d successfully lost weight, the article tries to help others change their behavior. It occurred to me that there are parallels in our own field.

In our consulting work, we’ve noticed that some companies build usable products through the heroic efforts of one or two individuals. Although the end result is desirable, the products suffer when those individuals leave the company.

Other clients have established strict processes that are supposed to promote usability. However, because the company has imposed these processes on developers, individuals follow them in letter but not in spirit—they just don’t buy into them.

But the companies that are most successful at designing usable products are those in which everyone actually thinks differently. Their assumptions, their goals, and the way they deal with problems have a different emphasis than those at less-successful companies. This set of beliefs manifests itself in the way they run their business.

Here’s our take at how usability-focused companies think.

They Really Put Users First

Successful companies actually do put—and keep—the user first. They relegate technology, implementation, office politics, and everything else to a lower priority.

Yes, this seems obvious: most companies claim their users come first. But we’ve worked on many projects where the development team literally spent weeks hashing out features and specifications without once mentioning the user.

They Keep the Users Visible

By contrast, one team we worked with kept a photo of one of their customers posted prominently in each office. “When I’m working late at night and I need to make a design change, I literally look my customer in the eye and figure out whether the change would benefit her, or whether it’s just making life easier for me,” one of the developers told us.

Another client has a conference room dedicated to each project. The walls of these rooms are lined with reminders of who uses the product: pictures of customers at work, findings from site visits, quotes from customers, flow charts showing how users complete their work, and so on. Whenever the team has a meeting, it’s hard not to focus on users.

They Learn All They Can

Successful teams understand that knowledge is power, so they focus on gathering information about their users from as many sources as possible.

Everyone Follows a User Home

One of our clients, known for its popular, easy-to-use financial applications, requires all new hires to go on a site visit within the first two weeks on the job. And the company means all employees, not just the programmers. Everyone has to do this, from the new sales VP to a second-shift security guard. This keeps the company grounded in reality.

They Share Information

At another of our clients, one of the most popular internal e-mail discussion lists lets employees share all the tidbits they learn about users. (It has even more subscribers than the joke list). This list is amazingly effective. Within hours, for example, all the employees knew exactly what percentage of their customer referrals come from accountants, or the fact that some users actually do their finances on a computer on the dining room table.

They Ask the Customers

Another company continuously collects information by leveraging the calls tech support receives. On Mondays, development team members decide on something they wish they knew about their users and come up with a Question of the Week. Maybe they want to know which web browser their users prefer. Or maybe they want to know if users have ever run the product’s tutorial.

At the end of every tech support call, the support rep asks the question and records the answer. Every Friday a member of the development team collects this information, summarizes it, and forwards it to everyone involved with the product.

Most users are more than happy to answer the questions. In fact, they think it’s cool they’re being asked. And the company inexpensively and painlessly gathers hundreds of pieces of information about real users every week.

Faster is Better

Successful companies don’t spend time refining ideas until they’ve proven that they work. Instead, they focus on shortening the development cycle by doing frequent, fast iterations.

They Test Often

One of our clients brings in users for testing every other Wednesday, just like clockwork. On Monday or Tuesday of testing week, the team decides what the biggest issues are, and then constructs usability tests around them.

This strategy lets the development teams get feedback quickly and with minimal effort. This helps them avoid endless design arguments—they defer discussions until they’ve got data from the usability tests and then their decisions are quickly resolved.

They Skip the Reports

Many companies have better things to do with their time than write and circulate reports about what the testing showed. Instead, the observers meet after each test to brainstorm the problems they saw—but not the solutions. Before the next test, the team tries to modify the product or prototype to correct these problems. This way, they’re busy creating new iterations, not reading about old ones that didn’t work.

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