I try to work on maximizing my impact within my own sphere of influence. How big that sphere is, and how much I can do within it, is just about up to me (most of the time). Therefore, in UCD projects, where my team is asked to contribute usability methods to measure user requirements and risks to the user experience, I try to position us at the point of greatest possible impact on the outcome. So far, our strategy has been to try and be there right at the point of idea conception – before money has been spent, before a real solution has been chosen, often before the rest of the team members have been assigned. It’s there, I think, that we can have the most effect on the eventual usability of a system or solution.
However, over the years, we have consistently been trumped by the holiest of all project metrics: cost. Time and again, even when we can clearly identify the most usable solution at the outset, clients go with the cheapest option, regardless of any usability impact. I definitely don’t think that’s wrong – businesses have to make money. There is no valid argument against that fact. The problem, I believe, is that usability, and the metrics which define it, have not yet matured to the point where an accurate cost value can be associated with any set of solutions.
True, we can measure productivity, both in time saved by users of a system, steps removed from a manual or inefficient process, or resources saved. But those numbers don’t cleanly tie to a legitimate opportunity cost of going with an un/usable system.
The whole point of the above is that we should set a bar for usability. A goal that, when achieved, will place usability at the same level as cost, in deciding the solution to a problem.
Within Artificial Intelligence circles, the Turing Test is the bar that, when surpassed, will have proven that a machine is conscious or at least indistinguishable from a human being. Why can’t we set one for usability, in making business decisions?
How about: “The needs of people who use technology systems will have equal weight in business decisions that affect technology, when their needs are sufficiently quantified to evaluate against and offset pure cost factors.” Or maybe more simply, “When all technical solution costs consider the increased expense from poor usability, then users will have equal weight in technology decisions.”
It’s kind of a half-formulated idea, but I hate to see people make decisions without knowing all the information. I don’t think people get the information they need because usability hasn’t yet made it blisteringly easy to understand it.