App Developers Need to Pay Attention to Usability

The CIO of the future will need to develop a robust, professional organization devoted to the user experience, according to an expert on usability.

Eric Schaffer is one of the foremost authorities on usability, a hot topic as companies scramble to produce mobile apps and online interfaces. But Schaffer, founder and CEO of Human Factors International, a usability consulting and training company, says many organizations fail to consistently create a good user experience (UX) because they haven't established a complete, professional UX practice. That's the subject of his latest book, Institutionalization of UX: A Step-by-Step Guide to a User Experience Practice, which comes out this fall.

Are executives implementing strong UX practices?

Some organizations are quite far along, some are lost in the weeds. Ninety percent of the companies we work with have internal UX people and organizations. But how mature they are, how properly integrated they are, that's another question.

Executives will say that basic usability is table stakes, but few are good at [advanced practices such as] UX strategy, UX-based innovation, design for complex ecosystems, persuasion engineering and cross-cultural design.

You've talked about creating a usability factory. What does that look like?

I get in trouble for using the word "factory." Factory sounds too low-end, too mindless; UX is anything but mindless. I use "practice" more. This is where the problem comes in. An executive says we need to get at this, and they have no idea how to set up a practice.

A serious practice is set up with a whole infrastructure, and that includes having methods, user interface standards, training and certification, and knowledge management. You also have to have the right culture, organizational structure and staffing. All of this needs to be in place. You have organizations missing just one or two of those things and then they say, "This isn't working well," and they just get rid of it.

Who should own UX in an organization?

You need someone who is an executive champion who is high enough to have cross-channel, cross-organizational power and budget.

Ideally there's a chief customer officer or chief user experience officer. That's the ideal place, and there's growth in the number [of companies] who have that. If that's not there, then it's complicated where UX sits. In our maturity model, you can't go beyond level-one maturity without an executive champion and a written strategy for maturing the practice. If that's not there, you're just doing piecemeal stuff.

What about the CIO?

Probably 70 percent of the time UX is under the CIO--and that's often a problem. A lot of CIOs don't understand UX and don't care about it. The CIO of the future might get really good at it, but today a lot of CIOs are worried about getting [the app] done on time, making sure it doesn't crash, and not about its appropriateness for the market and ease of use or whether it's compelling.

Those are metrics that most CIOs aren't comfortable with. Whether the CIO will understand more how to do UX, or whether it's moved out to marketing or product-management channels, remains to be seen.

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