Call it creating an effective User Experience (UX). Call it designing the ultimate User Interface (UI). Call it constructing the best Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) ever known. Call it whatever you want. In short, User Centered Design (UCD) is all about creating an effective platform between a system and user.
Let’s start at the beginning… the founder of The Cognitive Science Society, Donald Norman, defines effective UCD as the characteristic of a system (e.g., Amazon.com, a soda machine, or your 2005 Honda Civic) to ensure that users can determine both what to do and what is actually happening. The syntheses of these two characteristics allows the end user to create a ‘conceptual model’ of whatever they are working with. In terms of software development, this means developing applications and sites that your users can easily grasp. Clearly, this comes at a cost.
Leading usability consultant, Jakob Nielsen, says that integrating usability can lead to an ‘Intimidation Barrier’. More importantly, it’s this same barrier that can stand between your organization and cultivating a truly user-centric culture. Some of the issues leading to this barrier include upfront cost, time, and the concept of charting into unknown organizational territory. Sounds scary, right?
Assuming you can get past these intimidating factors, there are definite benefits. For example, fostering a focus on your users can lead to products that are not only more efficient, but also create higher levels of satisfaction. Similarly, this can lead to an increased return on investment for clients who are looking for the best possible products. By focusing on usability in the early stages of development, a team can establish design principles to cut unnecessary features and redundant development time throughout the project. Sounds great, but what does this look like?
According to Jakob Nielsen, the process of integrating usability has a distinct series of stages. Nielsen argues that while some organizations may start out with little-to-no focus on usability, they may gradually add usability until it eventually permeates the development of all products. In this case, it’s probably not hard to argue that usability can elevate from merely “something we do” to “something we are”.
However you define it, the drive for usability is clearly an important issue. While the formal study of usability science has been defined for years, only recently has a buzz around user experiences been felt (just search “UX” in trending topics on Twitter). So while some of us may claim to have had a ‘focus on usability’ when it was on vinyl, it’s time that we all acknowledge what the practice truly means, and start focusing on what is important: our users.