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Changing Times - Diversity comes to the usability market

User Lab (Social Media Portal) - 07 November 2005

Changing Times - Diversity comes to the usability market

The usability market is starting to diversify, writes John Knight, director, User-Lab

We recently saw the announcement of another usability company, Flow Interactive, diversifying its service range.  There seems to be change in the air in the usability community.  The current demand for usability services is high and with the recent growth it has experienced the profession has become more sophisticated and diverse.  Indeed, Usability News reported that "The UK market, worth 90m in 2004 and will grow by a further 25% in 2005, to between 108m to 117m, driven by increased awareness of the benefits of improved website usability and accessibility".  As well as being a more sophisticated profession, clients are better educated in accessibility and usability and demand higher quality services and added value.  This is a positive change from the struggles of advocating user-centred design (UCD) in an economic downturn.Photograph of John Knight, director, User-Lab

Rather than the dogmatic gurus of the past the profession is now made up of a diverse mix of sophisticated and media savvy experts.  It is easy to be complacent about the future in this climate and to forget the lessons of the dotcom crash of a few years ago.  At that time, usability professionals struggled in a market dominated by cost-cutting and they had a limited business offering that focused on optimisation.  Critics pointed to the commonsensical nature of usability research and its antipathy to design.  They pointed to a profession that was dominated by a few vocal usability 'gurus' who echoed companies' fears of risk and spending on research and development.  Given the excesses of the boom, this made sense in the short term.  As a long term strategy for sustainability, optimisation has a limited shelf life: once a product or service is optimised the work is finished.

Risk Management
The traditional business model for UCD has been to minimise risk.  User research, prototyping and testing are useful in managing cost (focusing development resources), assuring user acceptance (building to business and consumer needs) and managing risk (testing and prototyping).  While useful, the focus is purely on usability.  While this is important it underplays the often conflicting quality criteria (e.g. branding and accessibility) that companies need to balance in order be profitable.

Quality Assurance
One way of avoiding the trap is to provide ongoing process and quality assurance.  Some providers have started to move away from one off evaluations.  On-going service agreements that combine a number of quality factors (e.g. accessibility and web statistics) benefit from the multidisciplinary and independent nature of much UCD research.  The existence of legislation, process and quality standards provides a business case for this approach that adds to the case for return on investment.  Testing has started to be augmented by other methods and tools including analytics to widen services beyond usability.  An example of this is the merger of The Usability Company's with web analytics firm WebAbacus, creating Foviance.  This provides clients with independent and holistic quality assurance.

Design and Design Research
A second way of avoiding the trap is to provide services that aim to deliver more than measure usability.  Instead this approach is akin to design research that aims to help companies develop new products.  Positioned between hard analysis and creative design this perspective has a business case based on risk management and innovation.  Ethnographic studies are an example of design research that aims to provide a rich picture of requirements and user needs.  While mainly used in academia this approach is beginning to receive commercial interest, for example, Skybluepink's mobile UK project.  As well as more in depth research some UCD providers are moving from evaluation to design.  For example, Amberlight has used video for prototyping.  

Innovation Facilitation
A third way of avoiding the trap is to fit UCD services around an innovation model.  It is understandable that companies reign back on new product development during a downturn.  Indeed, some companies, especially new or small enterprises may have difficulties bringing new products to market.  But in order for companies to survive they need to not just optimise their products but also innovate and create new ones.  Some companies are already (e.g. Nokia, Phillips, Braun and IDEO) using UCD methods to develop new products.  By combining analytical, creative and commercial skills UCD is in a good position to facilitate innovation.  An innovation based discipline would combine aspects of the three approaches; quality assurance, design and design research and innovation.  Such an offering would widen the business case of HCI and immediately open up a new range of services including:

  • Design Management
  • New Product Development
  • Design Research
  • Business Process Reengineering
  • Standards and Quality Assurance

I have outlined some new services based on a more 'design' approach to usability. This means repositioning usability as a design led profession. There are, of course, other approaches to repositioning including taking the analytics route. The diversification of services in the usability sector is to be welcomed and makes it a more attractive and ironically usable proposition to business.

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