UPA 2002 – Humanizing Design

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The Usability Professionals Association (UPA) 2002 Annual Conference was held For local chapter members, the UPA national conference is a way to tap into the national organization, yet for anyone who is practicing usability the conference provides ample information, education, and networking opportunities.July 8-12 in Orlando, Florida. Almost 500 attendees from around the world flocked to the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress Resort – a tropical resort hotel just beyond the reaches of many Disney theme parks. The conference differs from others like CHI -in that it tends to focus almost solely on topics for usability practitioners. We’ve heard some practitioners say that CHI is too academic – too focused on academics and primary research that may not be clearly applicable yet to those designing and evaluating products. At the UPA conference you generally don’t find academic research presentations but rather case studies and lessons learned in the school of hard knocks.-

Three attendees from the UPA-MN chapter in the Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota area, Katie Ware, Lyle Kantrovich and Debbie McConnell, cover some of the sessions they found most notable during the 5-day conference.

Keynote: The Domestication of Computers
Joel Birnbaum, Sr. VP of Research & Development, Hewlett-Packard
Reported by Lyle Kantrovich

Birnbaum’s keynote presentation started off the conference by detailing a possible future when computers are much more invisible and pervasive. The premise is that, as we “domesticate” computers they become more ubiquitous, much as electric motors have become things we don’t really think about – they are embedded in products and services that we use without thinking about the motors themselves.

Before computers can become pervasive, they have to deliver value and exhibit good usability. Pervasiveness also has to be built from good infrastructure and enduring standards with security and reliability built in. Pervasive computing will most likely be packaged in “information appliances” that will hide the complexity of computers to deliver ease of use, be context aware, and in many cases be mobile.

To illustrate what a powerful change pervasive computing might deliver, Birnbaum showed videos of different future scenarios. The longest video showed an earthquake emergency in which emergency services like police and fire departments were able to assess damage to buildings, collect data from field observers about injuries and properly respond by routing the necessary services to the most urgent needs. The video included examples of self-healing communication networks, handheld language translators and sensors that automatically collect data from buildings and many other information sources.

Birnbaum’s presentation was interesting and timely, especially for usability practitioners who’ve spent the last year trying to side-step layoffs and a slow tech economy. It provided hope that the future might offer more opportunities for user-centered design. Designing for pervasive computing’s information appliances might also bring more diverse opportunities for those who’ve tired of working on all things web. The crowd seem to think Birnbaum’s videos were a bit futuristic – a little too Star Trek if you will – they laughed when the earthquake-damaged network flashed an on-screen alert informing the user that it was repairing damaged lines. According to Birnbaum, most of the technology in the videos has been available for some time – the biggest obstacles to pervasive computing are interoperability standards and adoption.

Although Birnbaum’s future of pervasive computing may be decades away, it was clear that the role of usability professionals would be critical in making such a future a reality. Then again, when you look at the latest models of automobiles just hitting the market – vehicles that haves sensors to warn you before you back into something, that remember your personal seat and mirror preferences, and that can make calling for roadside assistance a one-button event – pervasive computing might be just around the corner.

Promoting yourself and usability (which comes first?)
Ilise Benun, author of Self Promotion Online
Reported by Lyle Kantrovich

You might think that promoting yourself is something that only self-interested egotistical people do. After attending this session it was clear that “self promotion” for usability professionals is really customer-centric and involves simply communicating the value of what we do.

Ilise Benun’s main point was that promoting usability is fundamentally about promoting your skills and value as a usability professional. We have to understand the people who use our services, we have to talk to them in their own language, and we have to make our deliverables usable. Think of it as “sales the UCD way.”

We often struggle with how to “sell usability” yet we don’t want to appear pushy. Benun pointed out a simple opportunity for self-promotion that we run into all the time: people ask, “What do you do?” She pointed out that it helps to have a short “blurb” that describes what we do. The blurb should make people want to learn more. We can then expand on our short blurb to explain who we do “it” for and how or when we do “it.” The explanation should avoid jargon and titles like “usability engineer”, “experience design” and even “usability.”

By simply educating others about what we do, and the value it provides, we promote ourselves. If usability delivers cost-savings, we become valued cost-savers. If usability increases customer satisfaction, we become people who can deliver and evaluate satisfying products.

Benun pointed out a number of ways to become valued and promote yourself (and your services):

  • Reach out to others (don’t wait for them to come to you)
  • Give out your ideas, information, and your business card
  • Create helpful documents
  • Answer questions on discussion lists
  • Emphasize the positive (don’t just be a critic)
  • Be professional, reliable, and responsive

Any conversation with a potential client is an opportunity to a) learn something about them b) offer something useful to them c) show your interest in what they do or have to say d) link what you do to what they do and e) exchange contact information.

Not only did Benun deliver convincing reasons to feel good about self-promotion, but she also outlined simple steps anyone can take to better promote the business value of usability.

During the Q & A session, an attendee from a major software company provided an example of how good promotion of usability can pay off: They convinced a vice-president to sponsor the cause of usability at their company and it paid off big time – their CEO now has a “usability scorecard”, and all their products have to be on it.

Usability and ROI
Reported by Katie Ware

What is the focus when attempting to improve the bottom line – cost savings or increased revenue?In this economy, the bottom line is what matters. What is this going to cost and what benefit is the company going to get from it? This issue was reflected in the SIG entitled “Validating Design Decisions and Establishing ROI by Exploiting Existing Data Sources within Your Organization” and a presentation on “Measuring the Return on Investment for Usability.”

The SIG was a place to ask questions and express frustrations, but there were more questions than answers – it became clear that there is no silver bullet. There were many different types of companies represented, and although this provided diversity, it sometimes made it difficult to transfer ideas between different business models. For example, return on investment (ROI) techniques from a company that is strictly e-commerce may not be easily implemented in a situation where there are multiple distribution channels. There may be more work required to include measures to track feedback by channel.

Planning, benchmarking and tracking were major themes – laying the groundwork for justification is key. Some suggestions from the SIG:

  • Look at call logs – quantitative sample with a qualitative look, coded by type of issue
  • Maybe total calls don’t go down significantly, but shows in other ways (such as fewer UI calls)
  • Likert scales at the end of usability testing “measures” perceived value point

It was a lively discussion – and although the group was diverse, we were all looking for answers. It’s obvious that this is a big issue and once the exchange started it was hard to stop. In fact, the moderator had to leave for another meeting before the conversation wound down.

The “Measuring ROI for Usability” session consisted of a panel that included Randolph Bias – Austin Usability, Kelly Braun – EBay, Joe Bugental – Sun Microsystems, Inc. and Ed See – Arthur Anderson/KPMG. Stephanie Rosenbaum of Tec-Ed, Inc., moderated the panel.

The panelists presented case studies of how they have tracked usability ROI. Randolph Bias and Ed See offered insight about usability ROI from the consultant point of view. Joe Bugental spoke about Sun Microsystems iterative usability program that measures usability ROI for a widely used defect management software. Kelly Braun presented information on how eBay uses ROI estimates to determine the level of usability coverage a project will receive during development.

The main topics about the benefits of usability ROI focused on factors that play into the bottom line. These were:

  • Increased product development efficiencies
  • Decreased burden of customer service and tech support calls
  • Reduced training costs
  • Increased sales
  • Increased user productivity
  • Increased customer satisfaction

Again, planning and benchmarking are crucial for tracking. How a company approaches them, however, may require some creativity.

What is the focus when attempting to improve the bottom line – cost savings or increased revenue? Both are important and finding ways of addressing both can provide for flexibility in planning. Some ways to calculate ROI are cost of diversion in missing revenue opportunities, the cost of answering users’ questions and the cost of training. How long it takes for benefits to surpass costs is a formula that can be used to calculate ROI in raw dollars.

Another issue is to whom the benefits of ROI accrue. The development team may assume the cost of a change, but customer service reaps the benefits. And how will the director of training take the news if increased usability means that not as much training is needed?

There is no one size fits all for ROI. One message that came through is that we need to speak the language of the audience – the stakeholder to whom the cost/benefits apply.

NOTE: Aaron Marcus of Aaron Marcus and Associates attended both sessions and offered those interested the white paper “Return on Investment for Usable User-Interface Design: Examples and Statistics.”

Handheld Usability
Scott Weiss, author of Handheld Usability (John Wiley & Sons) and principal of the Usable Products Company
Reported by Debbie McConnell

The one-day tutorial on designing interface for handheld devices, called “Handheld Usability: Designing, Prototyping, and Usability Testing Applications for Pagers, PDAs, and Mobile Phones,” was just as jam packed with information as its fourteen word title implies!

As expected, we learned how designing for handheld devices is different from designing for desktop, laptop, or even palmtop PCs. In addition, there were surprising differences between designing for cell phones and designing for Pocket PCs or other PDAs. In the process, we learned lots of new terms like soft key and triple tap.

Each handheld platform has its own set of user interface controls and related guidelines. For example, designing for Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) used by many cell phones means employing lots of short text menus organized in a limited hierarchy with good cross links.

Designing for PDAs is very different. These devices have much richer data input and GUI mechanisms. Their user interfaces include familiar features, such as application menus and dialog boxes. However, these features need to be implemented with regard to the PDA. For example, the application menus should not be cascading like the ones that are commonly found in desktop interfaces.

Most handheld interfaces employ some type of graphics, including icons. Many of the standard design rules apply, such as avoiding 3D and using distinct shapes. There are also some guidelines that are unique to handheld devices. For example, it is important to test these interfaces by taking the device outside. It’s the most challenging environment for creating high contrast and it’s also the most common environment for “on the go” devices.

The most interesting part of this experience was the chance to explore the rationale behind these devices – the social and professional drivers that cause people to learn cryptic interfaces and use these relatively cumbersome devices.

Modeling Design
Richard Fulcher, Bryce Glass, and Matt Leacock, of America Online
Reported by Debbie McConnell

The 90-minute session, on UI design, using concepts maps, wireframes, storyboards, and flow maps was perfectly timed for me. I am currently struggling through the design of an e-commerce site with a client that has been unable to describe the scope of the site. Not just the first, second, and other phases of development. But, even more fundamental issues like “What is the purpose of the site?” and “How does is fit within the parent site?”

I’ve been using diagrams to represent workflows, individual task analysis, and site maps for years. However, somewhere along the way, I stopped taking the time to create detailed concept maps to help establish a shared image of the final product before I went on to describe how the interface should be represented.

Since attending this session, I have returned to work on the e-commerce site and created a concept model that is helping the entire team define the project’s scope and objectives for success. My experience fits well with the title of this session, “Boxes and Lines over Bullets and Arrows: Deliverables that Clarify, Focus, and Improve Design. ”

You can view a copy of this presentation and the related deliverables at http://www.leacock.com/deliverables.

Overall, the 2002 event was a good one – providing solid presentations and an informal atmosphere for meeting and talking with other usability professionals. We found favorite authors and gurus in the sessions, hallways, and commons, and most were very willing to chat and answer questions.

The UPA conference also provides opportunities to get involved in a thriving professional organization – local UPA chapters started forming about three years ago and continue to pop up around the globe. Members of different chapters got a chance to meet and share the stories and successes of their individual local organizations. Some chapters are just forming, some had conducted joint events with other associations like SIG-CHI and STC, one had even planned their own local mini-conference.

For local chapter members, the UPA national conference is a way to tap into the national organization, yet for anyone who is practicing usability the conference provides ample information, education, and networking opportunities. Many attendees seemed to have at least one or two notable discoveries to talk about – gleanings they were leaving with and would put into practice on their next design, evaluation or consulting gig.

Lyle Kantrovich is a User Experience Architect with Cargill, Inc. He blogs his thoughts on usability, web design, information architecture and user experience practices at Croc o’ Lyle.

Katie Ware has been an information wrangler for over a decade, involved in user centered design, information architecture and user experience
practices. Currently she works in technology product development for
westlaw.com, a product of West Group.

Debbie McConnell is a usability engineer and independent consultant. She has been designing user interface for Web sites and software applications for the past ten years. Debbie’s specializes in working with clients on the brink of committing to usable products.