November 21, 2013

Julie Rodreguez, Sapient Global Markets
Julie Rodreguez, Sapient Global Markets

If the return on an investment was guaranteed to be at least 1,000 percent, wouldn't everyone want to capitalize on it? The obvious answer is yes. But in reality, when it comes to investing in User Experience (UX), many firms are reluctant to participate because they are unfamiliar with UX, its attributes and potential.

What is User Experience?

UX is a field that focuses on the user's experience with a product, system or service and works to understand their needs, goals and desires. A UX team aims to understand the full context of use by considering the user's environment, skill set, expectations, responsibilities and various scenarios of use to complete specific tasks effectively.

Matt Hull, Sapient Global Markets
Matt Hull, Sapient Global Markets

UX is part art and part science. It has the capability to introduce simplicity in complex systems, efficiency in disjointed workflows and beauty in the mundane. At the core, UX engages and coordinates interested parties throughout the project lifecycle with a proven set of methods to produce useful and usable results. Standard UX practices center around the following disciplines and techniques: user interviews and analysis; user testing; rapid prototyping; information architecture; visual design and interaction design; and, front-end development and coding.

When practiced effectively, UX delivers high returns on all planned technology initiatives by helping to prevent countless changes and rework during a project lifecycle. To underscore the issues with changes that occur in latter project phases, Robert Pressman, author of Software Engineering: A Practitioner's Approach, wrote that for every dollar spent to resolve a problem during product design, $10 would be spent on the same problem during development and $100 or more if the problem needed to be addressed after the product's release.

This data is in line with both usability expert Jacob Nielson and IEEE's article, "Why Software Fails." Nielson writes in a recent article this year, "Early focus on usability also vastly boosts ROI; it's 100 times cheaper to fix a design flaw on the drawing board than after product launch." According to the IEEE article, "Once a piece of software fails, the cost of fixing an error can be 100 times as high as it would have been during the development stage."

How UX Adds Value

Consider this example: In the real world, IT managers try to satisfy their business users' needs as well as respond to market conditions and various outside regulatory forces. As a result, they often look to fast track features and functionality into existing systems. This process, while satisfying to the forces that demand it, can often lead to frustration and other challenges for the community that is tasked with using the system.

While expediting new functionality delivers short-term gains, it often causes long-term pain because the focus is on meeting the immediate business need and not on how the system will actually be used in the long run. To address this issue, a thorough analysis and comparative landscape can help smooth adoption, uncover realistic pain points and provide a road map for future scalability. Simple upfront activities, such as interviewing users, mapping current processes against future workflows and laying out screen elements to be user-tested in a prototype are low-cost tasks that generate high-yield results. These activities produce outputs that will also benefit future similar projects, and therefore can be considered the UX dividend of the initial investment cost.

A typical UX practitioner will ask questions of the business from the context of how the person intends to use the system, and in turn, ask questions of the intended audience members to elicit their input. One effect of this upfront participation is that there is a greater likelihood that the features and functions built will deliver what the user community is expecting. Additionally, the UX outputs help developers understand through visuals, including diagrams, mock-ups and use cases, exactly how each element of the tool should work and what it does. Robust UX practices include several specialized disciplines that work together. These include:

  • Information Architects who assist business analysts in understanding the user community and how that community will engage with the information and work through their tasks to achieve their goals
  • Visual Interaction Designers who conceive of the interfaces and features which assist in expediting user tasks based on convention, patterns and usability studies
  • Interaction Developers who create and build responsive interfaces that are flexible enough to accommodate data and content from multiple sources and work efficiently on multiple devices

These teams work iteratively through problems and in conjunction with one another (as well as the user community) to insure that all proposed features and interactions are feasible and will satisfy the end goal.

Case Study : Fund Documentation Tool

Consider the case of a large investment banking firm that wanted to simplify the way its customer service representatives located and distributed product documentation. The development team was given one month to develop a new front-end mechanism that could pinpoint the necessary documents quickly and easily. Once implemented, the tool would be used by over one thousand investment professionals to look up and distribute product documentation to expedite client communications. The team decided to use standardized UI components and a straightforward search interface in order to deliver the tool within a matter of weeks.