Saturday, February 16, 2008

Being Flexible

When given the choice between creating a perfect product that is never released and an imperfect project that benefits its customers, we must consistently choose the latter. There is a point at which our insistence on a complete usability process becomes counterproductive. The most successful usability engineers can quickly assess a situation and impose the parts of the process that make the most sense, given project constraints.

In Example A, the usability engineers were alarmed and discouraged by the direction the project was heading. The UCD team was inexperienced, and its visual designers and writers had all worked together on a previous product that was poorly designed and not well accepted by users. Access to users was severely limited, and there was no time to conduct formal usability studies. The usability engineers worried that their data was not good enough and that the users were not involved enough. They spent the first two weeks fighting with the project team and the next two weeks fighting the requirements. By the time the usability engineers were through fighting, their schedule had slipped by nearly four weeks. In Example B, the entire project timeline was six weeks. There was no time to fight, only to adapt. The challenge was figuring out how to provide value despite unchanging, imposed guidelines.

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In both examples, usability engineers realized that they could offer significant help in several areas. They did this by:

  • Clearly understanding the project goals, including scheduling constraints, user constraints, and project ownership.
  • Quickly establishing what work they could provide within the project constraints. If the usability engineers could not conduct full-blown designs sessions and usability tests, what elements of those things could they incorporate into their work? They chose to provide a series of quick heuristic evaluations, to research best practices for similar projects, to post questions to a usability listserv, to interview users under the guise of another project, and to interview subject matter experts when no users were available.
  • Being flexible enough to understand and work within the project constraints. Usability engineers researched best practices and provided immediate feedback whenever possible.
  • Resisting the temptation to suffer through meetings silently, consistently voicing concerns, gently but persistently reminding the rest of the team of their roles and skills.

Understanding that neither project would support the rigo of true user- centred design work, the usability engineers continued to guide team meetings in a more user-centred direction, representing users and incorporating usability concepts and techniques whenever possible. The usability engineers became extremely flexible in their schedules and work styles. In both examples, flexibility and customer focus yielded positive results. By working within the confines of their projects, the usability engineers were perceived as valuable team members, rather than as impractical or uncooperative team players.

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