I just stumbled across this great piece from 1994 by usability guru Jacob Nielsen: Guerrilla HCI: Using Discount Usability Engineering to Penetrate the Intimidation Barrier. Bar some words that have gone out of fashion, the piece is still incredibly relevant today. A great insight was this list of the awareness-levels of software development companies about user experience.
- Usability does not matter. The main focus is to wring every last bit of performance from the iron. This is the attitude leading to the world-famous error message, “beep.”
- Usability is important, but good interfaces can surely be designed by the regular development staff as part of their general system design. This attitude is symbolized by the famous statement made by King Frederik VI of Denmark on February 26, 1835: “We alone know what serves the true welfare and benefit of the State and People.” At this stage, no attempt is made at user testing or at acquiring staff with usability expertise.
- The desire to have the interface blessed by the magic wand of a usability engineer. Developers recognize that they may not know everything about usability, so they call in a usability specialist to look over their design and comment on it. The involvement of the usability specialist is often too late to do much good in the project, and the usability specialist often has to provide advice on the interface without the benefit of access to real users.
- GUI panic strikes , causing a sudden desire to learn about user interface issues. Currently, many companies are in this stage as they are moving from character-based user interfaces to graphical user interfaces and realize the need to bring in usability specialists to advise on graphical user interfaces from the start. Some usability specialists resent this attitude and maintain that it is more important to provide an appropriate interface for the task than to blindly go with a graphical interface without prior task analysis. Even so, GUI panic is an opportunity for usability specialists to get involved in interface design at an earlier stage than the traditional last-minute blessing of a design that cannot be changed much. (Update added 1999: these days, this stage is often characterized by Web Panic Strikes . It’s the same phenomenon and should be treated the same way.)
- Discount usability engineering sporadically used. Typically, some projects use a few discount usability methods (like user testing or heuristic evaluation), though the methods are often used too late in the development lifecycle to do maximum good. Projects that do use usability methods often differ from others in having managers who have experienced the benefit of usability methods on earlier projects. Thus, usability acts as a kind of virus, infecting progressively more projects as more people experience its benefits.
- Discount usability engineering systematically used. At some point in time, most projects involve some simple usability methods, and some projects even use usability methods in the early stages of system development. Scenarios and cheap prototyping techniques seem to be very effective weapons for guerrilla HCI in this stage.
- Usability group and/or usability lab founded. Many companies decide to expand to a deluxe usability approach after having experienced the benefits of discount usability engineering. Currently, the building of usability laboratories [Nielsen 1994a] is quite popular as is the formation of dedicated groups of usability specialists.
- Usability permeates lifecycle. The final stage is rarely reached since even companies with usability groups and usability labs normally do not have enough usability resources to employ all the methods one could wish for at all the stages of the development lifecycle. However, there are some, often important, projects that have usability plans defined as part of their early project planning and where usability methods are used throughout the development lifecycle.
If you substitute ‘user experience’ for usability and ‘design’ for engineering, what you get is an up-to-date list, 1. being a company totally unaware of the need for good UX, and 8. a company that is totally convinced.
Some other gems from the original piece include:
…the almost religious effect it seems to have the first time students try running a user test and see with their own eyes the difficulties perfectly normal people can have using supposedly “easy” software.
In reality, almost all usability methods are extremely cheap to use compared to the benefits they provide in form of better and easier to use products, but often we have to start with the cheapest possible methods to overcome the intimidation barrier gradually.
Just what I was thinking for my IT-focused Inclusive Design Toolbox: Really easy to use, attractive and cheap methods to overcome the initial cold feet and get these companies onto the awareness ladder.