Thursday, 20 January 2011

User Experience - Challenges

Organizational Challenges Employing User
Experience Design Processes within the Software Development Life Cycle
Swapnil Dambe - Usability Practitioner


User Experience (UX), Usability plays a key role in determining a product's acceptability. It can help vendors win and deliver huge contracts, globally. A major challenge, however, is to translate this increased consciousness into a change of mind-sets for allocating time and resources required for designing and developing User Interfaces (UI). IT companies are still very conservative or hesitant in that respect.

It is also true that most Indian IT giants have their own UX / Usability teams that work horizontally in their organizational structure to support IT development, re-design, re-engineering, and design related projects.  As a matter of fact, this domain is not explored to its fullest potential by IT companies. The thought process behind having a fully functional UX team is not really clear to most of the Managers and IT heads, as they consider Usability and UX equivalent to proposing user interface design. This, they feel is child’s play, which can be easily turned out within a couple of hours. In addition, even if the customer understands the necessity of UX and Usability in the design process, they expect or assume that the delivered product will be a practical one to use. Sadly, many times IT services fail to achieve this, due to diverse reasons (lack of skills, awareness, attitude, and misconceptions about UX).

This paper is exclusively based on the experiences and challenges encountered by us, while integrating Usability and UX activities during proposal creations / project assignments. Eventually, the action plan to elevate Usability and UX in the eyes of the management has been projected as the payoff.


Usability, Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and User Experience (UX) have been gaining greater importance over the past decade & UX, Usability are critical to the success of a software, product, or website.   Migration of applications from Mainframe client-server architecture to Web-based applications has resulted in a significantly higher level of awareness and adoption of HCI and UX practices.
An IT empowered world focuses on converting requirements into computer programs - UX professionals make those programs workable. The need for humanizing technology has increased tremendously, since the western world started implementing the User Centered Design (UCD) processes with the software development life cycle (SDLC) over the last decade.

Catering to these demands from the market, many Indian IT firms often try to encourage their developers and web designers through short-range workshops in Usability, UX design, and other similar training programs, little realizing that the “superficial” approach will not work for developing user-centered designing skills.

A developer is certainly not a Usability or UX professional. User Experience Design is a highly focused discipline which requires a skilled professional, trained in User Centered Design (UCD) methodology and usage pattern analysis of end-users. One cannot just assume things, and walk up to a software engineer, asking him or her to apply logic and common sense and also to make something usable.

It won't work well. User Experience Design is primarily based on science, human cognitive theories, and on the information architectural engineering discipline.
Similarly, IT firms recruits graphic designers, name them as UX professionals and expect them to deliver what the user or business wants. They even hire UX professionals to form strong UX teams without understanding the real value of it. Very few organizations realize the importance of sound returns gained by institutionalization of UX, Usability and UCD processes at the enterprise level.  Many of them have false impressions about User Experience Design (UXD) and feel that it: 
  • Is just User Interface Design
  • Is just about technology
  • Is just about Usability
  • Is expensive
  • Is just about the user
  • Is not easy
  • Is the role of one person/department
  • Is a single discipline
  • Can be added later in the SDLC phases/as & when required
  • Is just a people selling concept
  • Is time consuming & less productive
  • Is optional and can be avoided
  • Is flexible and can be inserted as and when required

The notions of Usability and User-Centered Design have not been nicely adopted by the Indian IT industry and IT service providers have now gradually realizing how UX is essential for the success of IT products and services. We face a lot of challenges while creating UX proposals and executing UX requirements, due to the above mentioned misconceptions.

Genuine Challenges:
Usability and UX are still under the ‘consideration’ phase in business even after a decade. The major blockages and challenges are:
  • Budgets
  • Political considerations
  • Scope of work
  • Hazy requirements
  • Timelines
  • Project scope, size, and estimates
  • Overall apathetic attitude towards Usability and UX

A few of these are briefly discussed below:
It is the usual experience that UX professionals are asked to participate in product life cycles at the time of crises and are then expected to give their best. The failure of User Acceptance Tests (UAT) in relation to the Usability requirements takes the project into a ‘reverse gear’ mode, back to the project inception phase. As a result, a number of CR’s get resolved free of cost, since UX and Usability are not budgeted for, in the proposal stage.

In another scenario, the customer supplies the necessary Non-Functional Requirements (NFR’s) with respect to Usability, but a non-UX person creates the scope of work, proposal approach, and estimation on his/her own assumptions, without even getting it reviewed from a UX professional. This creates a lot of ambiguity in the actual execution process, thus creating a problem of ‘size’ for UX projects. What activity should be conducted at what phase, how much time it would take with the allotted resources, etc. should be decided by a UX professional. This may affect the whole design cycle and quality of deliverables.

It doesn’t matter how experienced a person is in defining the size for UX project(s); he/she is constantly faced with the challenge of effectively sizing a UCD project so that the actual end time spent on the various UX activities reflects what was originally proposed or estimated. Thus, sizing a UX project is a vital, yet tricky task. Attempt to under-value UX business is the most classic example and challenge we face while creating the resource and effort estimations. This is most acute when estimation is manipulated, based on the customer’s payment terms such as fixed price or time and material requirements.

We have sadly experienced many times, that UX professionals end up convincing and negotiating with the sales persons on the rates front. To put it straight – One should not underestimate specialized skills, just in order to clinch a deal. In fact, talent and skills should be sold to the customer.

The Usability domain in fact, is a highly specialized field, consisting of an exclusive ‘skill set’. Reasonable and fair rates need to be negotiated, keeping this additional value offering in mind.

Conclusion Through Constructive Solution:
A sensitive top technical management can convey more then just the operating/emerging technologies. They must recognize that they are delivering IT solutions that must meet individual users’ and business needs.

To overcome all the challenges listed above, we, as UX practitioners, must win the confidence of the senior management and initiate a momentum called: ‘Institutionalization of UX at the Enterprise Level’.  This will help ‘humanize’ the information technology world.

The drive should consist of the following activities:
  • Demonstrating an effective business case for UX, Usability and ROI.
  • Creating Usability and UX awareness through lectures/ seminars/ workshops.
  • Integrating UX activities into SDLC.
  • Conducting awareness sessions for presales/ technical teams, and the top management.
  • Arranging and conducting UX and Usability competency building programs for internal folks.

In the end, we would like to reiterate: User Experience isn't something one can do as an ‘afterthought’. It needs to be part of the product design and development life cycle. The terms - users, business, and expectations – all need to be crystal clear from day one. Usability should also be seen as a smart business solution when applied at the correct instance.