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I'm hoping you can help me. I've been allocated the role within my organisation to look at how we can improve the usability of our systems. I'm not from a UX background at all so this is proving quire difficult. One positive to have come out of it is that I've realised this is the kind of area I'd like to work in. I'm a fairly junior grade within my organisation so I do have only limited influence.

The organisation is a Government department so is fairly old fashioned in its approaches. We use waterfall to a large extent and our projects tend to be fairly large and driven by business change. Our IT is largely outsourced with us specifying requirements and then contracting with large suppliers to deliver against those requirements. Our strategy is to use Commercial Off The Shelf packages (COTS) wherever possible. This clearly limits the amount of influence we can have with regards to the UI etc. The fact IT delivery is outsourced also makes it more difficult and usability needs to be specified as requirements and standards if possible.

Do you have any suggestions as to how I can tackle this? Budgets are incredibly tight so the approach of just bringing in a consultant to help isn't likely to get accepted :(


Thanks for all your suggestions. They're areas that I'm considering and concerned about! I have a meeting with my IT director on Wednesday as he has asked me to develop a way forward on usability.

Unfortunately him and his senior colleagues think there is a magic bullet in standards. For accessibility we basically stipulate that our IT systems comply with ISO 9241-171 and WCAG 2. These allow us to then (reasonably successfully) measure compliance by testing. They want me to identify an equivalent standard for usability, the problem being I'm not aware that one exists, especially when you bear in mind I'm not just looking for something web specific.

I'm going to raise this with him and suggest that user centred design is the way forward, we can then consider the difficulties we will have with doing that though as it will involve a massive culture change.

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What aspects can you change or influence? –  JohnGB Nov 28 '12 at 18:08
    
This is a very tough question to answer, the fact is as someone in a junior position within the organisation, and without a background in this area, you're going to have a tough time convincing the powers that be that a change in their normal setup is needed. It'll be especially difficult, considering all is outsourced where possible. Perhaps the best way to approach this would be to come up with some case studies, and some good hard figures, surrounding organisations with a similar practice. If you can prove a solid business case, it may just make them sit up and take note. –  Daniel Meade Nov 28 '12 at 18:09
    
I wrote a long reply and then realized a) you use off the shelf products and b) you outsource your IT. That's a huge challenge. To manage outsourced IT and development, you really need skilled internal developers in house to handle it. And even then it's a huge challenge. Good luck. ;) –  DA01 Nov 28 '12 at 18:38
    
Not a direct answer to your question but you might be interested to read the blog of the UK's Government Digital Service (digital.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/category/single-government-domain) which chronicles the activities of the team responsible for redesigning the single government domain website (gov.uk). They've managed establish usability as a priority. –  Matt Obee Nov 28 '12 at 21:58
    
+1 to the Government finally realizing they need to do something about their websites' usability! –  Pasha S Apr 8 '13 at 18:36
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4 Answers 4

Conduct a heuristic evaluation.

For websites, about 10% of your budget should go to usability. To quote the Nielsen article:

According to our survey, spending 10% of your development budget on usability should improve your conversion rate by 83%.

If you've got enough budget, conduct contextual inquiry. Contextual inquiry (field study) works especially well on company intranets.

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Heuristic evaluations are a good suggestion, but where do you get your "10% of the budget should go to usability" statement from? Why 10%? –  JonW Nov 28 '12 at 23:50
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Jakob Nielsen mentions it a few places on useit.com –  Tyler Langan Nov 28 '12 at 23:52
    
Great, I've added that information into your answer to give some extra detail. –  JonW Nov 28 '12 at 23:56
    
Thanks Jon! It's much better now. –  Tyler Langan Nov 28 '12 at 23:58
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Welcome to the fascinating world of users' experience! First, you should get some background, and plenty of resources can be found around this site and all over the internet. That should not hold from you any aspirations for a proper training course, which are also quite on the abundant.

I can really identify with your situation. I too did work for a large organization which did not value UX too much. You're lucky to have it as a job title, as it tells it is recognized to some extent. To further convince the relevant stakeholders in the necessity if diverting budgets into this direction, I'd recommend going out on a UX campaign, stressing the damages and costs bad UX causes. There are plenty of example case, including nuclear meltdowns and the elections of George W. Bush, which can be blamed at faults of the interface.Talk or present to any stakeholder that influences decisions regarding the project.

Working with development teams, I grew to know what battles to concentrate on. You too should develop this sense, otherwise, the management and IT would consider your recommendations always as dreamy over-blown requirements that can never be fulfilled. Choose your battles carefully, focusing on those features that really impact the users' experience.

You might also find that it's much easier (and cheaper!) to design a good interface in the first place than to fix a broken one (Nielsen also has a piece on the growing costs of fixing problems the further the project has been developed). I'd recommend focusing on new project rather than fixing existing ones, as you have better chances of influencing there.

Regarding the fact that your projects are outsources: be sure to include the certain UI features in the phase of presenting the requirements to the contractor. It's rare they would accept any new requirements once the project has started. Another good practice is to conduct acceptance tests (also require them beforehand), which would also include usability testing of some kind. You could spot troubles there, and you'll be able to make sure the product isn't launched before major faults in the interface are fixed.

Good luck, and may your interfaces be usable and pleasant!

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As others have already mentioned you've a few hurdles to overcome.

Firstly your junior position, but really I would not worry about this unless you've not got a boss or project sponsor who will listen and back your suggestions as everyone has a voice and should be heard. You've been appointed this role so someone must suspect that there are indeed benefits in what UX and usability can deliver.

I've both seen first hand and heard from other that the biggest challenge in selling UX and usability higher up an organisation is that the people in these senior positions are far less likely to be able to see or accept the really small changes that will make a huge difference as per the 10% quote from Neilson, therefore this sponsor or senior voice is one you'll need to find.

Probably the biggest hurdle for you is the reliance on commercial software that is often far less capable of delivering on expectations unless it in the hands of incredibly committed tight knit teams - a dispersed out sourced team will struggle here.

Looking on the bright side, for a perfect case study into how a government organisation can adapt, become agile and take huge steps towards delivering useable (user centric) digital services, you can't go wrong or be accused of citing incomparable cases if you read all thats been published at http://digital.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/. This site covers much of the thinking and applied practices used during the redevelopment and design of the gov.uk domain here in the UK.

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At heart, usability is simple. It basically means asking yourself the following questions from the very start of a project and to repeat them as often as possible:

  • Who are my users?
  • What do they want?
  • Are my answers to the above questions correct?

This will lead you to do user modeling and user tests to answer these questions and to make mockups as early as possible to test your answers.

The nice thing I've noticed about usability is that it grows by itself. If you start small, by just budgeting a few hours per month with a user group to do some testing and research, the feedback from these users will be very positive. I you do them well, almost everyone will enjoy a user test.

So long as you get into the process early, you will be the only person who will be comfortable in the project stage where no solutions (tools and technologies) have been chosen yet, so you will be the only one who can produce documentation.

By producing proper wireframes which communicate well, you will give people clarity about the project, focusing the discussion and reducing everybody's uncertainty.

In short, if you just start with a small amount of usability early in the process, it will grow by itself. You will make users happy and help the development process to focus and troubleshoot from day one. This will create positive feedback to the project leaders, and you will rarely need to prove the financial benefits of your position.

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