I've been using ISO 9241 (Ergonomics of Human System Interaction) over the years to provide some structure and rigour to my UX process. It suits the (standards driven) industry I'm currently working in and seems to help shift the perception from UX as 'look and feel' to something with real substance.

But who else actually applies this standard (or parts of it) in the real world? Does it help and if so, how?


PS If you've no idea what I'm talking about have a look at the Userfocus bluffer's guide (or the free but out of date online version).

  • Interested in any replies to this. I'm not a fan of ISO standards personally. Too much bureaucracy for my liking
    – Matt Goddard
    Mar 1 '10 at 21:47

It's worth looking at the people who attend ISO working group meetings and examining the companies that they are from. Presumably, if their company sends them along to the meeting, then their company must be getting some benefit from it. At the ISO meetings I've attended, I've met people from IBM, HP, Philips, BT, NEC, TÜV, Fujitsu, OKI, as well as various universities and consultancies.

You also have to look at the sheer scope of ISO 9241. As you’ll know from the Bluffers’ Guide, it covers everything from display screens to form design. The hardware parts of the standards - the parts that focus on keyboards and screens -- are used and followed by all the main computer manufacturers. The software parts are excellent sources of best practice in the field and are enshrined in health and safety legislation in many European countries. ISO 13407 – soon to be renumbered and brought within the ISO 9241 fold -- describes a full user centred design process and is part of many companies’ ways of working, especially in Europe.

You also ask the question, “Does it help?” In user interface design, there are many conflicting viewpoints about good practice. Standards, especially International Standards, provide independent and authoritative guidance. I’ve noticed that some developers are more likely to listen to my recommendations when I tell them that they are based on international standards than when they are based on the opinions of a single "guru" in the field. In larger companies, I’ve noticed that publicly available standards are an enormous help in persuading managers to shift their focus from technology to user experience. Standards can be used to encourage consistency, promote good practice, act as a basis for common understanding, ensure an appropriate prioritisation of user interface issues and support the fulfilment of legal requirements.

  • If only I could vote you up twice. Great answer +1
    – Matt Goddard
    Mar 1 '10 at 22:15
  • 1
    Great answer! And also, "pursuading managers" is a really good reason to know the standards... Especially managers that are also engineers, in my experience.
    – Lisa Daske
    Mar 2 '10 at 10:13

I work as a usability engineer in Europe for a software developer company, and many of our customers come from the medical sector. And medical software has to be certified, although ISO 62366 is the usability norm for the medical sector. This means they have a need for usability experts that help get them through certification audits, and part of that is showing that you do usability work according to recognized standards. So yes, there is a need for it, at least in regulated sectors of the industry. I assume that the automobile sector has similar needs but have no experience there.

Of course, some parts of the norm also have helpful recommendations for everyday work, and as you already assumed, the norms help show that what we do has actual substance (the job title is "usability engineer", thank you very much!). But I imagine its mostly the bigger companys where working by standards is a way to be recognized.

For German readers I recommend the "DATech Leitfaden Usability" (guidelines issued by a German certification institute), which has a lot of practical help on applying both ISOs 13407 and 9241. You can find it here: http://tinyurl.com/yz8ujls

Does sombody know if there are similar help documents in other languages?


Short answer

It matters if you are serious about improving your UX processes, even if only from a philosophical point of view that you can't improve something if there isn't a standard or benchmark to measure your progress against.

Long answer

I think in the earlier days of the UX field (even though many see it as a continuation of HCI) when organisations and UX practitioners had to deal with the reality of fitting UX processes and methodologies into the traditional methods of software development, the last thing they would have been worried about was whether they conformed with the various ISO standards that applied to the products and services that they were working on.

Also, it is very common for standards to not be aligned to what is considered 'best practices' in a rapidly changing IT industry, so I would not have been surprised that the answer to this question when it was posted 7 years might be different to the answers that we get today.

Considering that WCAG 2.0 also forms part of ISO 9421, and that many parts of this standard have also been updated and adapted so that is is more in line with modern trends and practices, I think it is now a very good document for either benchmarking the maturity of an organisation's UX maturity or for implementing a design/development framework with a human-centred design approach.

One of the down side of the emphasis on lean and agile software development practices these days is the lack of rigour and structure involved in many UX processes. This has led to issues such as research debt, technical debt and a multitude of UX tools claiming to solve the kind of problems that you can only really solve by having a sound design/development framework. I believe that ISO 9421 is comprehensive in the depth and breadth of its coverage on topics relevant to UX design, and can be extended or customized for the specific requirements of each organisation.

Of course, many existing design or development frameworks (and playbooks) overlap with topics and concepts covered in ISO 9421, so as with most question in UX, it is certainly best to assess the problem that you want to address and work out what the best solution given the constraints. Even so, I believe that ISO 9421 is definitely more relevant today than it might have been in the past, so it does matter.


I think it does matter - in that it provides good guidance on cententious issues like capitalisation of form label fields.

Anything that helps to standardise such things, reduces time spent having the same old conversations with visual designers, and allows us to do the important stuff - like solving problems - has to be a good thing.


No it does not matter. It's organizational candy for in-house teams fighting for position in corporations and some under-rated agencies stuggling to get some clients.

What does matter is... results.


Does ISO 9241 really matter?

It matters to some kinds of organisations. (You'll see who by googling it)

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