User-Centered Design: A Goal Within Reach


April 2002

User-Centered Design: A Goal Within Reach

CIDMIconNewsletter JoAnn Hackos, CIDM Director
With contributions from Gil Mounsey, Manager, NCR Payment Solutions

What information-development manager hasn’t thought about getting her or his team involved in usability? Who hasn’t flirted with the possibility of making the product more intuitive? Who hasn’t hoped to reduce the amount of documentation and training by building a better mousetrap?

User-centered design (UCD) of products (and documentation and training) is a time-honored goal that often seems beyond reach for many information developers. Yet in several cases, members of CIDM and potential members have reached this goal-few more successfully than the information-development team led by Gil Mounsey at NCR Payment Solutions in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Gil’s team of technical writers and trainers has led NCR’s banking division into UCD, elevating usability to a rare and privileged position in the product-development life cycle. In doing so, the team has become an integral part of the development process, guiding the efforts to understand the users’ experience and incorporate that understanding in new product interfaces and user assistance. Working side by side with product managers, customer service, and professional services, they have introduced a new way to think about the customer.

Sue Carreon, Director of Engineering at NCR and Gil’s manager, shared the perception of information developers held by many senior managers in technology firms. As we have often heard, managers consider technical publications a “necessary evil,” an activity that they believe adds little or no value to the product. So-when Gil Mounsey and his team presented a new vision of the user experience, tied to the usability of the product, they had to prove that their vision was viable and credible. They had to establish that they could contribute in a major way to NCR’s business goals.

Although they questioned the importance of usability to the customer, the NCR Waterloo Senior Development Managers were intrigued enough to keep listening. Sheltered from contact with actual users, engineering and product management people focus on cramming the product full of functions, many used infrequently, Sue explained. When Gil’s team presented a vision of a more usable product, they decided there was enough promise in the idea to give them some slack. For the managers, slack meant providing “seed time” to allow the UCD to take hold and move forward. As the activities proceeded, more people on the management team became interested in the results. The tendency to leave “tech pubs” people out of the loop of development decreased as the viability and credibility of the UCD campaign increased.

What the information developers revealed was the importance of usability to the customers. They didn’t want to waste valuable time training operators to use hardware and software. They wanted more control over how the applications worked. They wanted staff to reach full productivity faster.

The internal service people, another customer, needed greater attention to usability. Products that were easier to repair cost less in the field. Field service staff, they learned, had also changed, experiencing a market decrease in average years on the job. Retirements, layoffs, and turnover had taken their toll.

The sales team revealed that the reliability of the hardware and software was a huge selling point and usability is part of reliability. With the customers experiencing lower skill levels and high turnover, usability had become an increasingly valuable selling point.

Information Developers Gain Experience with Product Usability

The NCR Waterloo information developers became involved with usability through many years of work with the customers. In 1993, the information developers embarked on a redesign of the training function. They undertook a detailed study of the training customers, a process taught as part of corporate NCR’s Quality Development Process (QDP). In QDP, needs analysis and usability testing are key activities. They led team members to a focus on discovering the needs of both internal and external users.

The result was a new training program focused on training the trainers at the customer site. The NCR trainers developed close relationships with customers during site visits. They learned how to promote performance improvement. They discovered that customers were not using the manuals, even though they felt that the product didn’t make sense and was difficult to learn. Back from a comprehensive needs analysis, the information developers created posters and presentations to report results back to the rest of the division.

The emerging message was that the product needed to be easier to use. The information developers and trainers knew they had to find a way to influence product design, as well as change the way they delivered information and training. They developed their own strategic plan-its principal goal: getting the organization out of the business of writing manuals and into the business of UCD.

NCR’s Long Term Focus on Usability

Fortunately, taking a customer focus was not unknown at NCR. As early as 1980, the company had established an innovative Customer Internship Program. Teams of individuals from different functional areas and disciplines lived at the customer site for several weeks, studying the workflow associated with the product. Product developers, testers, writers, and others who would ordinarily have little contact with users became well acquainted with the customers’ organizations. Although the Internship Program was eventually discontinued, Gil Mounsey, as information-development manager, kept the principles of this program alive. He encouraged his own team and others to get to know the customers.

A key to information development’s newfound strategy was the addition to the team of Vern Tarbutt, an experienced human factors person, and the strengths of existing team members, Jim Hartling, Craig Miller, Donna Zink, Laura Nevin, Terri George, Kat Murphy, Dave Henrich, Susan Smith, Kevin Shamanski, and others in learning the ropes. Through these key players, Gil was able to ensure that usability was pushed back into the earliest stages of the product-development life cycle. As he tells it, “we had to bake in the behavior from the beginning.”

As a result of hard work and effective publicity, the information developers won the support of the development managers. The managers recognize that their knowledge of the users brings value to the design of the product, especially the interface design. A few years ago, information development was given primary responsibility for the interface design. Now their team includes interface and interaction designers. Vern has transferred into the system architecture group, wielding greater influence upon fundamental product conceptualizations. The skills required in the new roles encouraged the development of a multi- functional team, rather than a group of individuals.

Gaining Credibility among the Developers

With the managers firmly in their court, the information-development team needed to gain credibility with the product developers. They learned to talk the same language. It was knowledge of the technology that opened doors. A common language brought them the level of trust they needed. Without trust and credibility, developers often view usability concerns as suggestions rather than requirements. The team members learned that their ownership of UCD in the division is a key success factor.

No Easy Path to UCD

Winning an ownership position has not been easy. Gil points out that an organization must have the right mix of personalities to succeed. He notes an advantage that extroverts have in building credibility. Extroverts, he believes, are more prepared to accept risks and are not afraid of failure. He believes extroverts, sometimes in short supply in information development but common among trainers, are key to increasing the visibility of UCD. At the same time, he knows that extroverts may like the careful judgment that his introverts bring to a problem.

Gil works with the introverts by telling them he expects them to “fail at least once.” Even very shy people, given permission to fail, have learned to hold their own in the often difficult argument and debate of product planning meetings. The key, Gill tells us, is to become comfortable with risk and failure: “Just don’t make the same mistake twice.”

To become comfortable with failure, Gil explains, you must keep practicing. You will always make mistakes in judgment. But as long as someone has put their trust in you, you’ll survive.

It’s quite clear that Gil has high expectations of his staff. Performance reviews allow a manager, as he explains the process, to open a dialogue with each individual about goals and about going beyond the goals. The individual must ask how he or she can best contribute to the organization. Gil firmly believes that most people want to accomplish something useful. When they come through, they feel great about the experience.

Advice for Information-Development Managers

Gil explains that moving into a new professional area like UCD requires a change in the group’s paradigm. To foster change at this level, managers should focus exclusively on new projects. Don’t try to start with legacy, Gil recommends. It’s too difficult to make a business case that sticks. Recognize that you continually need to prove the value added by your organization. A radical shift in vision like UCD is hard work. It requires new skills and new perceptions and, often, new people in the organization.

“What do you do with legacy employees,” I asked, “those who are reluctant to change? Is there a place for them in the new organization?” A radical shift requires people who become comfortable in a new working environment.

Managers should consider, Gil tells us, how to retrain legacy employees. Many people in information development have already made radical career moves. Take the mechanical engineers who moved into product marketing. With the right incentives, significant changes of direction are possible. Managers should search out latent abilities that can be encouraged. Latent abilities are frequently areas in which someone is willing to try something new.

Among technical communicators, managers may find people who will move out rather than make a change. However, before they feel forced to depart, managers should develop personal performance objectives with them. Gil suggests that people may be strongly encouraged to develop a new skill, such as learning XML, or even put onto an entirely new project. Demonstrate with them that they too can change.

The information developers and trainers at NCR Waterloo still produce documentation and training. The trainers contribute to the UCD; the writers learn user analysis. At least 30 percent of the staff have already done some user analysis with another 30 percent of the writers and trainers to join in the analysis process in the current year. They work together in an equal partnership in the UCD process, each team member contributing different and valued skill sets.

How much Time do you Need for UCD?

The time Gil’s team devotes to user analysis is considerable, although it differs depending on the project. One recent analysis of service information occupied 25 percent of total project time. The resulting new design has been entered into the NCR awards program for innovation.

This latest UCD project features a CD-ROM that provides quick access to information. The user types an error code, and the system goes straight to the fix. In the process, the maintenance engineers work with lots of graphics, charts, and tables. They have troubleshooting diagrams and digital photos, with digital video not far in the future.

During the UCD design process, the team tested three scenarios: text, less text, and too much text. They selected a middle ground of moderate text plus all the other rich media. Then they developed a standard process for writing the text.

The UCD team won the reward-a trip to Dubai!

Moving into UCD

Moving into UCD requires significant change. The group’s process changes to that of a collaborative team with new roles and competencies. User analysis never stops through the product-development process. Analysis, design, development, planning, even production all require attention to the customer.

The new collaborative team also requires new job titles, new roles, and a new pay scale. In promoting the shift, information-development managers have to work closely with product developers, product marketers, senior management, and staff in human resources to ensure that rewards follow the new strategy. CIDMIconNewsletter

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