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Preface

Preface

This book is a guide to making usability a routine practice within an enterprise, be it commercial or government. Every organization has special needs: There is no one simple approach that fits all organizations. What this book provides, however, is a solid methodology, not for usability engineering (that's been done before and exists in various forms), but for the part that is truly missing—the institutionalization of usability. This institutionalization methodology is not new. It is simply a synthesis of the best practices and insights from hundreds of companies in the forefront of this effort. This book will give you insights into the appropriate institutionalization activities, infrastructure, and staffing. It will give you tips on how to recognize quality, and how to time and sequence components. The combination of elements is unique for each organization, but this book can be a road map, a mine detector, and a shopping list for you.

There is a misconception that the institutionalization of usability will simply be a matter of doing more of what we have done in the past. A simple analogy will illustrate why this is a misconception. Imagine that we are back in pre-industrial times and that we have a small hut in the forest where we have made a primitive brick forge to produce swords. We create the swords by using a hand bellows and then hammering the metal against a rock. We find the swords to be very useful and realize we need one for everyone in our army. We need thousands of swords. Is our solution to build lots of little huts? Of course not. We need a factory.

Today, the usability engineering process is still being done in a hut. Usability engineers are typically thrown alone into a large organization and left unsupported. There is no established user-centric methodology or set of tools. Every questionnaire is reinvented from scratch. Every deliverable is conceived and crafted by hand. Then we wonder why user-centered design can seem inefficient! It should be no surprise if the results are not consistent, not repeatable, and not reliable.

Currently, good usability practitioners know how to make software usable. We have a billion dollars worth of research and 50 years of practice. But, the usability industry has not matured nearly as much as the software development industry. Usability professionals rarely complete a systematic and repeatable methodology. They rarely work with a complete toolset and set of standards. They are rarely formally trained to complete all the tasks in their area of responsibility. They rarely have comprehensive quality assurance. And perhaps of greatest concern, they are rarely integrated into the routine development process. We know how to make an application usable, but we don't generally know how to put these techniques into practice in a systematic way that is efficient and works well within an organization.

This is the next frontier in the usability field and it is also the focus of this book. This book provides insights into the deep changes necessary to put user-centered design to work routinely within your organization. This book also provides a guided series of activities and milestones that will chart your course to fully mature and institutionalized usability engineering.

This book is about how to create a usability “factory.” It is about how to create a reliable and repeatable process. It is about how to ensure efficiency. Following this process means that usability efforts will have to be done differently than before. Just as a computer programmer would never suggest going back to the early days “in the garage,” no usability expert should accept the lack of a systematic methodology and professional infrastructure. Usability practitioners of the future will look back with amusement at our current piecemeal approach. This book is a guide to this more mature usability engineering process.

It is time for us to get serious about the institutionalization of usability because usability has become extremely important. Usability is now the key differentiator in the information age. Imagine the CEO of a large insurance company standing before her stockholders and telling them there is bad news this year. The company has been vanquished by the competition...because the competition has better laptop computers. Seems like an unlikely excuse? That's because hardware is now a commodity. It takes serious work to create good hardware, but everyone has it, and it does not represent a differentiator between companies. You just buy adequate hardware.

Hardware was the first wave of the information age. In the 1980s, it was a challenge to get adequate hardware, and it was an important differentiator that could determine corporate success. But at the end of the 1980s, the software industry realized that “software sells the hardware,” and good software became the differentiator. Companies who could create stable software with the right functionality won big. This was the second wave.

Now in the new millennium, software has become a commodity. Everyone can create a database. Everyone can get connectivity. Children can code in HTML. Software is no longer a differentiator. Software coding is being done with better and better power tools and being outsourced to countries with lower labor costs. We are now entering the third wave of the information age.

What is the remaining differentiator in this information age? It is the ability to build practical, useful, usable, and satisfying applications and web sites. Very few companies do this well, because this requires creating a full and integrated usability engineering capability. As you will see throughout this book, the journey to routine usability requires a serious effort and the path has many pitfalls.

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