Summary: Usability goes beyond the level of individual users interacting with screens. It's also a question of how easy or cumbersome it is for the entire organization to use a system.
We can consider usability at three different levels:
- Individual users. At this level, we examine what happens as a person tries to operate a user interface. Is it easy or difficult to find things and make desired actions happen? We tend to focus on this level because it has the most direct impact on screen design. Also, most websites, software applications, and consumer devices are single-user designs. Finally, this level is crucial because if individuals can't figure out how to work with your design, the larger levels are irrelevant.
- Groups of users. Many designs aim to coordinate multiple users; the design's usability therefore depends on more than an individual user's ability to click buttons. At this level, it also matters whether the UI helps or hinders group efforts. Examples here range from chat systems and social media to applications that support multi-user workflows, such as a company's hiring process.
- The enterprise. At this level, the focus is on how the system impacts the company over time, including issues in administration, installation, and maintenance. Total cost of ownership (TCO) is often one of the most important usability metrics at the enterprise level.
Usability Issues: Enterprise Examples
Enterprise usability issues are most common in big companies, but they're an issue for smaller companies as well. I recently encountered one in my own small company, for example. To help us analyze our user research results, we use various types of software. I received a DVD with a bunch of files for one of these applications from a colleague who had conducted a major study. Since I hadn't been able to observe this study in person, I was eager to dig into the raw files and see what had happened in the lab.
When I tried to open the DVD files, I got the following error message: "Files are missing from the recording." I initially thought that either my colleague had forgotten to burn some files onto the DVD or that the DVD had become corrupted. Neither was true. As it turned out, he was simply using a newer version of the software than I was.
This example reveals two usability problems at two different levels:
- At the individual user level, the error message was misleading. The message should have clearly stated that the problem related to the software version, not to missing files. This violates the long-known guidelines for error message usability.
- At the enterprise level, the deeper problem is that one version of the software can't read files produced by another version. This imposes a burden on the organization to synchronize upgrades and make sure that everybody is always using the same version. In a big company, this creates extra work for the system administrators. In a small company like mine, synchronization might be overlooked.
Complex rules often cause enterprise usability problems. For example, airlines are notorious for the complexity of their fare structures. This causes individual-user problems on travel sites, as well as enterprise problems for the airlines themselves, because the complex fares complicate many other business processes. In addition to needing more staff to handle customer inquiries, airlines suffer lower customer satisfaction.
Government regulations can be the worst of all. To comply with federal regulations each year, small companies in the United States spend $7,647 per employee and big companies spend $5,282 per employee (according to the government's own estimates). This $1.1 trillion drain on the economy could easily be cut in half if legislators and agencies would consider how easy or difficult it is to handle the paperwork they impose on companies. Simplification would be especially beneficial for small companies that don't have dedicated specialists on staff and thus suffer more from usability problems in complicated government forms and rules.
Negotiation-free deals are a rare example of good enterprise usability. When you want to advertise on a search engine, you simply go to its site and enter your ad and your bid. Several search engines offer one-click access to distribute your ads on their network of additional websites, without having to negotiate any further deals. Whenever lawyers get involved, business opportunities die because of delays and friction. Self-service deals are a boon to enterprise usability because they let individual decision-makers move ahead and spend their budgets as they see fit.
Usability Methods Vary By Scope
Because of different scopes in usage, the usability methods required to ensure good design also vary across the three levels.
User testing assesses the UI's immediate effect: What happens while people are clicking around? It's the perfect method for evaluating usability at the individual level. We can expand user testing to the group level by testing multiple users at the same time. For example: We can network two labs together, place a user in each lab, and watch them solve a problem using the target collaborative application. Workflow support for long-term processes might be slightly trickier to test, since you can't just test all the users at the same time. However, it can be done, typically by testing one stage at a time.
Field studies are always good for identifying unmet user needs at any usability level, but they become especially important as we broaden our scope. At the enterprise level in particular, you must observe in-context behavior to determine how to fit the design to the organization's needs.
Design standards help individual users by enforcing UI consistency; they also promote group-level usability and collaboration by ensuring consistent element naming across screens. At the enterprise level, design standards increase help desk productivity by reducing the number of calls and making it more likely that agents will know the answers to the remaining questions.
Customer roundtables are a little-used method that's particularly good for enterprise usability. At the individual level, we want to study users, not customers. That is, we want to observe the people who hold the mouse, not their managers or the big bosses who sign the checks. This is one of the key differences between usability methods and marketing methods. But, for enterprise usability, we need to study the people who run the organization and who know the pain points at levels above an individual contributor's job. Customer roundtables are a good supplement to field studies: they bring together a small group of sysadmins or managers to discuss their own experiences with larger issues of the product's use.
Individual usability is pretty much a solved problem. We have the usability methods down pat, and anybody can learn the most important ones in a few days. We also have thousands of guidelines that are known to enhance usability for individual users.
Group-level usability and enterprise usability are less well defined: they've been researched less and are more variable. This doesn't mean that you should ignore these levels. On the contrary, it means that you should make sure to study them in your own organization.