NN/g News

When Management's Vision Doesn't Match Usability Needs - UX World Tour Chicago

November 17, 2000

By Kara Pernice
Jakob Nielsen speaks in Chicago
Jakob Nielsen speaks in Chicago

CHICAGO, Illinois, November 17, 2000.  In the Chicago leg of the World Tour, about three hundred people attended the main event. When talking with those attendees, much of the discussion surrounded a particular challenge--what to you do when the decision-makers in your organization influence applications, making them unusable. This issue is common, so much so that both Tog and Don Norman discuss it and stress that management, marketing, and development are not the enemies. Both experts acknowledge the natural tension between functional groups, but agree that usability professionals, designers, and people in other functions need to find the balance between business needs, sales goals, customer desires, and usability. Some Chicago World Tour attendees have already embarked on the mission to work with management, not against them, in making products and Web sites usable.

A Data Analyst at a non-profit medical organization says he has encountered difficulties in just explaining what usability is to people in management positions. "In my organization most people, including the Director, don't understand the basic concept of usability and human computer interaction. Hard to convey it to some people." While this is a challenge, a few methods he has used have been successful. "I have prepared some documentation about the product type, done task analysis. Every time we have a meeting I prepare all the topics and my opinions." While he acknowledges all the preparation before each meeting is time-consuming, it is helping him make some headway.

An IT Solutions Analyst at a Size 100 business-to-business e-commerce company says her company has no usability resources now and the products suffer. "It's difficult for the managers to apply their business model to the Web," she said. "I love my company, but it's difficult because it's so large." Getting management to agree that usability is important is not an issue. Getting them to act on it is. "Decisions take so long in a company with over 6,000 people. We put things out and see who complains."

Often it takes these actual customer complaints to help managers, and anyone who doesn't fully understand the way users work, to understand how severe usability issues can be. An Internet marketing manager at a business-to-business distributor of industrial products said, "One of the challenges I see is that a lot of the enhancements are focused on the dollar value of the Web site. We [usability] came in 18th out of 26 issues to be fixed. Profitability and revenue stream were higher."

In this case, those directives resulted in a good-looking, but unusable site. "The site was well done in terms of graphic design. It was a beautiful interface." It was impressive to look at, but difficult to us. She added, "There were complaints out there. Customer said, 'These darn graphics. Just show me the button so I can order. Don't show me graphics.' " Even with these complaints, the graphics appeared there on the live site. The marketing manager said that upper-management listened to the feedback, and allowed them to change and take away the graphics to improve the usability. "To the credit of the management, they said, 'We are really bad and we need to do something.' We talked to customers in September and we have now migrated back to a much more simple interface," she said. "It's definitely on the road to improvement. We removed the graphics. Load times have gone down from 25 seconds to a 2 second load, which a lot of customers commented positively about."

The profitability issues we see in for-profit businesses can also be present in nonprofit organizations . An Electronic Learning Coordinator at a nonprofit education organization says that of course money is still an issue, but in a different way from what she experienced when working in for profit organizations. "The good and bad side of nonprofit development is you have to sell your ideas for government grants to corporate institutions, to the donor. You are picking an idea and selling it to folks." Even in nonprofit, there is sometimes a hierarchical influence that impacts usability. She adds, "A while ago there was a sudden change. People were asking 'what's the new market? Oh, it's kids.' All the focus groups came up with a bland design for kids: all bright graphics, movement, and sound. Not focusing on the contents for kids or what the kids want. Enticement is important, but you don't want to lose the core purpose to what your site is trying to do."

Malinda J. Frybarger, who manages an IT Intranet Web site at an IT Contracting firm has some positive suggestions for getting upper-management support for usability. Initially, the problem they faced was that people were too busy to make time for usability activities. "There's just not enough time, so if there is no accountability or overall direction, it doesn't happen," she said. In order to unify all the different organizations contributing to one huge Intranet site, she believes the managers need to be directive, as well as lead by example. She wanted managers to see the issues and actually use the site. "We're working with senior management to get them to use the Web for their needs. Lead by example. Also make it directive." There are two important ways her team gets management involved in a positive way, she explained. First, they give the executives some actual value. "We're providing restricted Web sites for their meetings. Giving them help on their own personal use of the Web. For example, one place to go for all of their meeting information: the agenda, the location, the presentations, and later the minutes. This has worked nicely because it has given them a personal benefit to using the intranet." The second way they ensure this success, she explains is, "We work very closely with their administrative assistants. I equate that with the expression 'getting to a man's heart through his stomach.' Many executives don't always have time [to look at the Intranet site.] The administrative assistant will, and they can get their managers interested in approving it going forward."

Everyone quoted in the above article works in the Chicago area. Thank you to all the attendees who were interviewed, those quoted here and not quoted here.

Closing panel

Closing panel in Chicago (From left: Jakob Nielsen, Tog, Brenda Laurel, Don Norman)

Vendors in Chicago

An attendee in Chicago considers purchasing a book from one of the vendors at the conference