User-Centered Design with Russ Burtner

What is User-Centered Design? According to Russ Burtner it's a philosophy, though after the hour I spent listening to him today at lunch, I think he might be able to formalize it into a religion given more time.  Myself and about 20 other people had the privilege of listening to Russ as he tried to seed a culture of user-focus at PNNL and sell the idea of incorporating it into the proposal process at the lab.  Along the way we learned his iterative appraoch to applying user-centered design and the dividends it can yield.

Usability Pays, So Pay For Usability

Russ cited a number of anecdotes and studies that confirm usability has a great ROI.  One study in 2000 determined that every dollar spent on marketing returned 5 in sales; however, spending that same dollar in usabilty returned 60 dollars in sales.  Also, every software engineer knows solving problems in design is a lot cheaper than solving problems during maintenance, so take that same approach to solving the problem of "how is the user going to use this?".

Don't Use Techniques, Adapt Techniques

At various points during the talk, Russ was keen to point out that usability is subjective and, despite numerous guidelines, its application is subjective as well.  You need to adapt what you know to the situation.  You don't need to apply every principle, process, or practive.  On the design side, you don't need to plunge into every technique for every project, weight yourself by asking: Is this evolution or revolution? Is this a known or unknown user? Is this an old or new product?  If you're racing into a new epoch with unknowable denizens, then you need to invest a lot of time in understanding.  If you're more incremental, you can spend less time.

Another dimension to consider during implementation time is that good techniques may not be good for you.  Putting too many slices on a pie graph means you're the mistake of applying without adapting.  It ties into the simple idea that the user doesn't always want "more" they want "mine". 

Usability is Broken; Make It Your Job To Fix It

Usability is not a core capability for PNNL or most companies.  It's doesn't have a paragraph in the agenda.  Yet, every single product going out the door has users, thus the onus is on us to make every product useful and usable.  At PNNL, we do have a collective feeling that we're the only ones who never see our users and we do have a funding model that encourages us to satisfy clients who are far divorced from users.  This isn't as completely unique to PNNL as everyone thinks it is.  <%= insert Microsoft comment here =>.

Back at Seagull Scientific, we could have had access to our users.  They weren't working with classified data in remote locations. However, the company culturally did not consider usability as a core capability and, as a side-effect, we relied entirely upon the Dunning-Kruger-powered decision engine of management.

I admire Russ for taking up the cause of fixing usability as "not my job" in the organization. I do know that his fight may not pay dividends in the immediate future, but I would count on a usability expert to understand that some work is not just for the here and now. Sometimes you must put time and expertise into a task for the sole purpose of no longer nurturing a broken system later.