USER EXPERIENCE: a unique investment opportunity that pays high dividends
When planning any IT project—whether it’s a large enterprise-wide application or a small tool intended for a few users—User Experience skills and disciplines can help to guarantee successful adoption and integration into new or current work processes, effectively reducing rework, frustration and costs. Julie Rodriguez and Matt Hull discuss the high returns firms can expect when incorporating UX into their technology initiatives.
If the return on an investment was guaranteed to be at least 1,000%, wouldn’t everyone want to capitalize on it? The obvious answer is yes. But in reality, when it comes to investing in User Experience (UX), many firms are reluctant to participate because they are unfamiliar with UX, its attributes and potential—and don’t already have the right strategy in place to support it.
What is User Experience?
UX is a field that focuses on the user’s experience with a product, system or service and works to understand their needs, goals and desires. A UX team aims to understand the full context of use by considering the user’s environment, skill set, expectations, responsibilities and various scenarios of use to complete specific tasks effectively. Part art and part science, UX introduces simplicity in complex systems, efficiency in disjointed workflows and beauty in the mundane. At the core, UX engages and coordinates interested parties throughout the project lifecycle with a proven set of methods to produce useful and usable results. Standard UX practices center around the following disciplines and techniques: user interviews and analysis; user testing, rapid prototyping, information architecture; visual design and interaction design; and, front-end development and coding.
When practiced effectively, UX delivers high returns on all planned technology initiatives by helping to prevent countless changes and rework during a project lifecycle. To underscore the issues with changes that occur in latter project phases, Robert Pressman, author of Software Engineering: A Practitioner’s Approach, wrote that for every dollar spent to resolve a problem during product design, $10 would be spent on the same problem during development and $100 or more if the problem needed to be addressed after the product’s release. This data is in line with both usability expert Jacob Nielson and IEEE’s article, “Why Software Fails.” Nielson writes in a recent article this year, “Early focus on usability also vastly boosts ROI; it’s 100 times cheaper to fix a design flaw on the drawing board than after product launch.” According to the IEEE article,
How UX Adds Value
Consider this example: In the real world, IT managers try to satisfy their business users’ needs as well as respond to market conditions and various outside regulatory forces. As a result, they often look to fast-track features and functionality into existing systems. This process, while satisfying to the forces that demand it, can often lead to frustration and other challenges for the community that is tasked with using the system.
While expediting new functionality delivers short-term gains, it often causes long-term pain because the focus is on meeting the immediate business need and not on how the system will actually be used in the long run. To address this issue, a thorough analysis and comparative landscape can help smooth adoption, uncover realistic pain points and provide a road map for future scalability. Simple upfront activities, such as interviewing users, mapping current processes against future workflows and laying out screen elements to be user-tested in a prototype are low-cost tasks that generate high-yield results. These activities produce outputs that will also benefit future similar projects, and therefore can be considered the UX dividend of the initial investment cost.
A typical UX practitioner will ask questions of the business from the context of how the person intends to use the system, and in turn, ask questions of the intended audience members to elicit their input. One effect of this upfront participation is that there is a greater likelihood that the features and functions built will deliver what the user community is expecting. Additionally, the UX outputs help developers understand through visuals, including diagrams, mock-ups and use cases, exactly how each element of the tool should work and what it does.
Robust UX practices include several specialized disciplines that work together. These include:
- Information Architects who assist business analysts in understanding the user community and how that community will engage with the information and work through their tasks to achieve their goals
- Visual Interaction Designers who conceive of the interfaces and features which assist in expediting user tasks based on convention, patterns and usability studies
- Interaction Developers who create and build responsive interfaces that are flexible enough to accommodate data and content from multiple sources and work efficiently on multiple devices
These teams work iteratively through problems and in conjunction with one another (as well as the user community) to insure that all proposed features and interactions are feasible and will satisfy the end goal.
Case Study : Fund Documentation Tool
Consider the case of a large investment banking firm that wanted to simplify the way its customer service representatives located and distributed product documentation. The development team was given one month to develop a new front-end mechanism that could pinpoint the necessary documents quickly and easily. Once implemented, the tool would be used by over one thousand investment professionals to look up and distribute product documentation to expedite client communications. The team decided to use standardized UI components and a straightforward search interface in order to deliver the tool within a matter of weeks. However, the team lacked a qualitative set of business requirements, including actual usage scenarios and integration opportunities with existing business processes. As a result, the initial implementation, while successful at providing search capabilities, fell short of user expectations around search criteria and made it difficult for users to weed through the results to find the relevant information. The development cycle continued over ten iterations and six months of overrun due to a lack of upfront input from business users, little recognition of the inherent UI concerns and no documented requirements. In the end, the overall development effort for recoding was over four times the budgeted amount. This overrun could have been avoided by gathering input from UX professionals during the project design phase and doing some upfront UX planning.
Figure 2 illustrates this example. In the figure, the bubble size represents the increased IT spend as more iterations required recoding. The multiple cycles back and forth between demos to users and additional requests lengthened the development lifecycle and pushed out the deployment date.
Poorly designed software that does not support employees’ tasks will negatively impact a firm’s bottom line, competitive advantage and ability to scale to take on additional clients. In this case study, providing investment professionals with a simple and intuitive method to quickly find and give their clients a comprehensive list of available products that meets their needs becomes a powerful enabler to grow the top line. Unfortunately, when the filter set that was developed did not match the client expectation—a detail missed in the design phase—a fundamental change was required to the data model as the project approached its deadline. This caused considerable challenges for the firm. First, moving the launch deadline for the new system meant using the original manual approach much longer than expected. Second, poor planning as to how the system should work made it difficult to scale to add more features. And finally, since no one on the development team created a roadmap, the short-sighted solution was much more likely to fail and cause problems well into the future.
In this particular case study, one significant flaw was the design of the system, which did not consider preventing users from making errors. The manner in which the combination of search and filtering worked made it easy to assume that there were zero results in the data set, when in fact that may not have been the case. For example, when users combined search terms, such as “Equity” and “Emerging Markets,” the result set may have come back null, when, in fact, there were several equity products categorized as emerging markets. The simple distinction of including an ‘‘And’’ versus ‘’Or’’ statement in the data set is not explicitly stated. Well-designed systems that incorporate UX provide safeguards against such errors.
The effects of the recoding, which were required due to a lack of understanding of the user needs early on in the process, illustrate the negative return on the development investment realized by the firm. The alternative approach of upfront investment in UX and understanding how information would be accessed and used would have provided a greater return, not just on this development project, but on future possible enhancements. In essence, this is the dividend provided by UX. When developers have clear direction and a detailed understanding of how the system should react based on user intervention, the time and money spent to develop is more efficient and cost effective.
A couple of weeks of UX at the beginning of the project may have truly made this a small-scale development effort—as intended. However, in the end, it took six times as long to complete the project than originally planned.
The investment community that the system was designed for has responded with feedback that the solution is not what was expected. Most of the target users of the system do not have time to attend the necessary training. Instead, the high learning curve led to low adoption rates among the target audience. Today, the majority of investors at the firm in our case study do not use the system. The interim patch provides a stop-gap solution and assigns the task of using the system to the firm’s already overloaded administrative support team. This impacts the turnover rate of the support personnel that must take on a large number of low-value tasks that provide little room for career growth. And because the support personnel were asked to handle more tasks, the number of errors made in the poorly designed system has also dramatically increased. From the training requirements to the low adoption rates and human errors, the system has negatively affected the user experience.
Scenarios like the one featured above are not uncommon for firms in today’s capital and commodity markets. Yet they are easily avoided. The majority of issues the firm featured in our case study had with its new system could have been circumvented by incorporating UX into the initial project design. Working with the future system users to understand their needs, environments and work habits would have helped to minimize project delays and dramatically improve adoption.
An upfront investment in UX ensures that solutions will be useful, usable and desirable. In other words, UX “pays for itself” long after it’s leveraged in project design. The findings of user research, in conjunction with the analysis and design specifications created by UX professionals, are dividends which can be paid forward to future enhancements of existing products, as well as to new tools and products yet to be conceived.
is a Boston-based Associate Creative Director with experience in user research, analysis and design of complex systems. Within the capital and commodity markets domain, Julie has delivered pioneering solutions in such areas as wealth management, investment research, securities lending, commodities and retail and institutional trading platforms.
is a Boston-based Information Architect Manager with fifteen years of experience helping clients through user research and analysis of complex business systems within the institutional and retail financial industry. Matt focuses on understanding user needs to deliver strategic business system designs across a variety of financial products and platforms.