User-centered design is typically part of the development budget. The information architects, interaction designers, usability consultants are all part of the development budget and schedule. When a project is delayed because of usability changes it reflects on the entire development organization. The usability facilities and staff are counted as part of the development budget. But I wonder if this is where the impact or perceived benefits of user-centered design is felt.
Product Development is Difficult
I argue that the benefits of user-centered design are not perceived as part of the development group. But all of the costs are associated with the development group. This makes it very difficult for the development group to be supportive of a user-centered lifecycle. Product development is a very complex process. Often because of the integration of different technologies it is incredible that a product works at all. How many times have you marvelled at the fact that you got the application server to read and successfully parse the information from the payroll system and convert it into a standard XML schema (or something like this)? The fact that it works is impressive. When working with existing systems the integration is difficult and it is a wonder that the system works at all, never mind, that it does conversion properly.
User-centered design is political
The benefits of user-centered design in a large organization are not necessarily felt by the development team. For an internal application such as an customer-relationship management (CRM) application or an employee relationship management application (ERM, read HR system) are not felt by the development team. As customers we benefit from the user-centered process done by the vendor for developers, hopefully they’ve designed and tested their development tools, APIs and administration tools. But benefits of a user-centered process are felt by the training and documentation teams, the help/support desk and by the end-user themselves. None of these groups is traditional a political power house in most organizations. The development team assumes all of the risks and costs of doing user-centered design but does not recieve the benefits.
Sure user-centered design reduces the amount of documentation required to use a system. And yes it reduces the training costs and the number of calls to your help/support desk. It plays right in to the hands of these departments. " Look we’ve reduced trouble tickets by 50%" And development was 6 months behind schedule (because we were correcting interface bugs). Don’t get me wrong, as an organization I want to reduce my documentation, training and support costs. It becomes more difficult to justify as part of the development team.
Where User-Centered Design Matters
Where user-centered design matters is on the web. Lane Becker of AdaptivePath discusses the benefits of self-service web applications. He discusses the benefits of cost reduction through self-service web applications for businesses. The user experience of these self-service applications is critical to their adoption, success and eventual reduction in costs. Web applications don’t require a manual. We can not expect Web users to take hours of training to use your application. On the Web it is about the here and now. Recognition versus recall.
Users need to be able to use your application the first time they see it with zero training and very minimal documentation. The caveat is that for certain applications we can’t expect to make complex fields like optimizing the demand chain forecast for Walmart available to everyday users. Expertise and training are required to do many things, just because I can play hockey doesn’t mean I can play for the NHL. But we can expect them to update their address without years of training in the minors.
Does user-centered design cost more?
There are definitely applications where the user experience determines the adoption and use of the final product. There are other applications, mostly internally focused, where the product must be used regardless. For example, a poor user experience on a payroll system is not going to stop employees from using it (specially if using it is required to get paid). When I look at the costs of developing a system versus maintaining the system does user-centered design significantly reduce total price paid by companies? I have to go back and read Bias and Mayhew’s Cost-Justifying Usability or a Aaron Marcus’ Return on Investment for Usable User-Interface Design: Examples and Statistics (Thanks John).