I popped down to the Slug & Lettuce on Wardour St last night for the Chinwag panel discussion on "Real World Usability". It was a good evening but ultimately the free bar and comfy sofas didn't quite make up for the lack of direction in the discussion.
The event page talks about usability being at a "crossroads":
Will the harsher economic climate mean that usability experts focus back on the core issues of performance and efficiency, or will an increasingly sophisticated and demanding marketplace force us to push the boundaries?
Usability experts at Chinwag Live will discuss the issues confronting the industry. How can user centred design fit with agile development or the 'permanent beta'? Are today's usability experts ready for rich applications and the death the the Web page metaphor? Is user testing becoming commoditised - and can testing firms survive that?
None of those topics were discussed in much detail but the panel can't really be blamed for that as they were mostly responding to questions from the audience.
There is general skills shortage in the field of usability/user experience design (UX). Suggested reasons for this were that UX is not really a taught skill but tends to be learned on the job. An unscientific show of hands indicated that less than 5% of people in the room had any formal training in usability. Additionally the nature of UX requires a very broad spectrum of skills in order to be involved at every level within the company, from management to design to development to quality assurance to customer support.
Cheap, simple, quick user testing is all you need. Andy Budd in particular repeated this message nearly every time he got the mike! Unless you require statistically accurate measurements of the usability of a system with defined margins of error, you don't need a meticulously planned test in a lab with two-way mirrors and hundreds of participants. All you need is a 'user' (friend, family, customer, stranger off the street etc.), a computer and a means to record the user's actions. User testing is a design tool, not a scientific experiment.
Agile is good but fitting UX into it isn't always straightforward. A lot of lip service was paid to Scrum and agile development in general. The way that is encourages people from all disciplines to meet and communicate regularly has many advantages for user centred design. However some people found that the UX person in the scrum became a bottle-neck and was always in demand. One solution was to do the user testing after the sprint, as part of the demonstration to the product owner. The results of the testing are then fed into the next sprint. That only works on projects spread over at least four sprints. Another interesting method mentioned was RITE as used by Microsoft in game development.
As usability professionals, how do we get our recommendations acted upon? Several audience members expressed frustration at being unable to get their work implemented. Suggestions included building a UX philosophy into the company culture, not something which happens over-night. Additionally relating everything back to profit can be a good way to attract the attention of those in charge. Demonstrating user frustration, e.g. a video of a potential customer failing to purchase a product, can also be highly effective. The best suggestion came from another audience member: "Nag, nag, nag!"
What users say often does not match what they do. Having an active community of users is tremendously useful for soliciting feedback and suggestions for improvement but it is important to take that feedback with a pinch of salt. "People love giving feedback - even if they don't have any to give." Some people will say they love something even though they couldn't get it to work, others will always find something to hate. It's usually safe to ignore initial feedback after a big change but if people keep complaining after a few weeks then start to worry.
Usability will not solve all your problems.
A good user experience will not make a bad idea good. An external pure-usability company doesn't have much control over the 'idea' but for a small multi-disciplinary team within an organisation it may be within their remit to ensure the business model and proceses are not broken.
Designing personas is hard.
Finding test subjects who match those personas is also hard. Each project should include a 'search engine bot' persona.
Usability doesn't need to stifle innovation.
It is important to keep trying new ways to do things as long as we test them. New fields such as mobile and haptics (touch screens) require new rules and design patterns. However patents on gestures risk complicating the field by making standardisation impossible.
Although very little of the above was new to me it was still interesting to hear it again in a new context. I met some interesting people after the panel too. One suggestion particularly took my fancy: along with a CEO, CIO, CTO, CFO, CSO etc. why not have a CUO? Chief User Experience Officer!
Also of note was the fairly healthy male/female ratio. Although 5 out of the 6 panellists were male, the audience was getting pretty close to a 50/50 split.
The session was being recorded for podcast so I'll update this post hen they get it published.