Usability Engineering – A Key Component of Software Product Development

User experience is increasingly emerging as a key competitive advantage for software products. A software product that meets the customer needs, but unable to appease user passion, is not considered a winner anymore. Hence, it is critical today that ISVs are able to provide their users a compelling user experience – by focusing on aesthetics, and factoring in the ease of use and efficiency of use.

Everybody wants a usable product- but more often than not, product teams pays less attention to usability. Though usability is a key to arrive at many architecture and design decisions, generally usability is not treated as part of architecture or design, but often treated as a “feature” or as something that can be built along the way towards end of the product development lifecycle. Unfortunately, if this process is followed, the outcome is rarely a usable product.

As a result of this, ISVs are facing challenges to attract new customers, improve their product’s effectiveness and increase customer c satisfaction. This shows that not having a proper usability engineering approach can poses a significant risk to the success of a product.

As we all know, usability is not an end product; rather a principle that makes products more useful, efficient and user friendly. Good usability is not just graphic layouts like, how does the form looks, how to display complex information, or where the button sits, but a process of analyzing current work practices, and innovating to integrate this work practices with potential product requirements. In other word, Usability Engineering is a study of human behaviors, actions, psychology, and needs, and connecting the result of this analysis with the software product being built. Contemporary usability engineering practices include a specialized contextual method of understanding the users and their needs.

First step of Usability Engineering is observation and contextual analysis of the end user while they go through the day-to-day activities as they relate to the product being designed. Based on this exercise a report is prepared outlining the understanding of the user and their needs as well as their pain areas. Once this is done User Experience (UX) analysts synthesize this information, with their expertise in Human machine interface, develop user experience models and produce design recommendations.

This user experience models and design recommendations are then analyzed by product architects and design teams and used as an input to software architecture and design. It is important that during the design phase, proposed user experience models are validated with users. This validation is generally dome by a wire frame, and used to ensure that the usability theme and characteristics of the product meet the needs of the user. Once this is validated, design and development of the product is commenced.

Following a product development process that includes usability engineering principles and usability tasks & deliverables ensures an enhanced appreciation of the user. Apart from enhanced customer satisfaction, following benefits are also observed:

Usage of usability engineering principles ensures and user experience models are factored in the product design and validated at early stage. This ensures minimum iterations and low rework, resulting in reduced time to market. The reduced number of iterations and shorter product development cycle also provide significant cost savings to the ISV.

Since the product is built using user experience models, one of the major cost savings can be realized by a significant reduction in the support the product requires when it reaches the market. In 2004, McAfee®reported a 90% reduction in the expected support of their product by implementing an innovative method of user interaction (i.e. a dashboard-type management console).

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