Contributed by:  Shashank Deshpande (Director, Clarice Technologies)

Prior to founding Clarice, he worked as Chief of Technical Staff at Human Factors International. Shashank institutionalized the usability function at VERITAS & Symantec. He built a 25+ group of designers that designed several award winning products in the enterprise software segment.

 

In today’s fast-paced world, people expect things to simply work for them with no prior experience or training. One plugs in an everyday gadget like a digital camera or a printer and expects it to install, configure and work without asking incomprehensible instructions written in ‘Read me’ files or thick user manuals.

With regard to this, Microsoft in a recent survey found that most consumers use only 10% of the features offered in Microsoft Word. The remaining 90% features are either too complex for them or are ‘over-engineered’ for routine office tasks. All that users care about today is getting the most routine task accomplished with minimum effort, but more often than not, they are inundated with thousands of features that require extensive training.

The user’s first encounter with the product or service is important, since the success of an organization is the result of a positive user experience. Apple’s huge success with iPod is a direct consequence of its carefully crafted strategy on user-centered innovation and design simplicity.

What works for homes with everyday gadgets and home computers is true for commercial software used in organizations to run their businesses. The economic costs of IT complexity is hard to quantify but probably exorbitant. A lot of what customers buy and pay for is never used due to complexity. The Standish group, a research outfit that tracks corporate IT purchases, found that 66% of all IT projects either fail outright or take much longer to install than expected because of their complexity. Among the very big IT projects – those costing over $10m apiece – 98% fall short. CIOs throughout the corporate world have thus tightened budgets and are unwilling to pay for software that requires lengthy and expensive training to use or require high skilled tech workers to make complex technology work for them.

After two decades of the usability revolution initiated by Apple Computer before Microsoft took over, several companies in personal and commercial software space are getting serious about usability – to reduce complexity and improve productivity. A good user experience no longer demands the latest cutting-edge technology, but thoughtful integration of user centered design with technology.

Industrial designers in software design

In India, industrial designers are playing a key role in shaping usability functions of many software companies. Professionals who are adept at designing physical products from washing machines to mixers or grinders are now defining informational products like software, web sites, mobile applications and computer games. Design professionals have traditionally applied their aesthetic sensitivity and knowledge of materials and manufacturing to lend everyday products ease of use, shape, look, feel and emotional appeal. Similar knowledge and skills are now being applied to software products to reduce information overload and help users find the right option from array of buttons, menu items to icons.

Institutes like National Institute of Design (NID) – Ahmedabad, IIT Mumbai’s Industrial Design Center and several other IITs run graduate and postgraduate level courses that train industrial designers in software usability.

Value-addition opportunity for Indian Industry

Indian companies can leverage a pool of talent that is available to help deliver higher value to its customer – either in reducing complexity or improving productivity. Very early R&D companies like VERITAS software and NIIT realized the need for user research and were early evangelizers of this profession. As the consulting companies like Infosys, Satyam, MBT, grew, they realized the importance of establishing dedicated groups focused on usability. In all, there are about 500+ usability professionals that are actively servicing about 60+ companies in India. Several UCD related conferences are held in various places that emphasize growing importance of the usability profession.

Our experience at various organizations has proved that early usability focus has resulted in tremendous customer satisfaction and positive user feedback. One of the success stories involves redesign of a data-center clustering solution – in this we were able to reduce configuration of two node cluster from more than three hours to less than 20 minutes. Similarly, setting up of backup scheduled jobs took about 15 clicks – now the same task takes less than five clicks and has eliminated several redundant inputs from the user.

There are many such examples that demonstrate usability value addition and quick return on investment. Focus on users and their tasks, will make software from India not only technologically competent, but highly usable as well.

Indian software companies strive for CMM level 5 and attaining this quality goal helps them to raise the bar to compete with international players. Similar commitment would be worthwhile to pursue in the Usability domain – this may result in significant benefits for customer – improving productivity and satisfaction.

Challenges facing usability today

There are few challenges down this path:

1. Access to user community:

Most of the software that is developed in India is targeted at the western market. How do we account for different user behaviors and expectations in different cultures?

Our observation, we have observed that in case of business software, cultural differences are virtually non-existent.

For example, employees in a bank in India perform largely the same task as their counterparts in other countries. At Veritas, we had observed that system administrators managing IT infrastructure for large manufacturing or financial institutions have identical management & administration tasks as their western counterparts.

General eco-system of an organization vary due to cultural differences, but these are more aesthetic than behavioral related. In a business
context, software behavior issues cause large number of usability problems.

Also, many companies are sending usability engineers to customer locations and bringing back observations and notes for design. Many collaboration web tools like WebEx or NetMeeting are used for design evaluation. User may be sitting thousands of miles away in a different time zone, but can give effective feedback on designs over the web. When VERITAS’ flagship product – BackupExec – was tested with Indian customers in Mumbai, usability members across different geographies participated to understand user concerns.

2. Buy-in from Management and Engineering:

Most Indian Managers and Engineers are excellent when it comes to dealing with technology. In addition, it is very important to have a good understanding of the business and market context to succeed in user-centric products. Most offshore engineering or project managers are clearly concerned about delivery of quality code within available resources. Various other issues including usability that lead to market and overall business success are on a distant horizon. Also, the other challenge is to integrate software development process with user centered design process – there are a lot of options and opinions, but no silver bullet solution. This needs careful negotiation with all stakeholders to ensure that user concerns are addressed effectively.

Improving usability awareness among managers through training or a sensitization program has yielded good results. Manager and lead engineers buy-in is very crucial for any usability program to succeed.

Commitment from management in form of budgets to hire resources and buy tools is important for success. Microsoft employs more than 250+ usability professionals who get involved at various stages of the software development process to improve ease of use and intuitiveness of their products. Similarly, Oracle has made huge investments to build a 100 people team and runs usability test labs at different locations to test if their product suit users.

3. Experience of talent pool:

India has talented resources in design, but seems to lack skill sets in user research and testing. Experienced professionals are required for establishing & institutionalizing this field. The profession is now 8-10 years old and has good number of senior professionals that are heading usability organizations in various companies – essentially grooming fresh talent that comes out many academic institutions & private training organizations.

Advantage: Indian usability professionals

With all the challenges of offshore projects, this is an exciting opportunity for usability professionals to ride the maturing Indian software  industry in delivering a superior customer experience. Taking cue from Indian philosophy, this has been always our goal to make every visitor or guest feel special due to their association with us. Our cultural and social setting is assimilative – trying to accommodate others with self. This  unique anthropological characteristic is one of the prime reasons why Indian designers can help deliver a more welcoming experience to end users and ultimately to the customer. Increasing number of usability consulting companies in India is a clear indication of growing interest in usability professionals from Indian design schools.

Conclusion:

As Indian companies mature from plain code writers to undertake some of the higher-valued research, analysis, designs or evaluation activities, it would be prudent for them to seek help of usability professionals to deliver superior user experiences. This vital value addition will go down very well to win respect of customers and end-users. There are several companies in India that have realized the importance of user experience and have set up dedicated groups to focus on this activity. In spite of challenges, usability professionals have a good opportunity to leverage their anthropological mindsets to make the user feel happy with their experience of products ‘Designed in India’.

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