Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Outsourcing the User Experience

Source : softwaremag.com

User experience outsourcing can achieve high-impact results for your software application and your bottom line. But it’s important to understand and avoid the inherent pitfalls in the outsourcing process.

Outsourcing has gotten a bad name for itself recently, in some measure because of the growing popularity of outsourcing to overseas markets in an attempt to reduce costs.

But outsourcing the User eXperience (UX) of a software application, website, or Web service is a horse of a different color. Although cost-saving can be a goal, UX work (including user research, analysis, and user-centered design) is much more frequently undertaken as a form of transformational outsourcing—it is used to improve the quality of the application and undertaken to have impact on the bottom line.

The drivers for engaging a UX firm effort may come from business initiatives (new functionality, an upcoming new release), brand and marketing (the need to upgrade an image or an outdated look), or simply feedback from clients, customers and users of an application: customers may be complaining that the application takes too long to complete; it may be hard to find critical information or functionality on a Web-based service; there may be too many calls to Technical Support for your product.

A redesigned user experience can be a critical tool to help companies:

Improve the quality of an application or suite of applications Attract or retain customers or users Increase sales Improve usability or “findability” of key features or content. (See Fig. 1.)

Common Pitfalls

When you decide to engage a UX vendor, you can’t help hoping for that perfect “honeymoon” scenario: you hire the outside vendor, they hand you results in a couple of months, you plug in the deliverables, and you sit back and wait for your bottom-line results to mushroom upwards.

But in reality, outsourcing the user experience is more like an internal project than a “black box” purchase of outside labor. It requires focus and participation from you as client to be most successful. You also need to avoid the more common problems and pitfalls that can derail a UX project.

Pitfall #1: Resistance from Existing Team Members

Introducing a new vendor to your existing design, development, or user experience team is bound to ruffle a few feathers. In some cases, there may be a single team member who thinks he or she is being replaced and, as a result, may get a little distressed, angry, or difficult to work with during the process.

Alternatively, your existing (external) development or design group may feel competitive with the UX vendor and will endeavor (consciously or unconsciously) to sabotage your UX project. An example of this is when one or more developers responsible for implementing a new front end wait until the deliverables come in before informing senior management that the design is “simply not doable” in the timeframe.

The Solution

Tactics that can successfully minimize resistance from team members include:

Getting people involved. Team members involved in implementation may be invited to requirements-setting sessions, for example, so their voices can be heard. Establishing clearly defined roles for the key players involved in implementation. Be sure that roles do not overlap too much, particularly with the vendor’s role. Defining a clear feedback process. Feedback from you and your team members to the vendor should be funneled through a single point-person (e.g., the project manager for the project). This gives team members a voice, while ensuring consistent and consolidated communication.

Pitfall #2: Inadequate or Unrealistic Requirements

Put simply, you will not get results from an outside UX effort unless there is a good set of requirements established as the first step in the effort. Without a requirements document of some kind, there is room for miscommunication, misinterpretation, and even finger-pointing at later stages of the project.

Requirements are often made that are vague, poorly worded, or inadequate in scope. This is usually the result of not taking adequate time to complete the “needs analysis process.” Conversely, you can have too many requirements, if you leave the vendor to collect requirements from stakeholders separately.

The Solution

Ideally, the setting of requirements is a joint effort at the start of a UX engagement, between the internal manager/stakeholders and the UX vendor. I call this work stage the needs analysis step. Make sure your UX vendor includes an adequate amount of resources and time to complete this stage.

During needs analysis, the UX team will collect information from you on subjects including your short- and long-term business goals, your technical constraints, your users or customers, and the scenarios for use.

By the end of this stage, you should have a mutually agreed upon, crisp definition of the requirements for the user experience, including things that must be in the design and what the users must be able to accomplish. Metrics for success can be included as part of the requirements, but they should be appropriate for the timeframe and budget (i.e., don’t expect to triple sales on a small five-figure budget or within a one-month timeframe). Be realistic.

Pitfall # 3: Surprises in the Deliverables

You’re not alone if you don’t like to be surprised in your deliverables from vendors. You’ve signed up for “X” and you expect “X” to be delivered.

But UX projects can go awry when clients and vendors don’t communicate about the nature of the end product. This can include poor definitions from the vendor about the total number of deliverables, the schedule for deliverables, or the form each deliverable will take.

Some clients expect the vendor to keep redesigning a front end “until it’s right,” for example, but the vendor may be expecting to do a maximum of two rounds of design reviews, plus a polish.

The Solution

Make sure the proposal or contract details (and explains, if necessary) the nature of the UX deliverables, including the expected format(s), and the number of rounds of revisions for each key deliverable. This is particularly important for flat-fee projects. Provisions for additional requests and timeframe extensions should be made as well.

Strategies for Successful UX Outsourcing

It’s not just about the vendor. As the client, you need to take a few steps to ensure success in any user experience project:

1) Establish your shared (stakeholder) goals. It’s up to you to get the stakeholders in the same room and discuss your reasons for bringing in the vendor. Before you start the engagement, try to define your shared vision for success, and what you ideally want out of the process. It helps enormously to have the stakeholders on the same page.

2) Outsource for discrete deliverables. If you know what you want upfront, you are more likely to get it from your vendor. Examples of some common user experience deliverables include:

  • User research (including usability testing of an existing application, or interviews with your client base)
  • User-centered requirements (user scenarios, task analysis, requirements documents)
  • Look & feel deliverables (key pages or all pages of the application in Photoshop files or production-level graphics)
  • User interface specifications or wireframes
  • Entire front-end design

3) Involve team members early and consistently. To avoid resentment and resistance to the outsourcing effort, engage your existing team members in the process, and establish clear roles between them and the outside firm for the duration of the project. This helps eliminate the “us versus them” mentality and the negative feelings that can sabotage an important redesign or UX project.

Eliciting input from team members will also help the outside team create better user experience deliverable(s) for your company. And by involving team members early, you set the stage for ownership of the final design or hand-off of project deliverables, which will help you take your software application further, faster.

Meryl Enerson is president and founder of Enervision Media, Inc., a user-centered research and design consultancy. She has assisted numerous organizations in evaluating and improving the user experience of their websites and applications.

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