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Why UX Should Matter to Software Companies

March 6, 2006

In this era of global competition and rapid software development, more than ever, companies must ship high-quality software products to succeed in the marketplace. A good—even great—user experience is an essential component of a quality software product and provides a sustainable strategic advantage that differentiates a product from those of a company’s competitors. Thus, user experience is a core competency within today’s software companies, and an expert in UX strategy and design is an indispensable part of a software product team—just as the product manager and software architect are—particularly if a team is working on a new product.

In my article “Sharing Ownership of UX,” in the May/June 2005 issue of Interactions, I wrote, “To deliver great, innovative products, it’s essential that there be visionaries behind them who are responsible for all design decisions, …ensuring that the product vision remains coherent and the user experience consistent. … From the perspective of users, the user experience is the product. Therefore, to understand the true value of UX, executives must look at their products’ brand equity, which contributes to a company’s bottom line and ensures its long-term survival.”

However, in Dirk Knemeyer’s February column for UXmatters, “The Role and Evolution of Design in Software Products,” seemingly playing devil’s advocate, he said, “…Dedicated design is simply not necessary for young products. After all, if an engineer can build a product that lots of people will buy and use, that makes a company money, and can create and update it in reasonably controlled periods of time, what impetus is there for good design? In fact …, in these cases, there is often no compelling business reason for immediately addressing design on such a product. Initially, getting to market—the right market—and differentiating a product through technology are essential.”

The track records of many software companies seem to contradict this viewpoint.

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What’s Wrong With This Picture?

According to Walker Royce, VP, IBM® Rational® Worldwide Brand Services, “In the software marketplace, … three out of four projects don’t succeed. … Real-world project experience has shown time and again that it is the early phases that make or break a project. It is therefore of paramount importance to have absolutely the right start-up team….”

Mike Devlin, CEO of IBM, and Paul Levy, CEO of Rational, recently wrote, “A poorly engineered product that gains wide visibility simply because it captures ‘first mover advantage’ will ultimately fail, due to low customer satisfaction. Products rushed into market will typically not live up to the expectations in the vast marketplace of the Internet.”

From the surveys the Standish Group has conducted over more than ten years, we have learned the following:

  • The most common reasons why software projects fail are
    • a lack of contact with users or understanding of user requirements
    • incomplete requirements and specifications
    • continually changing requirements and specifications
  • Only 28 percent of software projects succeed—that is, ship on time, within budget, and with all of the features originally planned.
  • Companies cancel 18 percent of all software projects before completing them.
  • Companies can’t accurately estimate development costs or time to market, because they don’t have a clear or complete understanding of what they’re trying to build.
    • 51 percent of software projects that are completed are significantly late, over budget, and/or do not include all essential features and requirements.
    • Cost overruns for most software projects are less than 20 percent of their projected budgets. However, if the calculation of average cost overruns includes those of failed software projects, the amount by which the average cost overrun exceeds original cost estimates balloons to 43 percent.

Too often, mistakes that startups make early in their existence preclude their success and seal their fates. In their rush to market, startup companies often develop poorly architected, poorly designed software products. If they don’t correctly define their product marketing requirements, their products will be DOA. But even if a company has an innovative technology solution that it has applied to the right problem and achieves some traction in the marketplace, if its product has a poorly designed user experience and a sloppy code base, the company may struggle and falter when confronted with the necessity of a complete redesign and/or redevelopment effort that usually arises sooner or later. Taking this approach is expensive, inefficient, and fraught with risk. The landscape of the software industry is littered with the remains of software companies who weren't able to recover from this mistake.

It’s not always the winning strategy to be first to market. Look at Apple®. They don’t rush products to market, but achieve success in the end through good design and ease of use.

While Dirk’s column accurately describes the way things often are now, just because something is the way it is doesn’t make it right or inevitable. As UX professionals, it’s our responsibility to look for ways to improve this situation and help both users and the companies who employ us to be successful.

What Can UX Professionals Do for Your Company?

In most cases, a software engineer simply isn’t the best person within a company to design a product’s user experience. While the user experiences of a few stellar products have been designed and developed by brilliant engineers, UX professionals are typically much better at UX design than engineers are. To get the best user experience in the least time possible, a company should hire the right person to do the job—someone with expertise in user experience.

Whether your company is a startup or a more mature company developing software products, investing in user experience can help make your company more successful. How can UX professionals help software companies to be successful? Let me count the ways:

  • UX strategists can envision great products and help steer a company’s course to ensure the realization of their product vision.
  • User researchers know how to elicit real user requirements and help ensure that companies develop the products their customers need.
  • UX strategists and designers are creative people who can contribute to both product and process innovation. Innovation is the lifeblood of a software company and is essential to its success.
  • UX designers can develop visual and interaction design patterns for implementation as software components for reuse in different software product lines.
  • UX designers create prototypes and write user experience specifications that set clear goals for product implementation and, thus, help engineers to work more effectively and efficiently, saving their companies development costs and improving time to market.
  • Usability professionals contribute to the iterative refinement of software product design and improve the quality of products. If usability testing occurs early in a product development cycle, software product revision, reimplementation, and maintenance costs are greatly reduced.
  • Usability professionals ensure that software products and Web sites are accessible to people with disabilities, and thus, help companies to meet their social responsibilities.
  • Well-designed products save companies money on training and technical support and help their people to work much more productively.
  • Collectively, UX professionals ensure that software products are desirable, useful, and usable, and thus, successful in the marketplace. They create user experiences that justifiably engender confidence, trust, and customer satisfaction—in some cases, even protecting a company from litigation.
  • The work of UX professionals provides sustainable—often patentable—product differentiation and a competitive advantage that results in good press, viral marketing, and increased sales, contributing greatly to companies’ economic success.

An Ideal Software Development Process

Modern development processes are iterative in nature and, thus, conducive to their integration with a usability engineering lifecycle, in which early usability testing leads to the iterative design refinement that produces better, more usable software products. However, at present, only about 30 percent of software companies employ modern development processes. The economic success of the software industry depends on the adoption of modern development processes, and UX professionals can help define and optimize such processes and encourage their adoption.

In an ideal software development process, UX professionals elicit user requirements through user research whenever possible and work closely with product management to define a software product’s marketing requirements. Once the product team has defined the product’s scope and, thus, has clear design objectives, UX modeling, design and prototyping, and usability testing occur iteratively, in parallel with software architecture. So, before coding even begins, the product team members know what they’re going to build: a product that users want and will find useful and usable. Before and during development, a UX architect works with engineering to ensure that the software architecture adequately supports the user experience, the user experience specifications meet technical constraints, and UX specifications are optimal and complete. The UX architect refines the specifications as necessary throughout the development cycle.

Following this process reduces risk, because the product team has validated that it is bringing the right product to the right market. Having clear objectives increases the likelihood that a product team will be able to successfully bring a software product to market.

Following this process is efficient, because it minimizes the need for recoding to address usability problems a team discovers late in a development cycle—recoding that often introduces bugs and creates instability in a software product. Unstable software is antithetical to a positive user experience, because it results in the betrayal of users’ trust, as Whitney Quesenbery’s UXmatters column, “Trust and Blame,” so aptly describes.

Following this process is fast, because placing more emphasis on the early cycles of planning, requirements definition, software architecture, and UX design greatly reduces the time expended during development and testing. The more quickly a product team can bring a software product to market, the less likely it is that market requirements will change in the midst of a product development cycle.

Following this process reduces costs, because it is fast and efficient—but also because it ensures that a company doesn’t spin its wheels by getting stuck in an endless cycle of rework and maintenance that is both wasteful and expensive. The later in a development cycle a product team discovers missing requirements or usability problems, the more expensive it is to solve those problems. Completely reimplementing software that is already in the marketplace carries exorbitant costs just in terms of actual software project costs. However, the greatest cost is in innovation.

Following this process fosters innovation, because it frees resources for research, design, and development. While rushing a product to market usually sacrifices innovation to some degree, continually reinventing the wheel to remedy problems introduced in a first release absorbs resources that a company could otherwise apply to research, design, and development that would foster innovation. To ensure they have viable futures, companies must invest in innovation.

UX for Success

Mike Devlin and Paul Levy also said, “Software will be the key differentiator for every business in the new economy. If we’re going to thrive over the next decade, we will have to be using software in a creative way to deliver our products and services or to delight our customers in new ways. Mere software competence is not enough; software excellence is becoming essential. … In the past, businesses could sacrifice software quality to make their ship date, or compromise on software features to meet time-to-market deadlines. In the new Internet economy, we have no choice: we must produce higher quality software in Internet time.”

Their primary focus in writing this was on good software development practice. However, while these goals set a high a standard that most software development companies have yet to attain, in order to achieve these lofty goals, companies must make user experience strategy and design an integral part of their software development process. Providing a solid foundation on which to build an excellent software product requires three essential elements:

  • well-defined product marketing requirements
  • a sound software architecture and
  • great user experience design

The bar is set higher than it’s ever been before. Investing in user experience will help a company excel and ensure its success. 

Bibliography

Boddie, John. “Behind Apple's Strategy: Be Second to Market.” Working Knowledge, Harvard Business School: August 29, 2005. Retrieved on March 4, 2006.

Devlin, Mike, and Paul Levy. “Software and the New Business Economy.”PDF IBM, March 9, 2004. Link restored on September 22, 2014.

McEwen, Scott. “Requirements: An Introduction.”PDF IBM, April 16, 2004. Link restored on September 22, 2014.

Royce, Walker. “Improving Software Development Economics, Part II: Reducing Software Product Complexity and Improving Software Processes.”PDF The Rational Edge, May 2001. Link restored on September 22, 2014.

—— “Improving Software Development Economics, Part IV: Accelerating Culture Change Through Common Sense.”PDF The Rational Edge, July 2001. Link restored on September 22, 2014.

Software Magazine. “ Standish: Project Success Rates Improved Over 10 Years.” Software Magazine, Jan 15, 2004. This article is no longer available on the Web.

Head of UX for Sales & Marketing IT at Intel

Founder and Principal Consultant at Strategic UX

Founder, Publisher, and Editor in Chief of UXmatters

Silicon Valley, California, USA

Pabini Gabriel-PetitWith more than 20 years working in User Experience at companies such as Google, Cisco, WebEx, Apple, and many startups, Pabini now provides UX strategy and design consulting services through her Silicon Valley company, Strategic UX. Her past UX leadership roles include Senior Director of UX and Design at Apttus, Principal UX Architect at BMC Software, VP of User Experience at scanR, and Manager of User Experience at WebEx. Pabini has led UX strategy, design, and user research for Web, mobile, and desktop applications for consumers, small businesses, and enterprises, in diverse product domains. Working collaboratively with business executives, multidisciplinary product teams, and UX teams, she has envisioned and realized holistic UX design solutions for innovative, award-winning products that delighted users, achieved success in the marketplace, and delivered business value. As a UX leader, she has facilitated conceptual modeling and ideation sessions; written user stories; prioritized product and usability requirements; established corporate design frameworks, standards, and guidelines; and integrated lean UX activities into agile development processes. Pabini is a strategic thinker, and the diversity of her experience enables her to synthesize innovative solutions for challenging strategy and design problems. She is passionate about creating great user experiences that meet users’ needs and get business results. A thought leader in the UX community, Pabini was a Founding Director of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA).  Read More

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