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Usability ROI as a Strategic Tool

When people discuss the ROI of usability, what they mean is the cost savings derived from applying usability effectively and early in the design process. ROI analyses often consist of calculations showing reduced costs for training and customer support and improvements in per-transaction productivity that are then compared with the usability study’s total cost. These arguments haven’t proven particularly persuasive when talking with executives.

However, I can attract the attention of some executives when I demonstrate that my team’s efforts are directly responsible for greater revenue and a larger market share, thus portraying usability as a strategic asset rather than merely a tactic to reduce costs. More importantly, the big idea is tying usability directly to the company’s strategic goals.

Telling an effective story that shows how usability provides a strategic return on investment is important. One such method is defining the “brand” of usability in particular, and user experience in general. Everyone knows developers who believe they can create a good user interface without our help. It can be almost impossible to convince them otherwise because they cannot see potential problems with their designs. Framing usability in terms of what is important for business focuses the conversation, identifying how our skills can create and implement designs that help accomplish corporate goals. When addressing how usability delivers on corporate goals, you can then begin to discuss how to integrate it into the development process to achieve those goals. Once you are integrally involved in the development process, you can show how user-centered design can increasingly contribute to corporate goals over time.

Examples from a User Experience Career

Consider some examples of efforts to tie user-centered design to larger corporate goals. When I began my career at AT&T Bell Laboratories, the Bell Telephone system was a government-sanctioned monopoly whose primary mission was ensuring universal telephone service, so that every person in America had access to a telephone. A core value for AT&T was delivering the highest quality service for the most people. Groups I worked in made the biggest impact when we demonstrated how our research uncovered what quality meant for customers and defined metrics and target specifications that satisfied those quality needs. In those days, formal experiments and deep field studies were the methods of choice to achieve the desired quality. Much design was driven by theory drawn from cognitive psychology. The skills needed to deliver the user experience were unique to our discipline, and our ability to create a quality experience was viewed as a positive return on investment.

graph of the increase in stock prices over a period of time
Showing the value of usability.

Improving User Experience at Ameritech

I found myself in a unique position at Ameritech because the CEO had become excited about the idea that user experience was about understanding what people need and shaping products to ensure those needs were met. That made sense to the CEO—who came from sales and marketing—whose challenge was convincing people that what we are selling met their needs. As we told the story about how we went about shaping designs for customer needs, many people understood. The company began working to incorporate usability principles into its brand image and created an ad campaign around our work that ran for several years. One company business line even decided to create a usability seal of approval for their products. That drove us to create an instrument for measuring customers’ perceptions of the usability of the products and to build a model tying improved ratings to improved product adoption (and therefore revenue).

The USE questionnaire (USE stands for Usefulness, Satisfaction, and Ease-of-use) was derived from the model-supported norms that allowed us to predict whether products would be successful. The questionnaire emerged from a series of studies conducted to understand what makes user experiences satisfying to people. This short, Likert-style questionnaire was suitable for measuring experiences as diverse as software, hardware, services, and even content. The factors it measured mapped to those in the ISO 9241 definition of usability, and it was consistent with the Technology Acceptance Model work that emerged about the same time. The USE questionnaire was based on the premise that if our value proposition was to help make products more successful in the market, we should understand, measure, and deliver the user attitudes that drive that success. This scale became a metric that helped us demonstrate the value of our contribution in terms that compelled management.

But that was not enough. The CEO at Ameritech also had defined a very clear value engine to drive the business of the corporation, and the core of that value engine was focusing on continuously improving the productivity of every employee within the company. Therefore, in addition to developing the USE scale, we did some modeling based on the traditional approach to ROI. We found that manipulating variables—like the time to do a study or the number of people tested—were not nearly as important in driving big improvements as: a) applying user experience work at the beginning of the product cycle, and b) ensuring that we were working on products where the user experience was likely to have the greatest impact on product success. As we began to build metrics around the direct revenue impact of our work and model the impact on the Net Present Value of new projects, we were able to model the impact of our work on the stock price.

As a profession, we should set expectations to improve our business impact in the way we have attempted to improve the experiences of our products. If we do this, our impact on our companies and society will increase, becoming more visible. The story we told about how we impacted the business was far more compelling when we positioned it within the corporate value engine language. It allowed us to more effectively manage the requests for work and to rationalize the different approaches we took to different projects. Furthermore, we were able to set yearly productivity improvement targets based on the revenue our efforts proposed to bring to the bottom line. We used our understanding of how we deliver value to ensure it was under control, and we improved our processes and our ability to deliver that value.

If a company is firmly convinced it does not need usability, having a compelling argument about ROI is not enough. However, even in companies that resist, you can often find and connect with an executive who is more receptive to the possibility. If you can cultivate a corporate usability champion, it is possible to build from that support to create a program that the company appreciates and truly embraces. Build support by positioning usability in terms of the corporate strategic goals that matter to that person. Ameritech was going through rapid corporate re-engineering where roughly 25 percent of the executives were replaced each year, so this change presented an opportunity. I explained to each new executive how the user experience team contributed to the business strategies, and how we could specifically help their unit succeed. Since new executives were in absorption mode, it was the perfect time to plug into their plans while they were still shaping them.

Sapient’s Core Competency   

When I joined Sapient, they were at the center of an expanding internet bubble. Within Sapient, user experience had become a core competency and was one of the value propositions that they were using to sell their services. Sapient user experience professionals helped bring user focus to balance the business goals and technology objectives that are more typical in many companies. The ROI of user experience within Sapient, therefore, was measured by how much business it helped Sapient win. As a result, besides actually delivering the balance within individual projects, we identified and articulated case studies that demonstrated how our work solved various clients’ business problems. We also worked on evolving new methods and tools that would better enable Sapient to employ usability and user experience in marketing and delivering their services.

Addressing Usability in Microsoft’s Corporate Cultures  

Microsoft, my current employer, is a big company that has business groups with different cultures. As a result, I’ve talked about usability in different ways depending on the organization. At one point I was in the Windows Server System area where we had two top-of-mind strategies: customer satisfaction and total cost of ownership. For the former, we were able to leverage the kinds of metrics we developed at Ameritech to connect with the strategy. However, instead of focusing on the usage and revenue side of the adoption model, we demonstrated our impact on satisfaction. We measured satisfaction along with ease-of-use and usefulness, and set objectives based on how much we planned to improve satisfaction. For total cost of ownership, we began to look at productivity measures as well as where the high-priority support costs occurred. Objectives were set to reduce the top ten support costs and to track and reduce the number of steps and time it took to accomplish key administrative tasks. The subjective measures influencing satisfaction and the productivity measures were then combined into a single usability metric. We used this metric to track our contributions, to set targets for the experience design, and to publicize our work through the management chain.

When I moved to the Tablet PC and Laptop team within Microsoft, the strategic emphasis shifted. Here the focus was on uncovering and nurturing new concepts and then growing their market penetration. My objectives, therefore, were built around driving improvements in metrics that I knew were important to drive the adoption of technology. At the highest level, these were the ease-of-use, ease-of-learning, and usefulness metrics measured by the USE questionnaire. We refined our understanding of which aspects of a consumer’s experience cause adoption and use. Another objective uncovered insights that would produce new product concepts while setting targets for how many viable concepts are actually produced. When we could point to a direct influence on expanding the product line and making it more successful in the market, we demonstrated the usability return on investment. More importantly, we continually negotiate a more user-centered design and development process and position ourselves more effectively within it.

Most recently I moved into Microsoft’s IT organization to help drive user experience strategy. The well-articulated software development process is intended to deliver quality solutions, and one early step defines how user experience contributes to the entire process, and how it can be more user-centered. We are currently persuading upper management to incorporate the recommendations into the default process. That transformation is being driven by how we intend to enable the organization to achieve its goals of creating strong customer relationships, enhancing employee productivity, and driving the adoption of the solutions produced. To achieve these goals, we are defining the attributes that should characterize the branded experiences, the methods we will apply at each point in the development process, and how we will approach design problems to deliver the experiences.


Lessons I’ve learned include:

  1. “Return” is in the eye of the beholder. People perceive the value of our contribution when we tie it directly to business goals.
  2. The value is in positioning usability to have the maximum impact on both the business and the user.
  3. A test of whether usability is focused on business and user value is that it can be managed and improved to deliver increasing value over time.

If you have just been hired to introduce user experience to an organization that has never had support before, one way to approach it is the way we approach design itself. Know your users, engage them in the design, assess impact, and iterate to improve the design. Get to know what the business is about by asking questions like, “What are the priorities of the organization?” “What are their strategic goals?” “What matters to individuals within the organization?” Begin framing the rationale for your program in those terms. In the course of that contextual research, look for the projects that are tied most directly to those strategic goals and determine ways to become involved in those projects.

Once we start delivering, people value our efforts and we are invited to do more. Some of that enthusiasm comes when non-UX team members—and even management—are enrolled in the user-centered design process; that is, bringing them along in research, engaging them in the definition of personas, and getting user experience metrics built into performance review objectives. Use your successes to demonstrate how you can deliver more value and how you can make the influential individuals and the organization more successful when you are involved earlier in the process.