7 Controversial Usability Predictions for 2010

7 Controversial Usability Predictions for 2010

My seven controversial usability predictions for 2010

Flickr New Year Baby Photo via Skokie Public Library Creative Commons License
Flickr New Year Baby Photo via Skokie Public Library Creative Commons License

I have seven somewhat controversial usability predictions for the 2010 I think you might be surprised to read.  These predictions are based on my understanding of the state of the usability field based on blog posts, articles, tweets and all the other news and information I’ve picked up throughout the year. Whether you agree or disagree with these predictions, I think you’ll agree that in the past year we’ve seen plenty of change, and will continue to see increasing changes in our field in 2010.

1. The cost of conducting usability testing will decrease by a factor of 10.

As I mentioned in my article; 24 web site usability testing tools, I’ve noticed a recent significant increase in the number of low cost or free usability testing tools available. In 2009, several new, simple but effective tools have risen to prominence. Considering there are many additional new and easy-to-use tools being developed even as I type this, it seems reasonable to assume usability testing and analysis tools will be available in unprecedented numbers for amazingly low costs.

Anyone still renting a usability lab, going through expensive recruiting firms for participants, or using specialized rooms with one-way mirrors and multiple video cameras is wasting money – lots of money.

For a company that switches to low cost usability tools instead of renting a lab, this will decrease their usability testing costs by much greater than a factor of 10.  For companies already using these low cost tools, the incremental increase in use of the tools means many more usability reports and optimizations, at extremely low costs.

The year 2010 should see many more firms converting to these lower cost usability testing methods, and saving tremendous amounts of money doing so.

2. There will be a dramatic increase in the use of low cost web-based usability testing tools

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In 2010, several new, cheap and powerful web-based usability testing tools will be launched.  This will have a positive impact on usability practitioners.  The positives include additional functionality at very low costs, a greater variety of types of tools for specific testing tasks, and anywhere, anytime access to tests and data.  All of which means a lot more people can and will be using these usability testing tools.

In the bad old days, usability testing tools were expensive hardware/software contraptions that were not easily accessible, portable or cheap. Because of the significant increase in these new low cost web-based tools, usability practitioners now have a much more usable set of tools with which to ply their trade.

There is a downside however, especially for vendors of the more traditional tools: the added competition of the new tools will force the older usability testing companies that have PC hardware/software solutions to change their products – or go out of business.  Increasing low-cost competition means less ability for these older companies to operate in a marginalized capacity. For 2010, the older vendors will need to re-think their products and pricing, or potentially face exiting the business.

The good news for usability practitioners is 2010 will be a banner year for new and exciting low cost web-based tools.

3. True usability ROI will continue to elude usability practitioners

True ROI, in terms of bottom-line numbers reported in annual reports and quarterly statements, will continue to elude the usability profession. The sad fact of the matter is most corporations do not realize usability is in fact a profit center.  As I mentioned in my ROI article, it’s not practical, or wise, to quote ROI guarantees for a usability project.  Typically usability improvements decrease overall costs, and increase revenue potential.  Yet from the conversations I’ve had with usability practitioners, the conversation always seems to come back to, “how do I ‘prove’ that adding more usability testing will bring a positive ROI?”

The on-going education of corporations by usability practitioners, Associations such as the UPA and educational institutions is the primary way to continue to make headway in obtaining usability advocates. Until someone can formally introduce a usability ROI metric that is used in annual reports and thus can be understood by the Wall Street crowd, many corporate executives will continue to believe true usability ROI is a myth.

For 2010, this trend of non-belief of usability ROI will continue to exist.

4. Use of remote moderated usability testing will increase by a factor of 10

As more and more usability practitioners use remote moderated usability testing, and talk about with their practitioner friends, use of this low-cost and effective testing method will explode.

In the past, tools like UserVue or video conferencing rooms were about it for practitioners who wished to conduct remote moderated testing and recording of usability sessions. But the increasing access to cheap and effective tools like WebEx, GotoMyPC and Webcams coupled with high-bandwidth internet access and conference calling has effectively eliminated the barrier to entry for practitioners.

Saving thousands of dollars in travel costs, and enabling testing of users literally around the world are powerful reasons why remote moderated testing will become the way to get things done in 2010.

In 2010, more and more usability practitioners will take the plunge and use remote moderated testing as their primary way to conduct usability testing.

5. The UK will become a major source of usability expertise

The United Kingdom and the European Union already are doing significant usability work – and have the smarts to prove it.  But have you noticed the amazing number of usability practitioner job openings in the United Kingdom, or the increasing number of usability projects occurring there and in the rest of the European Union in the past year?  I have.  And I’m not alone. Recognizing the significance of usability in the EU, for the first time ever the Usability Professionals Association International conference will be held outside North America, Munich, Germany to be precise.

I’ve also noted that there have been an incredible number of new job positions opened in 2009 for usability testers, information architects and user experience designers in the UK.  All these new positions mean lots and lots of usability work, and with that work comes knowledge and expertise.

I fully expect to start seeing many more UK and EU based brilliant usability practitioners providing their expertise to a host of small, mid-size and large companies.  I also expect to see many more usability projects and experiments, with resulting white papers, articles and blog posts demonstrating the expertise and thought-leadership resident there.

In 2010, the UK will dramatically increase the number of usability projects, and thought-leadership this provides.

6. The phrase ‘user experience design’ will become overused and almost meaningless

It’s amazing to see the number of job positions titled ‘user experience design’ in which it’s quite clear what the hiring manager is actually after is a graphics designer that knows css, flash and html, and can create wireframes, prototypes and final production files. In my humble opinion, and the opinion of others such as Nielsen, this is not a correct usage of the term ‘user experience.’

According to Nielsen/Norman Group’s definition of user experience

“”User experience” encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products. The first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother. Next comes simplicity and elegance that produce products that are a joy to own, a joy to use. True user experience goes far beyond giving customers what they say they want, or providing checklist features. In order to achieve high-quality user experience in a company’s offerings there must be a seamless merging of the services of multiple disciplines, including engineering, marketing, graphical and industrial design, and interface design.”

Here then is the problem; the term ‘user experience design’ is more and more often not being used to reflect someone who creates all aspects of the user perceiving, learning and interacting with a company’s products and services. Instead, it’s being used to define a designer that only designs web interfaces, without the myriad other research, behavioral and usability knowledge that is needed to truly design a holistic user experience.

And because it’s over-used, and used incorrectly, the term ‘user experience design’ will become more and more generic, confusing and thus meaningless.  Will it continue to be used?  Yes!  But you can expect to hear many more conversations like, “So, you have a job position for user experience designer, I’d like to apply, but I need to know, what will this person actually do?”

For 2010, the term ‘user experience design’ will become abused and thus more meaningless as an actual description of true ‘user experience design.’

7. Without professional certification being required, more and more charlatans will be attracted to usability

Dentists, Pilots and Public Accountants all have to pass training and certification before practicing their occupation. However, with usability anyone can declare themselves a ‘usability professional’ and set up shop, providing usability services to unsuspecting clients.

Without some form of formal certification, anyone can (and will) provide usability testing services if they believe there’s money to be made, whether they know the difference between a card sort and a heuristic review, or not.  The same access you and I have to free and low-cost usability tools likewise means college students, stay at home moms and dads and even children can create usability services and sell them on the internet, using these same free or low-cost tools.

This isn’t a new topic of discussion, the UPA went down this path of investigating usability certification in 2001.

The only way to ensure a professional is providing usability services is to make usability a profession, via a certification process in which the practitioner has demonstrated the expertise and knowledge necessary to properly practice the art and science of usability.  Without this certification in place, anyone can and will declare themselves a usability vendor, if they believe there’s money in it.

For 2010, more and more fake usability practitioners will set up virtual shops, using the free or low cost usability testing tools now available.

Conclusion: My 7 controversial 2010 usability predictions

So there you are, my rather controversial predictions for usability in 2010.  Do you agree with them?  Do you disagree? Share your thoughts about my 2010 predictions, or better yet make your own by adding a comment! Only time will tell if you and I are right!

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32 COMMENTS

  1. I’m not sure usability will attract a lot of charlatans, but as much as I love some of the new low-cost tools, I think the downside is that, as usability becomes more accessible, doing it badly also gets a lot easier. We’ve seen this with web analytics – the tools are easier and cheaper than ever. That’s great, on balance, but it also means that a whole lot of people who have no idea what they’re doing suddenly think they’re experts.

  2. Thanks Dr. Pete, I agree that with little or no training, any usability advice can be dangerous if provided by people who have no idea what they’re doing.

    I suspect that with such a low barrier to entry, we’ll see many a virtual usability consultant pop-up. Hopefully I’m wrong!

  3. As a practitioner with bucket loads of experience from the UK, I agree pretty much with your premises! But having got and proved ROI increases many times, I can’t agree at all with no. 3.

    I agree with your sentiment about the term ‘user experience design’. The real meaning has departed that phrase, but the ‘experience thing’ is real, and the requirement more than ever necessary. I’m thinking now more in terms of Customer Journey which spans media, not at all only web. Others call it Service Design. Whatever, it’s Customer/User-Centred, so perhaps more where it all started with psychologists Don Norman and Brenda Laurel rather than the Uber Geek Neilsen!

    I might add an 8 – that optimisation technology will be used more and more by those involved in web experience to hone our flows and designs.

  4. Wow, Craig, those were indeed controversial. I don’t know that I disagree with any of them. It may be time to work on re-inventing what we are doing and how we are doing it!!

    Regarding the term user experience. It does seem very confused. But what if you are combining usability with the new persuasion design? Is it still usability?

  5. Awesome David, can you share with us your true ROI successes – this would be wonderful to share with the usability community.

    I like where you’re going with #8 – optimization technology being used – good add.

    Susan, thanks for your thoughts! I’m not sure what I call usability and persuasive design – I sort of think of them as two separate elements:

    1. Getting people to decide to take action by influencing behavior with persuasive design

    2. Once they decided to take the action, how easy is it to complete the action (or can they complete it) which I feel is the world of usability.

    But that’s just my take on things, and may not be the best way to look at it. :-)

  6. It may be controversial to point out that I don’t see anything controversial on this list :)

    If you’re after controversy, how about:
    1. Service Designers will eat so-called Usability / User Experience Designers for breakfast in 2010. Will Usability people even notice?

    2. Online Marketers will get more money to spend on creating flash-in-the-pan social media “experiments” than Usability people will get to spend on user testing (proving that as a discipline we are yet to convince business types where the real money is!)

    3. More top B2C brands will produce worthless, unmeasurable TV advertising than will conduct decent design research (because they believe ads work, whereas design research…)

    4. [Hat tip to Susan W] More web designers will call on persuasion techniques drawn from Robert Cialdini’s book “Influence” than will read anything put together by the combined talents of NN/g.

    5. Stats from A/B & Multivariate testing plus insights from web analytics tools will be more highly valued by business owners that any user test results produced in 2010.

    For me, these issues are much more important than which tools we use to do user testing… crumbs, we’ve been doing this for years now, surely that debate can end? Please!

    Plus there is no value in the divide and conquer approach. UX must *embrace*.

    Just my 0.02GBP
    DJ

  7. Whoops! Thanks for the catch Josh, I’ve fixed my error. And I predict that in the year 2010 I will continue to make mistakes – no matter how many times I proof an article!

  8. Not sure how controversial this is. Most of your observations relate to clear market trends that started a couple of years back, particularly with regard to tools and techniques.

    I have to take slight exception to your ROI remarks as ROI is always a backward-looking metric. As such, there is no such thing as an “ROI guarantee”. And without a baseline and sensible metrics, you cannot even do a proper calculation after the fact. I have to agree with you that our industry has done more to screw up the definition of ROI than any other folks on earth. (for several years, if you searched for ROI, Jakob Nielsen hit the 1 and 3 spots on Google. DJ addresses some of the basic metric problems well in his/her comment.

    As usability becomes commoditised, we will see fewer charlatans. But certification will not eliminate them. Just look at all the mediocre information architects who flaunt library school degrees but have no grasp of basic business concepts. And look at all the lousy drivers who have valid drivers licenses. If there is money to be made in usability, it will be in analysis, not in observation. And the cheap tools don’t provide anything other than neutral observation.

    As to user experience, I agree entirely that the phrase is misused; it is actually an umbrella term for a wide range of disciplines, not a job title. But I think the industry is already starting to sort this out and the various conferences (UX London, UX Lisbon, etc.) reflect this.

    DJ brings up service design, which has been one of my pet peeves for years now, having cut my teeth in service design back in the 80s. There is no question that the usability folks will be affected. But that’s not because they should be doing service design, but because they are basically trained observers who are rarely qualified to make strategic recommendations regarding the stuff they test – which is why the price is going to fall as the field becomes commoditized, including the price of the tools used.

  9. There is a lot of charlatan in every jobs possible, it’s just that interaction design was not really known, I know designer that are a mess and front-end developers I would not give a div to.

    I dont think Usability cost will decrease either, yes maybe small agency will be able to use low cost tool. But big agency will still sell their consultant 100$/h+ , which is normal.

    Anyway my 2 cent

  10. I don’t agree with 7 in the sense that I think it’s an unachievable ideal.

    I agree it’s good to know how good a person is, and certification goes some way towards that.

    But, the whole point of usability from an ROI perspective is to increase profits.

    I think you need a good commercial awareness of businesses and customers and online markets, not just the more “academic” perspective a lot of usability professionals have.

    Certification tends to be more “academic” and less “profit orientated”.

    I think, to really help businesses, the commercials have to go hand in hand with the “theory”.

    Companies that value their online credibility will use usability professionals with social proof of the benefits they bring, rather than cheaper “charlatans”.

    SEO commentators are blurring the boundaries saying that usability/accessibility helps SEO, so it’s only a matter of time before usability enters the consciousness of more website owners.

    Because of this, I can see a lot of small-time internet marketers using the free usability tools to test their own salespages – that’s my prediction :)

    Let’s see what happens – good post!

  11. I, for one, would wholeheartedly welcome some kind of certification but as I’m almost 50, despite 20 years experience of digital design, I’m a bit long in the tooth to go back to college and the opportunity cost of a 2 or 3 year course would be way too high.

    I would prefer some kind of ‘official body’ to manage certification and would like to see it based on CPD so it has an ongoing learning element. An easy way in would then be a certified and corroborated body of work along with, maybe, a brief paper or exam, and then CPD to reatin certification.

    Any thoughts?

  12. Having worked with David on a number of projects I can certainly say that great ROI has been achieved, especially in areas of personalisation……

    I am already seeing the use of MVT tools coming to the forefront where I am currently working, and whilst they are very good, they are also being used as tactical solutions for fixing issues, which does not work, and just papers over cracks, until someone releases new code, screws up the 100% MVT test, and ultimately ruins any good work/customer experience that has been live for a period of time under a guise!

    The prominence of remote testing software is alos coming to the forefront where I am, and again I certainly agree with the fact that this just makes everyone gain the ability to become an expert, and makes it more accessible for people to execute UE testing badly.

    I am expecting more and more people to be going down the personalisation route in 2010, but the interesting thing for me is how people without unique identifiers and “known” customer will execute it….some are doing it well at present, most do it poorly and actually it turns more people off……

  13. I am not a UX consultant nor a Usability expert. I am starting at user research, which is the guide for UX related (fields) information processes, as I understand it.
    I’ve read some posts, articles, tweets and a book. And have seen the word ‘heuristics’ a couple of times. I am familiar with heuristc algorithms or heuristics as a discovery/lerning/solving problem technique. Is it different in usability?

  14. Simon, I would personally love to see your numbers from the great ROI that has been achieved, we need more absolute ‘proof’ that usability brings bottom-line revenue (or savings) to advance the profession forward.

    Robert, seems to me that Human Factors CUA program for certification is an excellent approach and should be reviewed by the UPA and/or other organizations as a model.

    Colette,
    I totally agree, the true ROI I refer to is absolute economic measures of success that CEOs and CFOs would accept and understand. “Task time saved” or something to that effect is helpful and real, but is not going to get executive buy-in nearly as well as “incremental revenue generated’ or ‘Operations annual savings’ numbers. In my opinion.

    Cedric,
    The cost to conduct usability testing absolutely is going down. Whether the practitioners care to share that cost savings with their clients is another issue. If I can charge $100 an hour for usability consulting, and do a usability test for $100 total, then that’s just more money in my pocket – right until the time my competition starts charging less. Then I have to charge less, or lose clients / business. That’s my point.

    DJ, would love to see your ROI numbers.

  15. There are Universities that offer good User Experience programs. The Eindhoven University of Technology is one of them. Personally I have good experiences with the graduates of the User System Interaction program.

    http://usi.tm.tue.nl/pub/page.php?pid=10

    Only the highest skilled students from around the globe are selected to apply for this program.

  16. “7. Without professional certification being required, more and more charlatans will be attracted to usability”

    I have a friend who said software engineering went downhill with the advent of the personal computer because it let anyone think they could develop software.

    What you said has some merit but then again we cannot deny someone trying to make a career for themselves; that being said let the buyer beware and providers be aware of educational resources.

  17. As an usability professional I can’t understand, why only few of you find anything controversial about 1. Yes, tools are getting cheaper and there will be more tools available – but I have yet to see the tool that tells the customer what to change to improve usability – especially if the issue is not fixed by “consider making it bigger” but when it comes to UNDERSTANDING the users’ needs and mapping them to the issue at hand. Claiming that these tools would be a valid replacement (IMO) for lab testing seems farfetched as they do not have the understanding of the users’ mind that a researcher would have.

    Regarding 4: Claiming that webex will replace lab testing reminds me of the hype that followed the invention of radio or the TV (“radio learning”) – in my opinion (and I have done my share of one-on-one interview sessions online as well as in the lab) interviewing over the net does not provide the same quality of interaction and does not nearly produce the same understanding of the users’ emotions and needs as does lab testing.

    Regarding 7. – There are easy ways to tell apart good usability practitioners from bad ones – check their website to see how long they are in the market, check their client list and see who their partners are … and picking the cheapest one is not always a good idea.

  18. Couldn’t agree more with your comment about “charlatans”… ad agencies especially want to say that they “do” usability, and can moderate a test. There are two problems with that:
    1) how can a firm remain impartial to its own designs, especially when there is a lot of cash (and egos!) riding on the design?
    2) designing and moderating a test is not just asking a bunch of questions. Phasing questions to be non-leading; letting the user fail (very painful to watch); identifying the most common tasks (not necessarily what a design agency is developing for) are the core of testing.
    Yet so much is at stake that often agencies want to lead the users to conclusions that support their design solution. It’s difficult to be objective, which is why a third party is needed, even if tools are used to speed the process and reduce costs.

  19. I agree that the term UX is being cheapened and is severely misunderstood. It’s a broad term that includes mulitple areas from UI design, IA, PM, Web and Interaction design among other things.

    I am currently trying to learn more about UX design and would like to attend UX London in May, but it is a bit pricey (for a student).

  20. Having dedicated the last 8 years to remote usability testing (the unmoderated method in our case), we can confirm the trend towards this way of doing research. We have more customers and requests now than ever.

    However, I’d also point out that, much like Jan says ‘…there are easy ways to tell apart good usability practitioners from bad ones’, there are different types of tools out there. Not saying that low cost tools are bad. They WILL serve only for specific purposes. But as remote becomes more a standard, UX pros will require more features and quality. So it will be important to know what you are getting into before you collect all that data for a low cost.

    You may be saving upfront, but let’s not forget the cost of obtaining invalid data!

  21. Over the past 35 years that I have been working in professional human factors engineering I have seen many trends come and go with respect to methods, certifications, business models and related matters. The 7 trends cited at the start of this thread shows a profound lack of understanding of what is actually happening in usability testing at the professional level. As an owner of a firm that offers such services I find the following to be true.

    1- Usability testing costs are rising for studies that are professionally designed and that provide actionable insights that objectively impact business success. Clients pay for quality and the cost is rising not falling.

    2-Remote usability testing (we recently wrote a chapter on this topic in a leading book published by Kaufman) is increasing in cost and is in fact much more complex to do well than traditional lab-based testing. The cost of these studies is increasing NOT decreasing. Some of the large longitudinal studies range well into the mid six figures. In the end more firms may be attempting remote testing but what you will find is that such methods are fraught with methodology and reliability issues which, no matter how many studies you do, limit effectiveness.

    3- Certification is becoming very important at the top end of the market. On large projects that are competitively bid we routinely see clients asking for and making decisions based on academic background, formal certification AND proven case studies where it can be shown that a firm’s research objectively solved a major business problem. Do not think for a moment that certification is not increasing in importance at the top end of the consulting market. BTW: certification does nothing to keep consultants out of this space who have sketchy experience. These individuals or firms never win the big projects. Clients have become way too sophisticated to fall for the 1999 definition of usability expertise.

    4- Finally, if you are selling big projects and cannot objectively demonstrate real ROI in both statistical and conceptual terms you are not going to get the project. Any firm that does not have a very strong grasp of formal business process modeling in the context of user experience optimization is going to be dead in the water when it comes to large interesting projects. These new ROI models are vastly more sophisticated than just 3 years ago. The good thing about all this is that in the end clients who understand research speak the language of business impact. This is a dramatic help to practitioners who want to build a robust business in this research space.

    Charles L Mauro CHFP

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