Why UX Should Matter to Software Companies

By Pabini Gabriel-Petit

Published: March 6, 2006

“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 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.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

“Only 28 percent of software projects succeed—that is, ship on time, within budget, and with all of the features originally planned.”

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.”

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?

“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.”

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.”

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

“Companies must make user experience strategy and design an integral part of their software development process.”

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.” IBM, March 9, 2004. Retrieved on March 4, 2006.

McEwen, Scott. “Requirements: An Introduction.” IBM, April 16, 2004. Retrieved on March 4, 2006.

Royce, Walker. “Improving Software Development Economics, Part II: Reducing Software Product Complexity and Improving Software Processes.” The Rational Edge, May 2001. Retrieved on March 4, 2006.

—— “Improving Software Development Economics, Part IV: Accelerating Culture Change Through Common Sense.” The Rational Edge, July 2001. Retrieved on March 4, 2006.

Software Magazine. “Standish: Project Success Rates Improved Over 10 Years.” Software Magazine, Jan 15, 2004. Retrieved on March 4, 2006.

8 Comments

Interestingly, Microsoft is launching its brand new Windows Vista platform with major emphasis on the user experience. Given the power Microsoft has on prevailing (corporate) thinking, the importance of taking the user experience into account, will soon be a fairly mainstream concept. See also: http://blog.vanderbeeken.com/2006/03/microsofts_wind.html.

Yes. I’ve been following Microsoft’s presentation of information about the Vista Aero user experience with interest. The idea of user experience is really gaining mindshare.

I enjoyed reading your blog. Like minds. :-)

Thanks for the thoughtful analysis, Pabini. As you indicated, my article was taking a Devil’s advocate approach, but more than that was trying to get design/user experience professionals to look at the underlying dynamics in a more realistic way. There is a lot of whining going on these days, and I think much of it ignores the reality of what developing a software product really means.

As Mark also intimated, the emphasis on user experience will be stronger in the years ahead than it has ever been before. Obviously, this is a very good thing, both for consumers and for our industry.

Hi Dirk—Good point. There’s not much use in whining. It’s my view that, if we don’t like the way things are now, it’s our responsibility to do what we can to change things, not just wait for the world around us to change. Of course, as general consciousness of UX and its importance rises, the rising tide will lift all boats.

As individuals in UX, we can either leave it to others to do the heavy lifting or take on responsibility for creating change ourselves. The more of us who push for change, the faster it will happen.

This is really a question of attitude. I always operate from the assumptions presented in this article, because my long career has demonstrated their veracity to me. It’s part of my job to educate the management of software companies about the importance of UX.

Great article.

Let’s remember that it takes an executive-level champion to effect change relative to UX efforts and importance placed on design. It will not happen without that level of support.

And let’s remember too… Just because Microsoft does something doesn’t mean that you should immediately make your software just like it. If you want to make your software more user-focused, that’s different than using a design because you think it’s what people want to see.

Thanks, Jim. What you say is certainly true within large companies. Sometimes the champion of UX on an executive team is a VP of UX—though one can surmise that the existence of such a position indicates the presence of UX support at an even higher level. However, within smaller companies, where UX designers have access to the highest-level executives, every designer has the opportunity to evangelize UX.

I don’t think anyone is suggesting that designers slavishly follow Microsoft’s lead, but following standards is an important part of creating a good user experience. Users expect to be able to do things in familiar ways. So, there has to be a very good reason and clearly better way to warrant doing things differently. We need to innovate, not reinvent the wheel.

The Microsoft UX team is currently doing the best design work I’ve seen come out of Microsoft, in both Office 12 and Aero. We should applaud that. In a large company like Microsoft, I doubt it was easy to get corporate backing for the work, but from a recent BayCHI talk by Jensen Harris, I know they did have an executive-level champion for the work, just as you’ve described.

Super read! I like and agree with the distinction between 1. UX Strategist and 2. Designer. I think this could be expanded into part 2 of the article and what it means to be a Strategic Designer.

This is a great article that’s still relevant today. I’ve found educating myself about user experience and how it related to the software development process empowering. As user experience engineers, we should be working to aid the software development process as much as possible.

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