Whose profession is it anyway?

XII.3 May + June 2005
Page: 38
Digital Citation

Engineering the user experience

Paul Sherman, Whitney Quesenbery

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Somewhere in the world, a customer service representative is on the phone with a customer. The customer has an easy problem; at least it seems easy to him.

Unfortunately, it's not so easy for the rep. She has to negotiate three different applications—one for entering the caller's issue, another for searching the product's support knowledge base, and still another for making call notes—all while responding quickly and attentively to the customer's issue. She starts to fall behind, so she does what the reps have been taught to do: She puts the customer on hold while she struggles through the task. Minutes go by and the customer becomes impatient, finally hanging up before getting the help that he needs. Caught on audiotape, the customer was muttering about the terrible customer service.

What's the problem here? Is it outdated technology? A poorly designed information structure? Misunderstood business requirements? Or an inadequate understanding of the rep's tasks?

Maybe it's simply that the design of the customer service systems did not start with an understanding of this simple context: two humans talking on the phone, one a customer, the other representing the company. That interaction is the customer's experience of the company. Or, as a popular saying quips, "to the user, the interface is the product." Too many new systems and digital products fail because their creators were focused on the technology and assumed, either implicitly or explicitly, that users would adapt. However, people will only stay with products that meet their needs. Fortunately, as usability and user experience professionals, we can ensure that our products meet actual users' needs by starting with the people, their tasks, and their goals. This is the essence of usability.

We can define usability following the ISO standard as the effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction with which a specific set of users can complete a specific set of tasks in a particular environment. This terse "standards language" represents some core concepts for usability professionals. The definition insists that we look at people, not just systems. It also directs us to define usability in the users' own terms.

Usability engineering, then, is a methodical approach to user interface design and evaluation, involving a practical, systematic approach; and the processes, techniques, and methods for measuring various aspects of a system's or product's ease of use. But usability often means more than just testing—that is, end-of-cycle testing to evaluate the success of a design. The word usability also refers to:

  • a quality or result: the goal of creating usable systems or products
  • a user-centered process for design and development
  • a philosophy or approach that starts with users' needs

The UPA is a home for the body of knowledge—the skills, techniques, and methods—for user research and usability evaluation. We provide members with a place to develop and expand their skills in these areas. But we also focus on strategic usability and the importance of centering the design process on the people who use our products.

The user experience community brings together people from many different disciplines, with many perspectives on the design process and many different vocabularies. We see this diversity as one of the strengths of our field, because it provides many viewpoints and techniques for evaluating designs and many methods for improving the usability, usefulness, and pleasure of the products we create.

Imagine a different customer service call. This time, the customer service rep can stay focused on the customer's needs, because she's using a single new customer support application that:

  • makes satisfying customers' most frequent requests easy
  • helps her find the information she needs during calls
  • facilitates solving customers' complex problems
  • tracks customer issues
  • allows the rep to take call notes

The product team that designed this new application not only analyzed the types of calls that reps receive and the information they need to do their jobs, but also observed how the best reps work with customers. Throughout their design process, starting with simple paper prototypes, the team tested both the overall task flows and interaction details. They designed a task flow that supports a natural conversation.

On rollout day, the customer service reps practically cheered with delight, nearly bringing tears to the eyes of the newly appreciated internal IT team. Now the rep's "Hi, how can I help you?" is heartfelt, because her new tools really do let her help.

back to top  Authors

Paul Sherman
Best Software

Whitney Quesenbery
Whitney Interactive Design

About the Authors:

Paul Sherman is a member of the UPA board of directors and founding president of the Dallas-Ft. Worth Chapter. He is director of user-centered design at Best Software and a senior lecturer in HCI at the University of Texas at Dallas. Previously, at Intuit and Lucent Technologies, Paul designed and usability tested e-commerce and support Web sites and accounting, financial planning, portfolio management, and telecommunications management applications. He received his PhD from the University of Texas at Austin, where his research focused on pilots' use of automated systems.

Whitney Quesenbery is president of UPA, a member of the UXnet Executive Committee and manages the popular STC Usability SIG Web site. She is a user interface designer and usability specialist with a passion for clear communication. As the principal consultant for Whitney Interactive Design (WQusability.com), she works with companies around the world to design usable Web sites and applications. Whitney is an appointed committee member for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, where she works to ensure the usability of voting systems. Before being seduced into the world of usability by a little beige computer, Whitney was a theatrical lighting designer on and off Broadway.

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UF1Figure. The user experience community is diverse, converging from many different directions.

back to top  Sidebar: Usability Professionals' Association (UPA)


The UPA is a membership organization that supports usability specialists and advocates of user-centered design. Members come from all user experience disciplines and over 39 countries. The UPA has 26 chapters, providing local opportunities for networking and professional education. The UPA:

  • publishes User Experience Magazine and the Web magazine UPA Voice, and plans to launch a new online journal of usability studies in 2005
  • hosts a job bank, consultants directory and professional networking service
  • is currently developing a Usability Body of Knowledge
  • is holding UPA 2005: Bridging Cultures in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, from June 27-July 1
  • is organizing World Usability Day—a celebration of the power of usability and user experience to change people's lives—on November 3, 2005

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