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VIII.2 March 2001
Page: 27
Digital Citation

Industry briefs: AT&T

James Cunningham, Judy Cantor, Susan Pearsall, Kevin Richardson

back to top  Philosophy of Design

The User Experience Engineering Division of AT&T Labs is a centralized organization that works with all parts of AT&T, and includes most of the usability specialists in the company. Our goal is to provide superior user experiences for AT&T services and systems by making interactions of people and technology simpler, more natural, and less confusing. We have centralized our organization because we find that is the best way to keep a high level of user experience engineering expertise in the company. It provides an opportunity for professional development, and aids in recruiting, in training, and in making sure that human interface designers are recognized and rewarded.

We do most of our work as integrated members of project teams. Typically, a project team has end-to-end responsibility for the planning, development, and deployment of a service. In addition to user experience engineers, the teams include a broad range of participants—business planners and project managers, software engineers and developers, graphic designers, documentation specialists, operations planners, etc.

We think of design as having three dimensions:

  • Utility: Does the application do something useful? Does it meet user needs? Does it have the right combination of features?
  • Usability: Is the application easy-to-learn and easy-to-use? Can users efficiently accomplish their goals?
  • Aesthetic appeal: Is the application engaging, clever, or a pleasure to use? Is it visually appealing?

All three dimensions combine to produce the user experience. Our primary expertise is on the "usability" dimension. For "utility," we partner with marketing and product management to determine what the application needs to do. For "aesthetic appeal," we partner with graphic designers.

back to top  Design Process

As a large corporation with hundreds of projects, AT&T does not a have a standard approach to design. For most large-scale projects, usability engineers are the information architects and are also responsible for usability assessment. Artists are responsible for the graphic design. We try to establish a usability plan that covers all phases of a project, from concept to deployment and maintenance. The plan can include baseline and competitive assessments, user profiling, prototyping, information architecture and design (navigation, task flows, page layout, user model, etc.), UI requirements, UI system testing, and usability testing.

We try to establish a usability plan that covers all phases of a project, from concept to deployment and maintenance

Rather than attempt to identify the entire design process for AT&T, we have chosen to describe the process for a single large-scale Internet project—the next generation of was originally launched in 1994, mostly as an information site. Since that time, both technology and AT&T have gone through significant change. has also changed, and now includes shopping, searching, and related services. Now, as we look toward the next step in the evolution of, we see a need to be more interactive, to enable more commerce, to be representative of the entire enterprise, and to do it all in a way that provides a simple and intuitive user experience.

We kicked off the process of redesigning with evaluations of our current site inventory and usage statistics, an usability test, some preliminary market research, and a feature review of our competitors. This phase of the project took about one month and provided a substantial database from which the design work could begin.

The next step can best be described as a "proof-of-concept" phase: the engineers defined their back-end architecture, and we defined the front-end design. We teamed with our graphic design and business partners to generate a first draft of an information architecture in an HTML prototype. A smaller design team (usability and graphic design) then collected feedback from internal business and engineering partners and completed a usability test on a prototype of this new concept. The results of the test, along with refined information about system capabilities, were fed back into the design process. The proof-of-concept phase took about two months.

Next came the production phase. By this point, the direction for the graphic design, information design, and back-end architecture was somewhat settled. Now, each page, and all possible navigational paths had to be designed and implemented. We established a council that included representatives from usability engineering, graphic design, system engineering, and development. Every feature in the new site was defined by formal requirements. A usability engineer then produced a storyboard of the task flow and navigation, consistent with the architecture that we already tested. The council iterated on the design and then implemented the result. Then, during system testing, the usability engineers ensured that the implemented system did not deviate from the original intention. The production phase took about three months.

Currently, work on the next generation of continues. As the production phase nears completion, we have plans for large-scale usability assessments. During a controlled trial, we plan to gather system usage statistics, conduct traditional usability testing, collect preference data with on-line surveys and on-line focus groups, and iterate one more time on design.

back to top  Design Project Example

Early in the redesign effort, it became clear that the site's current search capability was not meeting user needs and expectations. As part of our initial usability test of the search function, people were presented with task scenarios in which completion depended upon finding information. We found that users had significant difficulty with search both when they were directed to use search, and when they independently chose to use search. Additionally, the information returned was often less than useful, both in content and display. These difficulties stemmed from two related areas —content management and user interface design.

As with many large de-centralized Web sites, content management (i.e., keywords, page titles, meta-tags, etc.) tends to take a back seat to design and publication. At AT&T, this resulted in many "hits" being listed with "no title" as the heading or "web page template" as the description. Also, since many users type the phrase "AT&T" at the beginning of their searches (e.g., "AT&T Long Distance"), literally thousands of hits might be returned simply because almost everything published on begins with "AT&T". And in one very memorable case, a search for "beeper"returned as its first item a 1996 speech by then-CEO Bob Allen to the Black Executive Exchange Program (BEEP) (see Figure 1).

Associated with content management is the issue of what users expect to see returned when they search on a specific word or phrase. The decentralized nature of the Web site has resulted in page owners (within AT&T) or page developers (within AT&T or external vendors) using their best judgement to determine what search terms people would use when searching for information on their particular Web page within This led to "beeper" returning old speeches and "cell" returning Investor Relations SEC Filing information. We conducted a second, more in-depth study to address this issue. Each participant provided definitions, synonyms and return expectations for the most frequently used search terms. Results of this study pointed out many cases in which user expectations and terminology did not match those of the page owner or developer. A striking example of this is AT&T's use of the term "wireless" to mean "cellular." Twenty-one participants were asked for synonyms of the term "wireless." Ten of 21 participants responded with either "No wire" or "Cordless," suggesting that, for many people, a "wireless" phone is not a "cellular" phone. By basing our keywords and meta-tags on user expectations, we were able to improve the quality of our search results.

We also determined that the sheer amount of information returned from a search was overwhelming to users. Search results were listed 30 to the page and as many pages of results were displayed as necessary. As you can imagine, very few users were looking at search result page 47 of 50. Users did not scan more than the first 20 or 30 search results. They expected to find something relevant much sooner than that. Therefore, we further improved the search experience by limiting the number of hits returned on a page to 10 and the total number of pages returned to three.

Results of these studies have improved both the taxonomy used by search to identify particular Web pages ("beeper" now returns AT&T's Personal Reach Services, see Figure 2) and our understanding of our site visitors' expectations and understanding of AT&T's products and services. In addition, we have made the search experience easier, more enjoyable and much more useful.

back to top  Authors

James P. Cunningham
Technical Manager, User Experience Engineering, AT&T Labs
AT&T Labs, Room D1-3C20
200 Laurel Avenue
Middletown, NJ 07748
Tel: 732-420-2860
Fax: 732-368-1260

Judy Cantor
Principal Technical Staff Member, User Experience Engineering, AT&T Labs

Susan H. Pearsall
Senior Technical Staff Member, User Experience Engineering, AT&T Labs

Kevin H. Richardson
Senior Technical Staff Member, User Experience Engineering, AT&T Labs

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. Originally, a search on the term "beeper" yielded irrelevant results.

F2Figure 2. Using a new taxonomy based on the results of user research, a search on the term "beeper" now yields useful results.

UF1Figure. (Pictured left to right) Kevin Richardson, Judy Cantor, James Cunningham, and Susan Pearsall.

back to top  Sidebar

Job Titles:

  • Usability Engineer
  • Graphical User Interface Designer
  • User Experience Engineer
  • Interaction Designer
  • Information Architect

Job Qualifications (Degrees in):

  • Psychology
  • Human Factors
  • Computer Science, or a related field or equivalent human-computer interaction experience.

Number of Individuals Employed in Design and Usability:
Approximately 60 people in the User Experience Engineering Division, plus a few more scattered in other functions and other organizations.

Breadth of Project Teams:
Project teams typically include usability engineering, graphic design, documentation, software engineering and development, marketing, operations planning, and project management.

Salary Range for Design and Usability Positions:
$60,000 - $140,000 (total compensation, including salary, bonus, and stock options).

back to top  Sidebar: Practitioner's Workbench

Favorite Publications:

  • Business Week/ZDNet, Internetworking/WebReview/


  • Paint/Power Point/Dreamweaver/Visual Basic/Cold Fusion/Visio/Photoshop

Favorite Anecdote:
"The International Organisation for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) designated Oct. 14 as World Standards Day to recognize those volunteers who have worked hard to define international standards...The United States celebrated World Standards Day on Oct. 11; Finland celebrated on Oct. 13; and Italy celebrated on Oct. 18."--Open Systems Today, 10/31/94

Sources of Inspiration:
The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Star Trek, The Simpsons

back to top 

©2000 ACM  1072-5220/01/0300  $5.00

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