Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Usability Rules - OK?

My Agency has just finished a nine-month long independent expert usability review of all of our online properties - website, intranet and secure online transaction service.

Needless to say most of the results matched what we already knew
  • our website needs more of a customer-focus and is due for a facelift,
  • our intranet needs reorganisation to match how our staff need to access information and tools, and
  • our customers cannot tell the difference between our website and our secure transaction service - nor should they need to.
This is probably about the 10th time in the last ten years I've engaged consultants to carry out one type of review or another and, in almost every case, the major findings matched what we already knew.

Naturally there were some surprises - but if the people who manage the properties are already 70-80% right, why is it so important to call in the consultants?

The cynical response, and one I've floated out there from time to time, is that organisations don't trust the experience and expertise of their staff.

This is similar to the principle where for some products you sell more if you raise the price - as people believe if the price is higher so must be the quality.

Staff are a sunk cost, so there's no apparent further investment to justify the quality of an outcome.
This works well for consultants, who can build their credibility and reputation by simply charging more - though they do have to deliver in the end.

However I've never really liked it as a reason - both because I'd like to think that employers recognise the skills of their employees (or wouldn't have hired them), and because it only addresses the issue of trust, not the issue of whether the work needs to be done.

After years of thinking on this topic, involving many research projects and other consultant-led activities, I've come to the conclusion that the real reason for bringing in the external experts is simply that 'we don't know what we don't know'.

It's great to sit back in an organisation and say that a piece of research taught us nothing that we didn't already know - but is that really the case.

Even if you are 80% correct on what your customers wanted (after the fact), the other 20% may be the most vital piece of the puzzle. As we become close to our work and acculturalised to the organisation it becomes impossible to take off those rose-coloured glasses and see our online properties (or other products and services) in the same way as our customers.

Of course I have had other reasons for using independent experts over the years - to train staff, to substitute money for time we didn't have, and to ensure that politically and legally we had something signed to point at "but the consultant said that..."

But my main reason in almost every case has been that most powerful reason of all - I don't know what I don't know, and I'm unable to take off my glasses to find out.

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