UX – An Often Overlooked Key to Project Success

February 27, 2012 Appirio

By Mark Sullivan (@msulliv)

How do you define project success? Is it delivering a project on time and on budget? Is it delivering business results? Increasingly, IT departments are expected to do more than deliver the project to completion. With public cloud solutions, a lot of the technical complexity of IT projects has been eliminated and the focus has shifted to delivering business outcomes. So the question for IT projects teams now is how to successfully deliver business outcomes.

We find time and again that the key to achieving business outcomes is creating solutions that are broadly adopted and used. Adoption happens through a combination of strong organizational sponsorship and bottoms-up usage and grassroots growth. Pure top-down approaches only go so far and start to break down after a while. The key to broad and sustained adoption is to create functional and engaging solutions that help people do their jobs better. That’s why user experience (UX) is such a critical component of a successful project.

What is User Experience?
In the B2C context, experience design is a growing practice broadly applied to many situations. Apple stores are great examples of brand experience design and customer experience design.

In the IT context, the term “user experience” describes how well technology supports an end-user’s goals – goals that usually center around accomplishing a business process with support from a business application.

A common misconception is that UX is mostly focused on creating visually appealing applications. While visual appeal is important, good looks alone are not enough to ensure a compelling user experience. UX can cover the range of interactions with applications – from user interface design to training and change management. So a good UX comes from incorporating user centered design, interaction design, information architecture, usability, and graphic design to create an engaging, purposeful experience.

UX for Cloud Applications – Is it Necessary?
User experience is not a new concern for cloud vendors such as Salesforce.com. They have already expended considerable effort on the user experience of their applications, performing rigorous usability testing, providing extensive training materials, and making support available through multiple channels.

But Salesforce.com and other SaaS vendors cannot optimize their application for your users, in your industry, in your business context. That “last mile” of user experience is up to you and your team to optimize.

Fortunately, many of the leading SaaS tools such as Salesforce.com are deep enough that you have several options for improving the out-of-the-box UX, from simple configuration through extensive customization.

UX Framework for Cloud Applications
We usually think about three levels of effort in optimizing the user experience for cloud applications like Salesforce.com.

Although we’ve diagrammed these levels as a hierarchy, it is possible (and sometimes desirable) to support multiple levels simultaneously, or to skip levels, from level 1 to 3, for example.

Selecting a Target UX Level
Clearly UX design can add cost to a project above merely delivering the baseline functionality. How can you determine when and how much to invest in optimizing the UX so that the value in user adoption and usability outweighs the incremental cost?

Generally, you should take a cost/benefit approach to the question, factoring in considerations such as how many users are affected, how critical they are to achieving the organization’s goals, how frequently they perform an activity, how often the functional requirements change, and so forth. Then, for each group of users, such as in-house sales reps, you can decide which UX option best balances adoption and cost: Good, Better, or Best.

Getting Started
If you’re just getting started with a cloud project, this is the ideal time to think about how your new solution is going to make your users’ jobs easier.

The key steps are:

  1. Involve your UX team early in the initial design process make sure you have UX specialists early on in your project to start off on the right foot
  2. Define who your users are sounds obvious but many projects have failed because solutions were designed for project sponsors and not for the actual user
  3. Understand what your users are trying to do
  4. Figure out how much you want to optimize the user experience configure, customize or contextualize for each segment of users
  5. Involve end users in your development process
  6. Iterate, measure and refine

If you already have a cloud application rolled out, the steps are similar but you should start by picking a segment of the user population and a finite part of your application to optimize. Then you can apply the same steps and expand your design scope as you see results.

If you need help along the way, tweet us @appirio #ux!

Mark Sullivan is a Sr. Consultant at Appirio. He is a founding member of the User Experience practice at Appirio and has a background in information architecture, usability, user adoption and application development at a variety of high-tech enterprises.

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