Kevin Cheng  

Extreme Budget Usability

January 16th, 2004 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

It’s no secret that everyone is pinching their pockets these days: “What’s that? I can save a few hundred every month if I stop offering free coffee? Great! They can go start one of those coffee clubs. I hate coffee anyways.” I won’t victimize HCI and usability as being the prime suspects selected by management, though. No, we whine enough as it is. While many organizations _will_ look to us and consider that which shouldn’t be considered, there are those who wouldn’t even think about closing down their usability department to save money.

But let’s just say, for the sake of argument, you are feeling particularly generous and self-giving. Perhaps the holiday spirit hasn’t left you or maybe aliens have abducted your rational brain. Whatever the cause, you think to yourself, “Self, I think I’m going to help this company and save them a few dollars.” Self replies, “How?”

“I’m not sure, but OK/C had some wacky ideas.”

Without a doubt, the luxury once afforded to many usability professionals are seldom available nowadays. Full blown usability tests, benchmarking, contextual inquiries and multiple stages of iteration and signoff are all nice but the pressure of schedule and budget looms over you.

Given this new world order, are there ways we can effectively do our jobs and shave off a day here or a dollar there? The answer is of course, “Yes,” and the inevitable caveat is, “but it will cost you.” Nothing comes for free and we do the usability tasks we do because they�re necessary to gain a certain level of understanding and collect a minimum level of data.

Fewer iterations? Sure, that’s more risk of failing acceptance in the end. Fewer users? More probability of accidentally interviewing the outlier. Maybe we can just run some heuristics and call it done. Then again, maybe not.

The problem isn’t just large companies cutting its fat, either. We can look at smaller companies, start-ups in particular, and often hear them saying, “HCI sounds nice but we really can’t afford it.” We in the industry think they may as well say, “building a product people will use is nice but we don’t think it’s worth the money.” Realistically though, they really can’t afford the ten course meal so we make do with what we have, in both time and money.

We all should be able to logically evaluate what tools we have, and apply them appropriately to the problems at hand. Focus on the problem, focus on the data you absolutely must collect, and prototype with as low a cost as you can (I recommend Carolyn Snyder’s Paper Prototyping if you haven’t read it).

What are the ways you have effectively fit within a constrained budget or timeline? What did you have to sacrifice and what do you feel the risks were for sacrificing them? Alternatively, give us some more extreme budget usability like we have in the strip and maybe we can do a few more of those (e-mail it if you don�t want to spoil the fun)!

3 Responses to “Extreme Budget Usability”
Joshua Kaufman wrote:

See Chapter 9 of Don’t Make Me Think! by Steve Krug, “Usability testing on 10 cents a day.” He makes lots of good points, but I think the most important is that testing with one user is 100% better than testing with zero users.

Tom Chi wrote:

Josh, it’s coincidental that you should mention that book, since I just received my copy in the mail yesterday. Chapter 9 is definitely great! - as is the rest of the book (that I’ve gotten to so far). I have a lot of respect for any author who understands that you needn’t sound like a textbook to get serious information across.

Bob Salmon wrote:

True story from a software house that shall remain nameless, which might provoke some debate.

There is a group of British English speaking programmers, a documentation team (who write in [American] English) and a localisation team (who manage translation into French, German etc.

Traditionally, the programmers write error messages but these are often in developer speak. The localisation team take these and ‘translate’ them into ordinary [American] English, alongside the translation of them into French etc. This translation has at least 3 benefits:
1. Consistency of style and terminology;
2. Understandability;
3. Some of the terms are different even between U.S. and U.K. English, so the translated messages use the correct terms for the target audience.

The localisation team said that they were too busy to do this translation, and so the developers have to do it. To help, they would create a style guide. There is no lexicon, and no central review point.

Unfortunately, the documentation team and the programmers were unable to say that they were too busy and so get e.g. the managers to write their designs for them, or the admin staff to debug their code.


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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?