Making the case for UX/UI design

Incorporating user experience and design for internal software is great in theory, but cost prohibitive in practice. Learn how rapid prototyping and user testing builds support for a UX/UI investment.

Thankfully, the benefits of a well-designed user interface are becoming broadly understood. A system that's easy-to-use, intuitive, and visually appealing requires less end-user training, reduces calls for support, and makes users more productive, ultimately making the system less expensive to launch and maintain.

Savvy companies are even leveraging the hundreds of millions spent by the Googles, Facebooks, and Microsofts of the world, borrowing their visual design and user interface elements so that end users can immediately be productive in company applications without any training since their workplace tools work the same as their recreational apps.

While these truths are superficially self-evident, one key challenge remains: proving the value of design so that someone will actually pay for it. Mention the reduced training costs, and you'll likely be greeted with enthusiastic nods and excitement until someone sees the bill for hiring a User Experience/User Interface (UX/UI) designer or external party, and suddenly those nodding heads turn into stern faces and closed budgets. So, how do you make the case to spend money on design and usability when the benefits seem difficult to quantify?

SEE: Job description: User experience specialist (Tech Pro Research)

The power of the prototype

One of the best remarks I've heard about the power of prototyping came while speaking with a Silicon Valley veteran, who said: "Everyone thinks we're smarter in the Valley, and it's just not true. We just A/B test everything."

This process has been scaled to the point that each of us is unknowingly subjected to dozens or even hundreds of A/B tests every day. A favorite app on your phone likely has a slightly different user interface than the same app on a colleague's phone, and your Amazon.com homepage might change slightly each time you visit.

In the background, these companies are testing everything from whether a certain wording gets you to click a new feature, to whether a button should be green or teal. Effectively they validate the interface by seeing, which configuration generates the best response, thousands of times each minute.

This is an intuitively obvious concept, yet we often see it as something that's too complex or requires too much creativity or technology to deploy in a corporate IT environment. That's decidedly not the case once you realize that a prototype can be a sketch on a piece of paper, or two static screen shots that are printed up and placed side-by-side on a table and presented to potential users.

SEE: Interview questions: User experience specialist (Tech Pro Research)

With minimal additional sophistication, you can leverage tools like Axure, Adobe XD, Balsamiq Mockups, or the dozens of cloud-based prototyping tools that let you create application mockups quickly, in some cases even adding the ability to click and interact with the mockup.

Rather than endless hours debating what users want and need, the simple act of putting a couple of options in front of a dozen real, live end users provides concrete, actionable, and often unexpected positive direction.

Bring in the boss

Prototyping rarely needs full-blown technology or connectivity. If you're spending more than a day or two generating a round of prototypes you're likely overcomplicating things.

Similarly, when testing your prototypes, you need not create a formal focus group setting with one-way mirrors and video facilities. Simply go to where your end users are, grab someone and ask for their feedback. Experiment with individual sessions versus small groups, as there are benefits and drawbacks to each. You can even build a testing committee of a half-dozen people that are on-call for quick prototype validations.

SEE: Hiring kit: User experience specialist (Tech Pro Research)

Once you get your "prototyping legs," invite in the bosses who will ultimately decide whether a budget's available to spend on design. We can talk until we are blue in the face about the benefits of design and how it will ultimately save money, but nothing makes the case better than a real live end user, staring at a prototype of a key business application and expressing utter confusion and frustration with how they'd interact with such a tool. Combine this sentiment with an experience in your company's recent past where system adoption faltered and training costs skyrocketed, and you'll quickly build a strong case for spending on design that even the boss will sign off on.

Also see

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Image: scyther5, Getty Images/iStockphoto

By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...