It is said that the best of companies often work in close symbiosis with their users to not only provide a solution to their needs but to better understand the requirements that can then be translated into new or improved product or service offerings. There have been over time, numerous studies conducted to validate how Usability Testing assists companies in reducing training costs, managing customer support calls, streamlining documentation and enhancing overall user experience. However, what leaves one pondering, is how many companies recognize the importance and actually incorporate usability in their development processes. As usability expert Jakob Nielsen has pointed out, “Every hour you can cut off user training is one hour more for productive work and one hour less to pay an instructor.”
There are a multitude of examples of cost reduction directly associated with Usability Study; when products are understandable and easy to learn, users don’t need to call support as often – which in turn means that companies require fewer people to work on the support lines, thereby reducing costs. According to the International Standards Organization (ISO) 9241-11: Guidance of Usability (1998), “Usability is the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use.”
To quote an example; at Microsoft several years ago, Word for Windows’ print merge feature was generating numerous lengthy support calls averaging to approximately 45 minutes. With a balanced mix of usability testing and other techniques, the user interface for the feature was adjusted. In the next release, both the number and length of support calls “dropped dramatically” and Microsoft recognized “a significant cost saving.”
Another area that sees significant savings with the implementation of usability testing is reduced documentation costs, because user interfaces tend to be predictable, consistent and coherent – it is often easier to create user documentation for usability-engineered systems than for other systems. Documentation that’s easier to create is written more quickly and is less liable to inaccuracies; thereby making them less prone to errors. Usability-engineered systems often require less documentation thereby implying that usability-engineered systems can be less costly to document than systems developed without usability. The process of usability eliminates the need to reprint and distribute a user manual; in one great example of its advantages, saving one company $40,000 in over a year!
It is certain that usability is much more than just a concept – and that it can be incorporated at different stages in the development cycle. In many organizations, usability is an important part of software development. And an increasing number of companies are discovering that not only is usability good for their users, it is good for the business at large. A commercial software company would be more interested in a cost-benefit analysis, which focuses on usability’s potential for reducing development costs and increasing customer satisfaction, than on its potential to improve end user productivity alone.
However, the benefits from usability can only be reaped by a company developing or acquiring usability expertise. While training existing staff in usability can be helpful, it is often more effective to hire usability professionals as regular staff or consultants. It is their expertise in the subject of usability that allows them to easily identify problems before a software is coded. There are a number of usability techniques available as “the basics” of usability processes – user and task analysis, usability testing, adopting a development process that can incorporate usability engineering and so on.
As is the norm of economics and profitability, where every company is looking for lower costs as compared to its ROI, one needs to recognize that ‘usability costs’ are not additional costs. These costs would have been sustained even without the company proactively implementing usability – monies spent on trainings, support calls and poorly designed programs – these usability costs could actually be much lesser than the costs that would have been incurred otherwise!
Unfortunately, despite firm facts validating the need for usability testing, many a company is still hesitant to recognize usability as a critical requirement in its development processes; often marked out as an additional cost to the company – to be explored only if critical.
And this is where the conversation gets interesting – why is usability important for your company?
 Nielsen, Jakob. (1993) “Is Usability Engineering Really Worth It?” IEEE Software, 10, 6 (November) 90-92
 Bias, Randolph G. and Mayhew, Deborah J., eds. (1994) Cost-Justifying Usability. Harcourt Brace & Co., Boston