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Resources: UPA 2004 Idea Markets

How Can We Best Sell Usability


Activator: Karen Bachmann

Starting Questions

  • How do we teach prospective employers or project leads about usability?
  • What other groups should we reach out to?
  • What must we teach first and how do we establish a teaching relationship with the individuals (bosses, peers, etc.) that we are reaching out to?
  • Are there any top selling points of usability that can be universally successful?
  • Because the selling process is typically incremental, how do we build on success and overcome setbacks?


Many usability practitioners, both consultants and full-time employees, have to teach our employers and colleagues about usability or correct misconceptions before convincing them to let us apply our skills to their projects. This idea market topic explored ways we can overcome these challenges preventing us from applying our skills to the usability issues so many organizations face.

The following are some of the key ideas that we explored:

  • ROI is an artificial exercise that is required because executives lack a better way of evaluating usability. A better evaluation that we can offer is to show them that our value may not come in increasing time to market but instead by decreasing the time to profitability.
  • Selling usability requires a change in mindset on the part of the entire organization. It’s not just a task.
  • We can find many allies in unexpected places, such as the legal department and risk management. QA and marketing are also other groups whom we should reach out to for support.

Collected Comments

The collected comments are generally not edited from the notes taken during the session. If words were omitted in the notes and their omission would impair understanding of the comment, the words are added here.

  • Usability is difficult to sell but it can be an imperative to the business, such as when it is the main business of a consulting company.
  • Sometimes the organization can afford to wait to implement usability. We need to understand the business needs.
  • Tying usability to return on investment (ROI) or return on profit puts the argument in terms that company executives can understand.
  • When seeking allies, we should find someone “lower down” in the organization to advocate usability. They will bring in the executives.
  • If you have an executive as an advocate, you are in good shape.
  • How you explain usability is important. If you go into too much depth, you will lose your audience. We must use their language and be professional
  • Sometimes conducting a heuristic evaluation or expert review of the customer’s (or prospect’s) products before starting the conversation can provide a good opening. The results can provide something tangible to tie to ROI.
  • Accessibility is a good selling point, especially in government.
  • When selling usability, usually the last point is “… and it’s the right thing to do.” Unfortunately, the conversation cannot start with that point.
  • Approach even internal “selling” to other groups and peers like a business.
  • For external sales, a professional proposal is key to making the sale. Proposals must be eye-catching, provide enough information to make the sale without being too much, and be graphically pleasing.
  • Even if you are primarily focused on internal products (for example, a usability team working on internal IT project for a university), be prepared to sell to external parties, such as other local businesses and advertising agencies.
  • Be prepared to be flexible with any estimates and information in the proposal in order to make the sale.
  • Successfully selling usability often requires changing perception. For example, you may need to show your peers that the usability group is not just the usability lab
  • Online tools to intercept web visitors and capture self-reported reasons they visit the site can provide useful data for cost-justifying usability.
  • The results of the survey can tell executives how much they lose because of an unsuccessful experience or bad usability.
  • Usability reduces lost revenue, not generate new revenue. Without some supporting evidence, this is hard to convey to executives.
  • Target the marketing department when the company has no usability presence at all. Reaching out to marketing is useful for internal and external selling. The approach can provide success numbers.
  • One participant shared Figure 1 as remembered from reading "Bringing Usability Effectively into Product Development" (Conklin, P. in Rudisill, et al. (eds.), Human-Computer Interface Design: Success Stories, Emerging Methods, Real-World Context. Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 1996: pages 367-374), which cited the source article for the graph, "The Return Map: Tracing Product Teams" (House, C.H. and Price, R.L. Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb1991: pages 92-100). [Activator Note: A reprint of the source article for this figure is available for purchase (USD6 for PDF) from Harvard Business Review Online]

Figure 1. Time to Profitability Graph
(as remembered and shared at the Idea Market)

  • Conklin’s essay discussed that while the focus for development organizations is to reduce time to market, executives should be more interested in reducing the time to profitability rather than time to market. The economic argument can be made that usability may greatly reduce the time to profitability even if it slightly increases time to market. Usability can also lower the post release support costs, shown by the dotted red line in the figure.
  • Usability is often seen as increasing time to market, but it does not have to.
  • We need to sell more than usability testing. We should involve all project members in UCD.
  • We should strive to move from discrete usability tasks (little u) to affecting a development process change (big U).
  • Offer more than shallow fixes at the end of the life cycle.
  • Teach developers and business personnel to think in the mindset of usability and user-centric development.


  • The primary benefit of usability is to make the product better, more satisfying.
  • We have to quantify intangibles, which is often an artificial exercise (smoke-and-mirrors).
  • To supply ROI demands, we must arbitrarily assign costs to mistakes and inefficiencies or describe revenue from reduced errors and increased efficiency.
  • The bigger the company, the easier it is to create “big” numbers, especially when the costs are per employee.
  • An analogy offered by one participant: Why do companies spend money on landscaping their buildings? Why can’t a similar “makes it better” argument be made for usability?
  • One attendee’s manager that did get the message defined usability as freeing people up to do more enjoyable work (eliminate inefficiencies, reduce errors, and minimize frustration).
  • Quantifying value is difficult and contrived. Executives want an artificial bottom line analysis of usability. This requirement is usually for one of the following reasons:
    - Executives are looking to bar usability and the usability practitioner’s participation in development.
    - Executives are just following the requirements set in their MBA programs.
    - The request is from an accountant, who requires numbers.
  • The financial world is changing their thinking about the value of websites. Now websites are considered a capital asset (they are now referred to as a “property”) rather than an expense. The same change in thinking may be able to be applied to justifying the expense of usability.
  • Projects at a higher level do not seem to require the same ROI justification that usability tasks and UCD require.
  • The MBA knee-jerk reaction is to ask, “What I really need is how much this is going to save me?” The question should really be changed to be “What risks will I avoid?”
  • In a “long-hours culture,” the cost of salaries is disregarded, so ROI arguments about saving money based on salary is a myth.
  • Financial argument can be related to reducing call center and support costs.
  • When selling usability, we should sell at the management and grass-roots levels simultaneously.
  • Executive mandates for usability are only effective for a short while.
  • Sometimes the company provides broken support for the usability process. For example, one participant shared how a company mandated usability testing as a step in the development process, but did not require that any results be used.
  • One participant was grateful for experts such as Jakob Nielsen and Ben Shneiderman selling to the top-level executives.
  • One way to teach peers and other groups about usability is by conducting brown bag (voluntary) seminars for all associates to raise the general awareness of usability.
  • Supportive allies can be found in risk managers, company lawyers, and advisors fo avoiding malpractice lawsuits.
  • We need to reach those who can influence the decision-makers.
  • “Let the market test it.” This high-risk approach is common to many companies. Even testing without using the results to improve the project would at least allow companies to understand the risks they face.
  • Risk managers are receptive to being brought in earlier in the development process, not just at the point when a crisis occurs.
  • We need to discover who our allies are, ask questions, and regularly interact with colleagues.
  • We should also reach out to end users (for example, service technicians) directly to establish an audience calling for usability and, subsequently, providing justification.
  • QA and performance analysts are good allies and resources.
  • Sometimes the value these groups offer is to tell us when not to change something in the product.
  • Look for archetypes of usability to compare work and to establish when to stop making design changes.
  • Evangelize usability: Get the word out and keep sending a persistent and consistent message.
  • Review accidents, complaints, and other critical issues that customer raise. Use this information for selling involvement in the next release.
  • We need to find out where users are circumventing the usage and interaction provided in the product.
  • Levels of usability “enlightenment” achieved:
    - “Wow! Usability is important. We need the best tester, the best designer, the best <insert task here>.” This state of enlightenment shows no understanding of the process and leads to false expectations.
    - “Wow! Usability is important. We need it as part of our process.” This state of enlightenment understands that usability requires a cultural and process change to achieve successful UCD.
    - Decision-makers need to self-examine where usability fits and internalize the process.
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