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Resources: Usability in the Real World

Usability Case Studies

This page contains short case studies of the impact of usability. Some are success stories, showing how usability improved a project and company bottom line. Others are examples of situations where a little usability might have salvaged a project.

  • U.S. Automobile Association (USAA)
  • Microsoft
  • Ford Motor Company
  • Newspaper Newsrooms
  • The NORAD Command Center
  • State of California
  • Washington, D.C. Real Estate Community
  • Hospital Administrative Staffs in U.S.

Positive Results of Usability Testing

U.S. Automobile Association (USAA)

Since 1992, the U.S. Automobile Association (USAA), the country's fifth-largest auto insurer, has provided ergonomics training to more than 20,000 of its employees and one-on-one ergonomics consultation to an additional 7,200 workers. The cornerstone of USAA's nine-year-old ergonomics program is the usability testing of every software application developed or purchased for use by workers in the company's Property & Casualty Division. Through the ergonomics programs, users work with information systems staffers from the start of new development projects to lay out data flows and screen designs.

USAA has found that quantifiable benefits of a proactive ergonomics program go beyond user comfort, by improving productivity, reducing training costs, and significantly reducing disability and workers' compensation claims. Since the beginning of the program, USAA's payments of claims for musculoskeletal disorders have shrunk from 66% to 48% of all workers' compensation payments. It saved at least $1 million by making changes to a keystroke combination after conducting usability testing early in development of a new software program that would ultimately be used by 4,000 people. (Computerworld, 4/27/98)


In the early 1990s, Microsoft customers were having difficulty with the print-merge feature of the Word for Windows product. Customers spent an average of 45 minutes talking to a company technical support person to get a satisfactory answer. Microsoft conducted usability testing and problem identification programs that led to a revised design and, subsequently, a dramatic decrease in support calls and significant cost savings. (Reed, 1992)

Ford Motor Company

The Ford Motor Company's small car dealerships were having significant problems with an accounting system the carmaker designed specifically for them. Ford decided to conduct a usability study of the system and, as a result, not only changed a specific problem, but 90% of the overall system. The new system was so easy to use that calls to the help line dropped to zero and resulted in estimated savings of $100,000 for the company. (Kitsuse, 1991, "Why aren't computers..." Across the Board )

Negative Impact of Usability Problems

Newspaper Newsrooms

A 1996 Newspaper Association of America (NAA) report included the newspaper industry among the many in which workers are at a high risk for upper-extremity cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs). CTDs are musculoskeletal injuries brought about by repetition, force and awkward postures. The NAA's report confirmed the findings of earlier studies conducted by the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and Newsday , which found that CTDs are strongly associated with the number of hours worked at computers.

Many of today's newspaper workers use one physical activity all day: they type keys or click a mouse, or both, often as they simultaneously use the telephone. Computers permit them to work faster in a more static position and more constantly than their bodies can tolerate.

Upper-extremity CTDs in newspaper workers using computer keyboards range from 20% - 40%. Depending on the injury, disability costs vary between $5,000 and $50,000 per case, with some running much higher. Usability engineering includes minimizing the repetitive nature of computer-based tasks to help reduce the occurrence of CTDs. (Editor & Publisher Magazine, 11/11/1996)

The NORAD Command Center

In 1981, the Pentagon undertook a six-year, $968 million program to replace the five main computer systems at the NORAD Command Center, North America's defense center against missile attacks. In 1994, a GAO report showed that the project, dubbed Cheyenne Mountain Upgrade (CMU), was 11 years behind schedule and $1 billion over budget. Despite the extra time and dollars, the new systems were too slow and unreliable, so the old system had to be maintained as a back up. Technicians had to constantly scan more than 20 monitors for a wide variety of alerts, including those as subtle as "yes" changing to "no."

To solve the problems caused by too much software, CMU managers decided in April 1995 to build yet another software program. The development process for this program involved contact with users, prototyping, and peer review of design and code. The new software was completed on-time, within its $2 million budget, and began working immediately. (Gibbs, W.W. (1997). "Command and Control." Scientific American, 8/97)

State of California

On behalf of the state of California, Lockheed Martin Information Management Systems built a huge computer system that would track down deadbeat parents and improve the state's child support collection rate. The system was continually plagued with problems. In San Francisco County, new child-support collection cases dropped 40% in the six months the county used the system, forcing it to return to its old database. After documenting more than 900 problems, ranging from confusing software to vanishing parent records, the state scrapped the $99 million system in November 1997, making it the most costly failed computer project in state government history. ( Katches, M. 1997. "State kills $99 million computer." The Orange County Register, 11/21/97)

Washington, D.C. Real Estate Community

The Metropolitan Regional Information Systems (MRIS) was built as state-of-the-art technology that would provide Washington real estate agents with a central multiple listing system, thereby making their jobs easier and more efficient. Since its introduction, nearly 20,000 agents have agreed to pay $35 a month to use the system, which lists 60,000 homes. But agents have had difficulty entering information into the $18.5 million system correctly, compounding problems that range from receiving unreliable and incomplete data to system delays and shutdowns. MRIS has become so overloaded with information and users that it takes much longer than before to get the information they need to help homeowners buy and sell houses. ( Mayer, C.E. 1997. "New Computer Listings Frustrate Area Real Estate Agents." The Washington Post 7/5/97)

Hospital Administrative Staffs in U.S.

In 1968, U.S. hospitals employed 435,000 administrative staff and served 1.4 million patients at a time. Although the average daily patient population dropped to 853,000 by 1992, administrative employment rose to 1.2 million -- in large part because information processing consumed an increasing amount of staff time. (Strassman, 1998, The Squandered Computer )


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