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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

The Diversity of Usability Practices

A usability lab was originally a testing room and an observation room separated by a one-way mirror. For a formal usability test, a single user is brought into the testing room, which, in addition to the software product to be tested, contains video cameras and microphones for recording sessions. After the test, the usability expert's analysis of the videotape is reported to the developers.

Current usability practice is much more diverse, and has changed from being an add-on to the development process to becoming an integrated part of it. Usability work encompasses a broad range of activities, including field studies of work practice, co-operative prototyping, user workshops, and post-release tests. Today's usability practitioners aim at creating a realistic context of use for these activities by working outside the conventional lab, or by equipping the lab with documents, tools, and other elements from the users' daily environment. The lab suite in its original form is playing a steadily decreasing role.

Usability work is becoming a cooperative activity, involving the usability group, end users, and the development team. Many companies have come to realize that much can be gained from direct interaction between end users and developers. So end users are more active in the development process, including early involvement in development and contributing to design, rather than acting as evaluators. The role of usability professionals is becoming one of merely facilitating and nurturing the relationship between developers and end users, for instance, in terms of workshops.

This special section offers a window into the state of the art of usability practices as represented by three U.S. companies—IBM, the American Institutes for Research (AIR), and Microsoft—and three Danish companies—Bang & Olufsen (B&O), Danfoss, and Kommunedata (KMD). These six companies (see the table for their profiles) not only represent a diversity of approaches to usability, but also a diverse set of products, ranging from off-the-shelf office software, Internet applications and software embedded in mechanical products to consumer products. Most of the companies are in-house service providers, but some also work as consultants to external clients.

The approaches taken by these six companies are presented in separate articles by usability practitioners from each company. The articles address some of the general principles of usability work and illustrate the approach taken by means of one or more short case histories. Each of the presentations is part of a communicative process in which each of the companies from one side of the Atlantic responds to one of the articles presenting the usability practice of one of the companies from the other side.

Jacob Buur and Kirsten Bagger from Danfoss tell the story of how their usability practices have evolved over the years into a dialogue with users, through steps that have included moving the test facilitator into the lab, developing video documentation procedures, having developers act as co-organizers, and turning test sessions into workshops. The group at Danfoss has been particularly intrigued by exploring how end users can more actively contribute to design.

Karel Vredenburg continues by describing how at IBM usability has become an integrated part of the organization throughout the development process, and how user-centered design is optimized in various ways, including the recruitment of participants and the collection of information from users.

Klaus Bærentsen and Henning Slavensky from B&O outline how they have put together a multidisciplinary team that enables them to address usability issues while at the same time taking into account the designing of products with a unique product identity.

Julia Gardner tells the story of how the usability group at KMD, starting from scratch, has managed to gain a platform within the Danish company, and has used it for developing usability workshops that facilitate different types of cooperation with users, and strengthen the focus on users' work practices.

William Dolan and Joseph Dumas illustrate the need for a flexible approach to usability when providing services as a third-party vendor to industry, as illustrated by two cases: one describing a rigorous but informal usability engineering program for a home dialysis device, and the other describing a more formal comparison usability test of software products.

Michael Muller and Mary Czerwinski focus on how to take into account the diversity of Microsoft's customers, and the fact that some of them use Microsoft products in settings other than the office, for instance, in cars or at home.

In the closing article, Thea Borgholm and Kim Halskov Madsen provide an overview of the practices of usability groups in the U.S. and Denmark. Based on an evaluation of the six usability groups featured, the relationships to developers and users are discussed, as are the differences between the groups and the countries examined.

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Kim Halskov Madsen ( is Department Chair and an associate professor in the Department of Information and Media Science, Aarhus University, Denmark.

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©1999 ACM  0002-0782/99/0500  $5.00

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