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It's not that crazy to worry about app usability: A review of

It may just be me, but when I first read the title of this book, "Institutionalization of Usability," I said to myself, "What? Should developers concerned with usability be put in an institution?" I know that in some organizations usability doesn't get the attention it deserves, but it's not that crazy to care about how usable an application is.

Of course, that's not what this book is about. It's about making usability an integral part of your development process.

For author Eric Schaffer, this is a four-phase process. The first phase is start-up, which alerts the organization to the value of usability and enlists an executive to champion the usability effort. Schaffer stresses the importance of finding a champion and making sure that they are totally on board. Having the right champion, he says, "is the best predictor of the success of a usability institutionalization effort."

The second phase is setup. The most important thing you do during this phase is to create the strategic plan for usability. Other activities include training developers in usability techniques, developing a user-centered design methodology and planning for appropriate usability testing facilities.

The third phase is organization. During this phase, you recruit and hire the appropriate personnel and set up the organizational structure you will need to support usability. Schaffer devotes several pages to the question of where in the organization the usability group should report. He notes that it has traditionally reported to the quality assurance department, but makes cases for the group to report to development and marketing as well.

The final phase is the long-term operations phase. If you've reached this point, you have already achieved usability nirvana, but you must be diligent about keeping usability as a top concern. Making sure that new hires are trained in usability and keeping executives informed of the return on their usability investment are just two of the ways Schaffer recommends that readers do this.

Ultimately, all this work has to pay off for you and your firm. The author's opinion is that software has become a commodity. With today's powerful tools, it's not as difficult as it used to be to create an application, and many firms are shipping development work overseas where developers work for far less.

To combat these trends, you need to make your software stand out. You need a differentiator, and usability can be one of those differentiators. Schaffer says that very few companies have ". . . the ability to build practical, useful, usable, and satisfying applications and websites." If your company is one of them, you'll definitely have a leg up on the competition.

"Institutionalization of Usability: A Step-by-Step Guide" by Eric Schaffer; 304 pages. Addison-Wesley, Boston, Mass., 2004.

About the Author

Dan Romanchik is an engineering manager turned writer and Web developer. His current passion is amateur radio. You can read his amateur radio blog at www.blurty.com/~kb6nu.

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