Harmonizing the Voices: Getting Software Usability Right

Getting the chance to redesign a commercial software product is a rare opportunity in the life of a software development leader. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had that opportunity twice in the past decade. The first was a technology and user interface overhaul of an investment management system. The second was a complete redesign of an interactive response technology (IRT) system used to manage the operations, drug supply, and patient engagement for clinical trials. In both cases, these systems are intended to have a lifespan of a decade or more, almost an eternity for software. In the case of the IRT system, it is possible to have longitudinal clinical trials that last for 15-20 years that need continuous support on the same technology platform.

Because the lifespan of these systems is so long, you seldom get to redesign them. It was essential to the business that we got these redesigns right, especially the design of the user experience (UX). If we did not, we’d spend much valuable development capacity tweaking the UX designs rather than spending that capacity on new features that add to the value of the product and generate revenue for the business. Further, just like when you meet someone new, you only have one chance to make a good impression. If your UX is clunky or off-putting, at best you’ll frustrate users, and at worst you’ll diminish your competitive edge.  Moreover, by UX, I do not just mean the look and feel of the user interface (UI), I mean the entire experience of using your software from UI to workflow to help capabilities and the like.

Why it is hard to get UX right

Often when we think of UX design, we think of graphic artists and developers prototyping screens and making things look pretty. While that is part of design, the design process when done right is a social endeavor that brings together product stakeholders with often competing and sometimes contrary views and finding order in the chaos. The goal of the design engagement is to harmonize the many discordant voices by synthesizing their needs and opinions into a coherent design that not only meets their needs but provides a means to develop sustainably on the vision of the design.

Prospective customers often have firm notions of what they need and want from a system, but their view can be clouded by prior bad experiences. Users often have well-reasoned operational expectations of the system, but their view can be biased by how the system works now and sometimes opposed to trying new ways to accomplish the same task. Product managers are experts in understanding market, prospective customer, and user needs and translating those into product features. However, they frequently lack the capability to systematically and constructively solicit feedback on UX concerns and synthesize those into a holistic plan for the UX design. In short, there is an abundance of really great ideas but no good way to manage the social engagement that leads to great designs.

It is important to take a pause here and note two principals that guide my decision-making about UX design. The people who designed the UX for the previous system will inevitably have strong opinions about how the next system should behave. While their opinions need to be aired and considered, my first principle says, “If the same people who designed the last system design the next, the next system will end up looking suspiciously like the last.” This is not an indictment of the previous system designers but points to the need for a new synthesis of prevailing views focused through the lens of the business strategy. Further, there is a temptation to believe that UX design is little more that “twiddling some pixels” on a screen and that developers are suited to handle it. My second principle says, “Never have developers determine your UX design.” This is not an indictment of developers but points to the need for more rigor in UX design.

How to get UX design right

Getting to a great UX design is neither easy nor inexpensive. However, doing so pays dividends in the end. In the two system redesign cases I cite above, I engaged a local UX design firm to help us sort it out. Electronic Ink in Philadelphia, PA knew how to engage stakeholders and bring harmony to discordance. I cannot overemphasize the value companies such as this add. They have the people, process, and technology to engage the cacophony of stakeholders and harmonize their input into a solid path toward thoughtful and sustainable UX design.

Here’s how the engagement worked:

The first part of the engagement was intended to provide stakeholder reconnaissance for the current state of the existing system and begin to discover the required components of the future state. In the case of the IRT engagement, the various system users were defined as personae and were job shadowed and interviewed to assess the good and bad aspects of the current system state. The engagement revealed nine key problem areas. “Frustration scores” comprised of physical effort, cognitive load, task repeats, and error potential were produced for each of the nine areas. The frustration scores largely dictated the priority of each of the nine areas. Here is one such example:


The current state assessment revealed key issues and non-issues with the current design. This helped us understand what was working and what was not so that we could avoid past mistakes.

The engagement then turned to the future state. During this assessment, Electronic Ink designed possible solutions for addressing the problem areas identified in the current state as well as bring their design expertise on best practices to bear. Stakeholders were then engaged in an iterative process of discussing and refining the proposed solutions intended to address the nine problem areas identified in the current state exercise.  For reference, the “Excessive Navigation/Clicking“ issue was labeled as priority “#3”. Here are some examples of the suggested mitigation approaches:


The by the end of the future state engagement, we had over 20 distinct UX solutions specifically designed to address the current state issues while bringing industry best practices to bear on the solution. The engagement also delivered a conceptual framework on which to hang key system features based on stakeholders’ understanding of user workflow.

The second part of the engagement involved the active collaboration of UX designers and developers. The Electronic Ink team used the artifact developed as part of the future state engagement to develop interactive wireframe models. Stakeholders then assessed the wireframe models iteratively. After each iteration, the wireframe models were refined and taken back to the stakeholders for reassessment. At the end of the iterative assessment process, we ended up with wireframe models of key usability patterns assembled into a “pattern library”. These usability patterns were used again and again within the product to produce repeatable and familiar workflows, visual controls, other cues making the product consistent and easy to use. Further, our UX staff was able to take the design patterns and extend them after the engagement ended.

Selling the spend to stakeholders

In the end, we invested heavily in the engagement, and I must admit that selling it to the executive team was no easy matter. The executives were skeptical about investing in a six-figure consulting engagement for something that seemed a rather simple and intuitive task. However, the longevity of the platform dictated the need to get the UX design right, and the competitive advantages that we could gain were compelling. Even then, I built in engagement checkpoints where we could end the engagement and money spent if value was not apparent. The two-part engagement was also valuable since we would take the findings from the first part and implement them ourselves if implementation seemed fairly obvious. In the end, we completed both parts of the engagement.

Internal stakeholders were probably the toughest to sell since they believed that resources within our company could produce a UX design. My prior experience with these engagements was able to convince them that while we had much of the capabilities needed, the ability to engage stakeholders and elicit insights and translate those to UX designs was not among those internal capabilities.

Finally, external customers were probably the toughest to engage. In the case of the investment management system, customers were eager to engage, but much coordination was needed since customers were widely distributed geographically. The IRT system case had a different problem. Pharmaceutical companies are correctly concerned about the security surrounding their intellectual property and seldom allow third parties to shadow their work. We were able to find proxies for end users since our company uses our product on behalf of customers in many cases.


The results obtained were similar in both UX design engagements. Once we completed development and deployed the finished product, feedback from end users was phenomenal. Users not only praised us for “listening to them” and including features that mattered to them but commented how the system almost anticipated their needs before they realized they needed it. The consistent design patterns mitigated user training burdens. In the case of the investment management system, the improved design reduced the total number of distinct user screens from about 1500 in the previous system to about 800 in the redesigned system.

The product development teams not only delivered the new product but now had the tools to sustain the UX design in a systematic and disciplined way since the design patterns removed much of the guesswork for how the product would behave. However, most importantly, the business received a compelling new product to drive business growth for another decade.

Clearly your UX design engagement will be unique to your business. What is not unique is the social aspect of the engagement needed to get to a great design. Few companies are equipped to harmonize and make sense of the cacophony of great ideas found within their organization. If you have the opportunity to revisit the UX for an existing product or innovate on a new product, I strongly recommend seeking out a partner to help guide you. You will be amazed at the results and won’t have a moment’s regret. Oh, and your customers will be forever grateful for the thoughtfully designed and easy to use software products!