This is an attempt to summarize what I have been pondering lately:
Usability engineering is a methodology that has matured during the past couple of decades to provide solid means of creating products that are easier and more efficient to operate for different kinds of users. The results are not restricted to concrete products for the emerging field of service design demonstrates how a similar approach can be utilized when creating more abstract services. The umbrella term experience design takes into account all the aspects the users experiences when utilizing a service or a product.
The benefits of user-centred design are not restricted to the end-users, as the producer also gets its share of advantages. For instance, development costs are lower when problems are fixed earlier and support costs are reduced when users have less problems with operating the products. What is more, the perceived quality also improves the brand image. In general, traditional usability methodology is good at answering the question how to implement things in the most optimal way.
It has been demonstrated that the earlier the usability activities are introduced to the development process, the more drastic their effects are. The emerging school of strategic usability takes this to the extreme by saying that users should be studied already before deciding on developing new products. This brings usability professionals to the field earlier occupied by marketing professionals and strategic planners – to contribute to the questions of what to develop.
Meanwhile, it has been noted on the business side that modern day technologies are so complicated that the competence of the marketing departments alone are insufficient for creating truly usable products. No longer is it enough to simply listen to the customers and implement each and every feature they might request, as this only leads to featuritis, a complicated system full of features that few know how to operate and even fewer actually use.
A bridge between technical implementators and business-oriented marketing departments seems to be needed – even though the profession of usability is highly non-existent in business literacy. It has also been learned that technology alone is hardly a compelling reason to buy a product for most customers. The vast majority of people want simple total solutions to their needs. These do not come up to be without explicit design.
What is more, history shows that companies – however customer-centric – have continuously difficulties in adapting to the fundamental changes taking place in the marketplace because of so called disruptive technologies. Catering for the needs of current customers and improving their products with tactical innovations, the companies often ignore the fact that emerging technological solutions might open new possibilities for people who they have not earlier identified as potential customers.
In the end, the new technologies tend to mature enough to cater for the needs of majority of the current customers as well, forcing the unalert companies to the small high-end niche markets. Recognizing the opportunities for strategic innovations brougt by disruptive technologies involves better knowledge of the actual needs of the users and proactive actions based on this knowledge. This is where strategic usability work comes to play. Seizing these opportunities often requires closer collaboration with other companies and open innnovation; innovation freed from the chambers of in-house R&D laboratories and based on the actual user needs, not just the technologies that the company has already developed.