I met with Vikki and Akiko, usability researchers at Wiley Publishing, to talk about usability and its role at Wiley. Wiley is an educational content and software development company (although the word “publishing” is still part of the company name, Wiley is really much more technology-driven than this word implies).
As usability researchers, Vikki and Akiko manage activities ranging from more upstream research like ideation, concept validation, and discovery, to turning a critical eye on existing products and services to help business units make cases for where resources should be spent. They’ve conducted usability tests on diverse products like Wiley’s online bookstore, a reading platform for academic articles, an educational video platform (Wiley’s version of Lynda.com), and a homework system for college students.
Vikki and Akiko work for the “Technology, Design, and Innovation” group, a small team that exists outside of Wiley’s three main divisions, which are the college division (where I work), an academic journals division, and a professional/ trade publishing division. I diagrammed this organizational structure (see below) because understanding the usability team’s position as “inside outsiders” helps explain positive aspects as well as limitations of their role.
- Positive aspects: When usability research is conducted at Wiley, the fact that they don’t report to the product managers who have asked them to test their products probably means it’s easier to generated unbiased reports. From their perspective outside of reporting structures, they’re not in the position of telling the boss that his or her idea is a bad one.
- Potential limitations: They are engaged on a project basis, only when resources are available, and this means that some important products inevitably don’t get tested since it’s up to product teams to decide what does and doesn’t. After testing is completed and they deliver their write-ups, there’s no guarantee that product managers or designers will follow through on any of their recommendations. To combat this, they said they always invite product teams to sit in on testing sessions—nothing is more convincing than hearing bad or good news straight from users.
I asked if they had any general insights or advice on their role, and here are some highlights from our discussion:
- On the difference between market research and usability research, they said, “Market research brings the horse to water, but UX research figures out the way to make the horse drink it.” Wiley is a company that historically sees research as a marketing opportunity—it’s about getting close to customers, not to users. The usability team is trying to change this perception, but it’s tricky when the company is UX-immature, as Wiley is.
- On how much usability testing is done, they said, “Usability is what we sometimes hope we don’t have to do (or do less of), because it means we didn’t do the work (research) up front.” They talked about the importance of (and the challenges around) getting involved in product development upstream rather than at the end of the process.
- On usability reports, they said the detailed reports, often in PPT format with a lot of visuals, are a way to make the whole room share a perspective and avoid endless debating or always deferring to “hippo”, the highest paid person’s opinion.
Finally, I asked if they could point to a specific example of a successful usability intervention that resulted in big improvements to an interface. We looked at the Wiley Online Library reading platform, which can be accessed here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/enhanced/doi/10.1111/nph.12453/# . They explained some of the challenges of designing an online HTML reading experience that aimed to match the ease and familiarity of reading printouts or PDFs, and also how “PDF grabbing” as a behavior pattern among academic researchers was not going away any time soon. In this case, usability testing led to specific innovations in the reading platform’s design, such as a newly-added “fly out tray” for references that follows users up and down the page in an unobtrusive way, avoiding the need for tedious scrolls through multiple screens to reach references at the ends of articles.