Usability in Practice

Usability in Practice

In a discussion of research in the medial sciences Malterud (2001) argues that in addition to controlled experiments, with their focus on questions and phenomena that can be controlled, measured and counted, the knowledge of experienced practitioners should be studied, because that could offer a broader understanding of a phenomenon. The same goes for product development.

It should not only be studied whether design and development methods work when they are applied in a controlled setting, but also what happens when they are used in that fast-paced, hectic process of developing electronic consumer products. In addition, because experienced product developers have been immersed in product development on a daily basis, they can possess a wealth of knowledge on what does and does not work for usability in product development practice. This research was set up to tap into that knowledge.



Problem Definition

Even though there is a considerable body of knowledge about usability, with large numbers of available methods (Nielsen and Mack, 1994; Stanton and Young, 1998; Bevan, 2003), the usability of electronic consumer products is under pressure (Jokela, 2004; Den Ouden et al., 2006; Pogue, 2006; Steger et al., 2007). Some of the causes for this might lie in practice. However, as current literature on usability in product development practice does not take an integrated approach, contains few case studies, and only a limited number of studies investigate electronic consumer products specifically, there are few insights into how usability is dealt with in development of electronic consumer products.


The goal of this research project was to obtain insight into how usability is dealt with in the development of electronic consumer products as well as to identify factors in product development practice that contribute to or obstruct usability, and to investigate how these factors are related.

Method and results

In total three case studies were conducted. The first was an interview-based case study, to explore how usability is dealt with in four sectors adjacent to the electronic consumer products market. Next an interview-based case study was conducted in the electronic consumer products sector at five major international product development groups. The goal of this study was to identify barriers and enablers for usability in practice. The third and final case study investigated the development history of three electronic consumer products within one product development group. This resulted in a detailed description of how the product development group dealt with usability and in two causal models. Based on the insights gained through the case studies as well as from existing research, 25 recommendations for industry were developed that describe how the author would organize a product development group if the goal is to make usable products.


In contrast to most existing research, which focuses mostly on usability specialists and their activities, in each of the case studies an integrated approach was taken, focusing on the whole product development process (as opposed to just evaluation or design) and including six roles that were considered to have the most influence on usability: the product manager, marketing specialist, industrial designer, interaction designer, usability specialist and development engineer.


Throughout each of the case studies, there was a dialogue with a company contact, and each study was concluded with a feedback workshop or workshops in which the results and conclusions were discussed with the informants. The recommendations for industry were ‘user tested’ by presenting them on the weblog of the researcher and by discussing them in a workshop with practitioners.


The results provide researchers with the possibility to conduct a comparison with case studies they conduct, and provide the insight they need to develop ‘designer-centred’ tools and methods. For practitioners the results can serve as a benchmark and help to identify problems in their own product development group. The recommendations for usability in practice provide actionable information on how to setup a user-centred product development organization.


The results of the studies were presented and discussed extensively at the companies involved, and at events for product development researchers and practitioners. The defence of the thesis received considerable attention from the public media. In addition to the thesis, the recommendations were published as a card set.

More information


  • Bevan, N. (2003) UsabilityNet Methods for User Centred Design. Human-Compuer Interaction: Theory and Practice (Part 1), Volume 1 of the Proceedings of HCI International. Heraklion, Crete, Greece, , Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Den Ouden, E., L. Yuan, P. J. M. Sonnemans and A. C. Brombacher (2006) “Quality and Reliability Problems from a Consumer’s Perspective: an Increasing Problem Overlooked by Businesses?” Quality and Reliability Engineering International 22 7): 821-838.
  • Jokela, T. (2004) “When good things happen to bad products: where are the benefits of usability in the consumer appliance market?” Interactions 11 6): 28-35.
  • Malterud, K. (2001) “The art and science of clinical knowledge: evidence beyond measures and numbers.” The Lancet 358 (9279): 397-400.
  • Nielsen, J. and R. L. Mack (1994) Usability inspection methods. New York: Wiley.
  • Pogue, D. (2006) Heavily hyped cellphone won’t make you a chocoholic. New York Times. New York.
  • Stanton, N. and M. Young (1998) “Is utility in the mind of the beholder? A study of ergonomics methods.” Applied Ergonomics 29 1): 41-54.
  • Steger, T., B. Sprague and D. Douthit (2007) Big Trouble with No Trouble Found: How Consumer Electronics Firms Confront the High Cost of Customer Returns. Accenture Communications & High tech, Accenture.
  • Den Ouden, E., et al., Quality and Reliability Problems from a Consumer’s Perspective: an Increasing Problem Overlooked by Businesses? Quality and Reliability Engineering International, 2006. 22(7): p. 821-838.
  • Jokela, T., When good things happen to bad products: where are the benefits of usability in the consumer appliance market? Interactions, 2004. 11(6): p. 28-35.
  • Pogue, D., Heavily hyped cellphone won’t make you a chocoholic, in New York Times2006: New York.