Software QA FYI - SQAFYI

Large users hope for broader adoption of usability standard

By: Patrick Thibodeau

Badly designed software is costing businesses millions of dollars annually because it's difficult to use, requires extensive training and support, and is so frustrating that many end users underutilize applications, say IT officials at companies such as The Boeing Co. and Fidelity Investments.

Despite those problems, most CIOs remain unaware of a 3-year-old standard designed to help IT managers compare the usability of software products, Boeing's Keith Butler and Fidelity's Thomas Tullis both said last week.

But they and others believe that will change once the guidelines for reporting usability test results are approved as a worldwide standard by the International Standards Organization in Geneva. The ISO's technology standards committee voted late last month to accept the standard, which is known as the Common Industry Format for Usability Test Reports, or CIF.

Butler, who is a technical fellow at Chicago-based Boeing's Phantom Works research and development arm, said he thinks that the internationalization of CIF "is really going to provide it with the critical mass it needs."

That's partly due to the expected involvement of European users, who put a high value on standards, especially because of the cross-border business relationships within the European Union. CIF advocates said there has been a lot of interest from overseas companies, even though the American National Standards Institute's certification of the reporting guidelines in 2002 didn't accelerate awareness of the standard in the U.S.

Cisco Systems Inc., IBM, Microsoft Corp. and other major IT vendors participated in the development of CIF. Even so, few vendors offer prospective customers usability reports that conform to the standard, in part because most users aren't asking for them. CIF doesn't tell vendors what tests to conduct. Instead, it provides a common format for reporting test results based on a variety of usability metrics. To conform, the data has to be detailed enough to allow potential software buyers to replicate the tests.

The reports are intended to give users "some feeling about how much effort we might have to put into training, and what are the real costs of ownership," said Jack Means, a usability researcher at State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. in Bloomington, Ill.

Boeing was one of the main drivers of the effort to create CIF, after officials at the aircraft maker became convinced that usability problems were resulting in significant expenses. Butler said usability issues can add as much as 50% to the total cost of software ownership.

Although many employees may accept software usability shortcomings as a fact of life, corporatewide problems that affect thousands of workers can have a broad negative impact.

"The usability of the software that you buy on an enterprisewide basis potentially has a really significant impact on the productivity of your employees," said Tullis, vice president of Boston-based Fidelity's applied technology unit.

CIOs and other IT executives need to ask vendors for CIF-compliant reports as part of their requests for proposals on software contracts, according to participants in the standards initiative.

"Once people start asking for it, vendors are going to realize that they're going to have to consider usability," said Mary Theofanos, a computer scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which coordinated the CIF development effort.

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Large users hope for broader adoption of usability standard