Research and Advances
Computing Applications

Increasing Ease of Use

Emphasizing organizational transformation, process integration, and method optimization.
  1. Introduction
  2. Origins
  3. UCD at IBM
  4. Optimizing UCD
  5. References
  6. Author
  7. Figures
  8. Sidebar: To: Karel Vredenburg (IBM)
    From: Jacob Buur and Kirsten Bagger (Danfoss)
  9. Sidebar: Case Study: DB2 Universal Database

Ease of use is a strategic focus within IBM and our User-Centered Design approach is the prime vehicle for achieving it. IBM UCD is targeted at designing competitive ease of use into the total user experience with hardware, software, and services offerings. It ensures that products are easy to buy, easy to unpack, easy to set up, easy to upgrade, easy to learn, easy to use, engaging, intuitive, and integrated. The IBM approach essentially involves having a multidisciplinary team design a total solution starting with the externals of a product—everything the user sees and touches—and then gather user input via UCD user feedback methods that attempt to understand users, evaluate design, and assess competitiveness. This article outlines the approach with particular emphasis on organizational transformation, process integration, and UCD method optimization.

Back to Top


A human-factors organization was first established at IBM over four decades ago and various usability and human-factors methods have been used over the years. A new approach, IBM’s version of UCD, was developed in the early 1990s. Based initially on Norman and Draper’s seminal work on user-centered system design [3], IBM’s UCD approach also incorporated key ideas from Hamel and Prehalad’s work on Strategic Intent [1], Wiklund’s summary of current industry practice [8], and an assessment of four decades worth of IBM usability/human factors experience. The approach continues to evolve. It has incorporated ideas from recent literature, such as Soloway and Pryor’s learner-centered design ideas [5], from IBM project teams via the company’s UCD Advisory Council, and from industry peers via conferences and standards organizations [2].

During early ship/beta, we collect information directly from users in the field with surveys and usage instrumentation.

Back to Top


Making the transition from traditional human factors and usability approaches to full-scale UCD involves a major cultural transformation for an organization and a paradigm shift for practitioners. Several steps were taken to ensure a successful transition including identifying core principles, carrying out education, and integrating UCD into the company’s business and development process. The five core UCD principles that communicate the essence of the approach focus on the following: understanding users, designing the total user experience with a multidisciplinary team, evaluating designs regularly, assessing competitiveness, and managing for users.

We particularly focused on introducing company employees to the new approach. An awareness presentation was delivered to all employees via internal television broadcast and development site visits. Overview and practitioner information was also made available to all employees via our intranet. Classes were developed at both the introductory and advanced levels to teach UCD and a case-based executive workshop was developed for management teams. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the principles, methods, and metrics were integrated into the company’s business and development process. This also involved creating a set of UCD metrics that summarize key elements important in the management of UCD on projects at the project, division, and corporate level.

UCD at IBM is carried out at the product team level by UCD multidisciplinary project teams. The specialized disciplines of visual design, industrial design, HCI design, user assistance architecture, and user research specialists are core members of the project team along with marketing, product development, and support specialists. Three corporate positions and accompanying organizations were also formed to ensure the attainment of IBM’s strategic objectives regarding ease of use. We have 25 UCD laboratories worldwide with a total of 78 individual lab cells.

IBM’s UCD approach itself involves design specialists working together to create the total user experience with a product using a disciplined, integrated user-based process as outlined in Figure 1.

We have methods from low- to high-resource requirements for each activity identified with many of the low-resource methods involving Internet-based surveys and remote user collaboration. The approach is best illustrated by following a medium-resource requirement path through the various steps. Further details of these methods are provided in the case study at the end of this article. The approach starts with an understanding of the user’s needs followed a task analysis that seeks to understand the current and anticipated future tasks and task flows of users. This is followed by an analysis of how these tasks are currently carried out by the majority of users via a competitor evaluation. This can be a user study of a market-leading competitor product or an analog solution in cases where the majority of users don’t use a computer solution. This leads to the multidisciplinary design of the first high-level concept prototype of the total user experience design. This externals concept design is evaluated by users in a design walkthrough, comparing the IBM design with the competitive solution.

Following this, participatory iterative lower-level design is carried out via low-fidelity prototyping design evaluation techniques and, over time, with increasingly higher fidelity prototypes and early product versions, with the latter being assessed with hands-on design validation studies. During early ship/beta, we collect information directly from users in the field with surveys and usage instrumentation. Finally, a benchmark assessment is carried out comparing the final product with the competitive solution.

The particular type of UCD method used at any point is dependent on a variety of characteristics of the project. For example, a task analysis study may involve extensive customer site visits in the case of a product targeted at an entirely new market, whereas a Web-based survey may be used to validate core tasks for a highly stable product in a traditional well-understood market.

Back to Top

Optimizing UCD

Most UCD methods are still heavily labor-intensive. It takes too much effort to efficiently collect user information and technology is typically under-utilized. In addition, there is an increasing need to get input from users quickly and from an international audience. Finally, multidisciplinary teamwork is a difficult yet often critical ingredient to great design. We developed a set of tools to address these challenges.

A time-consuming activity for most organizations is recruiting appropriate study participants. We implemented a Web-based recruiting survey on our external Web site (see Figure 2) together with appropriate incentives such as “Win a ThinkPad” targeted at particular user types. We’ve also captured our product registration information in a database for customers who have indicated willingness to be contacted by us. Both of these databases can be queried by practitioners across the company. The use of this tool has dramatically increased our teams’ ability to contact worldwide users quickly.

The Web also provides a great opportunity to gather specific information rapidly from a worldwide audience. Our UCD survey tools provide an easy, flexible way to do this [6]. We developed a set of survey templates (see Figure 3) and made the most frequently used ones available in automated form and put our other popular surveys into a customizable form. The former requires just five minutes of the practitioner’s time to create a product requirements and satisfaction survey that analyzes results automatically. The latter provides templates for a Web-authoring environment, which in turn are published on the Web with results provided to the practitioner in a spreadsheet file.

Another time-consuming and resource-intensive activity is hands-on user testing. Under certain circumstances, we now do remote testing across the Internet. This is particularly useful for doing tests with geographically dispersed users.

We also have tools that make it possible to monitor (with users’ knowledge and consent) key behaviors with the product (such as the number of times a particular part of a product was used, the number of invocations of a help window, and so forth). Other tools can capture context-rich information about particular events (such as all screen activity four minutes preceding an event that a user identified as significant—for example, a problem).

One way to increase the effectiveness of multidisciplinary design teams is to provide groupware tools for team communication in addition to face-to-face meetings. We developed a tool to capture design descriptions and images, user information for studies and tests, track user problems, and discuss issues electronically. Another tool allows the company-wide practitioner team to explore issues, discuss enhancements, and share studies and designs.

Lastly, a central database tool captures and tracks core UCD information and metrics and provides the management team with various views of the information used for their projects.

IBM’s UCD is now well-established across the company and is yielding significant increases in the ease of use of our products [7]. We intend to work with our UCD staff as well as with our UCD peers across the industry to further enhance UCD to ensure the continued increase in the ease of use of information technology products.

Back to Top

Back to Top

Back to Top


F1 Figure 1. IBM’s UCD Approach

F2 Figure 2. Typical Web-based recruiting survey.

F3 Figure 3. An automated survey template in customizable form.

Back to Top

Back to Top

    1. Hamel, G. and Prahalad, C.K. Strategic intent. Harvard Bus. Rev. May-June 1989.

    2. International Standards Organization DIS. Human-Centered Design of Interactive Systems. #13407, 1997.

    3. Norman, D.A. and Draper, S.W. User-Centered System Design: New Perspectives on Human-Computer Interaction. Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, 1986.

    4. Sobiesiak, R. and Jones, B. Personal communication, 1998.

    5. Soloway, E. and Pryor, A. The next generation in human-computer interaction. Commun. ACM 39, (1996), 16–18.

    6. Vredenburg, K., Isensee, S., and McInerney, P. Getting rapid and representative user input using the web. Internetworking 1, 2 (1998).

    7. Vredenburg, K., Isensee, S., and Righi, C. Making Products Easy: A Practical Guide to User-Centered Design Techniques and Technologies. Addison Wesley. To be published.

    8. Wiklund, M. Usability in Practice: How Companies Develop User-friendly Products. Academic Press, NY, 1994.

Join the Discussion (0)

Become a Member or Sign In to Post a Comment

The Latest from CACM

Shape the Future of Computing

ACM encourages its members to take a direct hand in shaping the future of the association. There are more ways than ever to get involved.

Get Involved

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is now a fully Open Access publication.

By opening CACM to the world, we hope to increase engagement among the broader computer science community and encourage non-members to discover the rich resources ACM has to offer.

Learn More