The Business Case for User Oriented Product Development

By Steve August
October 08, 2007

In developing any given technology product, great care is taken to make sure the technology works correctly. Software is constantly debugged, hardware is systematically checked and everything possible is done to ensure that the product functions as designed.



This two-part series will explore the impact of incorporating users into the product design/development process. Part I makes the business case that user oriented design/development not only creates better products, but also increases revenue and cuts costs. Part II will explore the process of integrating users into each phase of the design/development process, and will offer advice and resources helpful to implementing user oriented design/development, including information about cost and budgeting.

In developing any given technology product, great care is taken to make sure the technology works correctly. Software is constantly debugged, hardware is systematically checked and everything possible is done to ensure that the product functions as designed.

Yet, in the end, an organization’s bottom line success is measured not by the sophistication of its technology, but by how well it serves its customers. To be successful for any length of time, a company’s offering must give its intended users enough value that they will pay for it.

It is ironic, then, that for all the elaborate systems and processes that ensure the technology works as intended, testing technology products with their intended users is often a slap dash affair. Beyond gathering an initial requirements list, understanding the user experience—in terms of both usefulness and usability —is often an afterthought, done too late in the product cycle to be of use. In the rush to get a product out the door, there is often no time or money to spend on understanding the user’s perspective.

However, statistical and anecdotal evidence is mounting that paints this strategy as penny wise and pound-foolish. Study after study shows that integrating the user experience into product development not only creates better products and more satisfied customers, but reduces the cost of development, support and maintenance. The net result is increased revenue, reduced costs and increased bottom line ROI.

Guiding the development process

“There is no direction without customer data—data about how work is structured, what matters to people, and real characterizations of market.”

- Hugh Beyer & Karen Holtzblatt, Contextual Design

According to usability gurus Norman Nielson Group, “The user experience encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.” Understanding the user experience—the customer data that Beyer and Holtzblatt refer to in the above quote —provides a powerful tool not only for creating more satisfying and profitable products, but also provides an essential framework for organizing a more efficient development process.

First and foremost, by understanding customer needs and desires, project teams can focus their development efforts on product features that will deliver the most value to their customers. Without this crucial information, all the efforts and resources of the team are predicated on what often proves to be an educated guess. Armed with an understanding of the user point of view, teams can make concrete determinations about how to focus their resources—how to mate the product with the customer’s work flow, which features to develop, and which issues to tackle for subsequent releases.

The net effect for development teams is that they can more efficiently develop useful and usable products for their customers. The bottom line for companies is increased revenue and reduced costs.

While integrating the user experience into product development cannot overcome a bad product or an unworkable business plan, it can measurably add to an organization’s bottom line. Yet these benefits so often go unrealized, as the up front cost of user testing is often judged to be too expensive. More often than not, however, the savings realized by cutting user testing prove to be a false economy.

Thinking strategically about cost

“Over the last two years, we have really built in the user experience point of view. Unless you do that, you’re not going to hit the target. More early and frequent user interaction translates into less business risk.”

- Stephen Whalley, Manager of Technology Initiatives at Intel Corporation

Cost is the most common reason given for not doing user testing. Yet, studies show that an appropriate level of investment in user testing actually helps control costs and limit unnecessary and expensive rework. In fact, evidence shows that the earlier user testing is incorporated into development, the greater the benefit.

In his book, Software Engineering: A Practitioner’s Approach, Robert Pressman determined that the costs of correcting problems get progressively more expensive as a product moves from definition through development to release. In fact, it can be as much as 100 times more expensive to correct a problem after a product is released than in the early stages of its development.

Pressman also found that 80% of software maintenance costs are spent on unforeseen user requirements, and only 20% are due to failures. In other words, 80% of the cost of maintenance is spent on delivering the product that users wanted in the first place.

Yet, the impact of user oriented product development is not limited to just the development process. The ability of a product to satisfy customer needs has an impact on the whole organization. Customers also interact with marketing, sales, training and support. If the product is not intuitive to use, then the company will end up with the expense of support calls. If the product does not satisfy its function for customers, it will require more resources to sell. If the product is hard to learn, training costs will rise. If the product fails to meet customer expectations initially, it necessitates expensive rework.

Clare-Marie Karat examined the impact of user oriented development in her 1990 study entitled Cost Benefit Analysis of Usability Engineering Techniques. In the study, she found that the benefits grew depending on how many people were affected by the improvements. She cited one case where IBM spent $20,700 on usability work to improve the sign-on procedure in a system used by several thousand people. The resulting productivity improvement saved the company $41,700 the first day the system was used. In another case, on a system used by over 100,000 people, for a usability outlay of $68,000, the same company recognized a benefit of $6,800,000 within the first year of the system’s implementation. The study found that for every dollar invested in developing more usable software, organizations derive $10-$100 in benefits.

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About the Authors

  • Steve August is a principal at KDA Research (, a San Francisco-based consulting company that specializes in integrating consumer and user experience into products and communications. KDA Research has provided usability and consumer research services to a variety of companies including LifeScan, Netgear, Nikon and Clorox. He can be reached at

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