American industry and government will become even more productive if they take advantage of usability engineering techniques.” Al Gore, 1998 [45, p. 1]

Have businesses responded to advice of the former US Vice-President? Was he correct in linking usability engineering with productivity? Business Week seems to agree, even relating usability to profitability in an article entitled, “Usability Is Next to Profitability” [10] and describing how innovative design is a key strategy for the developed world’s continued prosperity in the coming “design decade” [93].

So who is taking advantage of UXE methods? In the late 1990s, Mark Thompson, Charles Schwab & Co’s Senior Vice President of Customer Experience said, “usability is one of our secret weapons” [57]. The secret weapon appeared to work; in 1998 handled more than $7 billion in securities transactions a week. In the same year, when Oracle CEO Larry Ellison learned that his sales reps were being turned away because customers could not understand how to use Oracle’s products, he poured money into UXE and made sure developers knew it was a top priority [10].

Today, UXE methods are no longer a secret. Most major technology companies including IBM, Microsoft, Sun, Samsung, Motorola, and Apple have invested heavily in UXE [71]. Successful Internet companies like Google, Yahoo!, eBay, and Amazon do as well, and UXE methods have a been a key ingredient in moving them from modest startups into the Fortune 500 [31]. UXE is also rapidly making inroads into established industries, with companies like GE Healthcare [2], Whirlpool [3], Kodak [49], and Procter & Gamble [142] reaping huge product successes that are directly attributable to UXE methods. No wonder 97% of executives in large North American companies say improving customer experience is either critical or very important [126].

Despite this momentum, there is still tremendous room for improvement. In a Forrester Research review of 700 corporate Web sites, only 3% received a passing grade [72], and on the whole, high-tech gadgets remain too hard to use [6]. This means UXE can still provide a competitive advantage to any company that chooses to invest in it. Some analysts even believe we are at the beginning of an “Experience Economy” [104] or “Design Economy” [28], in which UXE will play a central role. Whether this is true or not, the UXE business case offers the potential for immediate and continuing return on investment (ROI), which we will examine in the next section.

Contents, User Experience Engineering (UXE) Essentials Series