Hello everyone and welcome. My name is Deb Biggar – and I plan to talk today about how I
got a usability program started from scratch at a large company. I am an independent
consultant and this is just what I like. I wanted to create something from scratch rather
than join a team where it had already been done.
BTW, I am also an Alum of the Master of Science in Human Factors in Information Design
here at Bentley and its nice to be the one with a chance to be at the front of the room here.
So, for the next 40 minutes or so I plan to share my experience with getting a usability
program started. To some, maybe this seems a bit daunting. (especially if you work in a
large company where there are silos of disciplined groups who seem to all have well
defined roles – all of which do not include user centered design and usability research
methods.) Personally, I believe the success of this has to do with being in the right place at
the right time and then “going with the flow” while encouraging change.
I have been very lucky in finding a group of folks to work with who were new to some of
the words we use in these rooms but, who were open to trying out some new ideas. I was
able to get a usability program started at a large organization‐ Valassis. Let me tell you a bit
Valassis is a company of about 7000 employees. They’ve been around for about 40 years
and net about 3 billion a year in revenue. They get most of their income from direct
mailing and selling FSI advertisements. They have a B2B facing web site but, up until
January of this year, the didn’t have a consumer facing web site. They had made an
attempt in the past to have a consumer facing web site but, it didn’t succeed as the
usability wasn’t good – it was basically, from what I hear, an electronic version of paper
inserts that users could click through – page by page.
In this picture, you see a laptop with an image of their first successful consumer facing web
site – RedPlum.com. On either side of the web site, you can see some of their other income
producing products and services.
I was brought in on a 4 week contract to do the IA for the site. The IA was done in about 2
weeks and that’s when the real magic began for me as I began to think about what else I
could do to bring value to this project in the remaining 2 weeks that I had on the original
Valassis’ big chance to make it in the electronic world – here is an image put out by their
corporate department to represent how very important the success of RedPlum.com is to
Here they wrote:
You see in the Roots down below – Valassis. They come to the table with relationships with
15,000 advertisers worldwide. They deliver over 10 billion paper media impressions each
year. This web site is their chance to move from a paper based revenue stream into a
more online revenue stream.
We went through many different iterations of the site, beginning with the first concept here
shown on the presidents white board. This was April of last year. We began our research
adventures with a focus group after the first prototype was created. After each
implementation of a new design idea, we tested the design out on real users – mostly
women 28‐45 with children living at home.
You can see that the site has gone through many face lifts before the first non‐beta version
was released just 2 weeks ago. In the first quarter, RedPlum.com exceeded its revenue
was released just 2 weeks ago In the first quarter RedPlum com exceeded its revenue
goals and had over 800,000 unique visitors to the site.
So, how did I get started on this adventure?
I came in originally as a contract IA – a four week project. I worked directly with the
general manager and the 3 vice presidents of product development. We sat in a room and
put our ideas on a white board. It was a lot of brainstorming at that point of time. I turned
those brainstorming sessions into wireframes. That took 2 weeks – from there, I started
inventing work that I could do for the remaining 2 weeks of my contract. I learned to think
more like a vice president and understand more about what they were thinking about.
more like a vice president and understand more about what they were thinking about
The general manager kept saying “We need to do a focus group” and then later on “We
need to do beta testing”
The schedule can be rough as this one is.
I work with the project managers to learn when new functionality may come out and then I
work with Marketing to determine which state to do a study based on our membership
numbers on the site.
I base the methods on the focus of the study and their place of the study – if it’s a few
piece of functionality, I like to be there in person. If it is an iteration of some improvements
piece of functionality I like to be there in person If it is an iteration of some improvements
we made, I am comfortable doing the study remotely.
The comment section is usually held for the name of the person whom I want to recruit to
come take notes for me. I like to have different note takers each time from the team so
that I can get more and more people on board with the benefits of usability studies.
Sometimes I ask a developer, sometimes it is a project manager or an executive. This builds
a feeling of team work as well.
For the first 2 usability studies on RedPlum.com the cost was on average 1,110 each with
100 person hours.
In a later study – a paper prototype, we re‐utilitized some participants and that reduced the
study cost to $375 – that’s 3 hundred and 75 dollars. The person hours on that was 67
because there was less dependency on technology – we used pencil and paper to do the
When you break the numbers down like this for the boss‐ its well worth the minimal cost to
get the high benefits.