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Improving Product Usability Would Strengthen Economy, U.S. Department of Commerce Official Says

Frustrated users could have a dramatic impact on improving the quality of software and other products if they would simply be more selective and less tolerant in their personal buying decisions, a U.S. Department of Commerce official said Tuesday.

Speaking to the Usability Professionals' Association annual conference in Washington, D.C., Acting Undersecretary for Technology Gary Bachula said the lack of usability engineering in product development cycles hurts the U.S. economy through increased product costs and loss of productivity among users.

Studies show that usability engineering techniques can save product development costs by reducing development time 35-50 percent. Thomas Landauer, in his book The Trouble With Computers, noted that productivity within the service sector of the U.S. economy would rise 4-9 percent annually if every software program were designed for usability.

"Customers want usability - systems that are easy to learn and remember, that enhance our productivity, systems that are error-resistant, and friendly," Bachula said. He said the Usability Professionals' Association could help consumers realize that they don't have to accept products that are hard to use. Consumers, and the U.S. economy, would benefit by increased pressure on developers to offer higher quality products that have been tested for usability.

"The private sector must step up to the plate," Bachula said. "Listen to the customer. Know the business of the customers you are serving and meet their needs. Focus on improvement and innovation."

Ann Brown, chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, told conference attendees that improvements in usability of products before they are offered to the public is also a critical safety issue. For example, deaths that occur from baby playpens that collapse and suffocate infants or clothing drawstrings that strangle children might have been avoided if usability engineering techniques had been used during the product development cycle, she said.

"We both (UPA and CPSC) want the consumer to have a successful experience with the product," Brown said. "If you think hard enough and carefully enough about how a product will be used, you can design out many of the risks that the product would otherwise create. Engineering design solutions are the best."

The Usability Professionals' Association, founded in 1991, brings together professionals whose ultimate goal is making products that are efficient, safe and enjoyable to use. UPA members educate and instruct organizations about usability engineering techniques. Using proven user-centered design techniques, they gather feedback from customers and internal users and help create products that effectively meet user needs.

This year's conference sponsors include Microsoft, IBM, Sun Microsystems, M&I Data Services, Lucent Technologies, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, National Science Foundation, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bureau of the Census, PC Computing Magazine, and Attachmate. Co-chairs of the UPA Outreach Program are Janice Anne Rohn, manager of Usability Labs and Services for Sun Microsystems, and Charlie Kreitzberg, president of Cognetics Corp.

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