What Does User Integration Mean for Software Design?

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP AG, SAP User Experience – Originally published in the Philosophy section


Most people readily agree that users should be integrated into the software development process, but many software companies still hesitate to make this happen. This article takes a look at the obstacles that still exist, touches on the necessary changes in the minds of the developers and in the company as a whole, and gives some advice on how user integration can be successfully brought to life.

Usability experts have long insisted that users should be integrated into the software development process, but it is only recently that software companies have become willing to listen to their message. For SAP, the Enjoy initiative has brought the idea of user integration to life – and, as a result, changed the thinking of the entire company.


Take the Users Seriously!

Successful user integration can only be realized if companies take the users of their products seriously, regardless of which industry the company belongs to. As Don Norman stated, the software industry is maturing now. It is leaving its early stages, where technical issues matter most and where mostly "techno-geeks" are using its products. Now software is reaching the masses. "Ordinary" people do not care as much about technical issues. Instead, they want products that fit their needs. Software companies have to learn this lesson or they will not remain in the market for long.

User integration begins with a learning process inside the company. All employees have to take users seriously. The management has to promote the vision of user integration and to provide the conditions for a user-driven development process. But this only works if developers, designers and usability people bring the process to life. In other words, a change of mind alone is not enough, there must also be the commitment to "institutionalize" such thinking by establishing a development process that integrates users and their needs.


Which User Did We Have in Mind?

Before we outline how users can be integrated into the development process, let us step back a moment and have a look at typical attitudes that have to be overcome, in order for a company to take users seriously.


Change Our Picture of the Users, Change the Development Process

How can we change our picture of the users? The simple answer is: By getting into contact with real users! Real users means what it says: end users, not the IT people or the managers of a company that buys the software. Getting in contact with users can be done by going out to the users as well as by having them come to you – both approaches have their place in listening to the users' needs.

Mind change alone, however, does not suffice. A company as a whole has to commit itself to the vision of integrating users into the development process. It has to establish such a process and "live" it – no lip-services or short-lived straw fires will satisfy the users. Creating and establishing such a process is not an easy task. Often help from outside the company is needed, in order to put such a process on a well-grounded foundation. SAP did this by consulting Karen Holtzblatt and Alan Cooper, among others. Based on their advice, SAP established a user-oriented development process for the Enjoy initiative and is continually refining and improving it.


Bring the Developers to the Users – And Bring the Users to the Developers

Site visits are the best way to confront developers, user interface designers and usability people with the reality of how end users actually work. Site visits include far more than letting users interact with software. They imply observing real work practice. Watching and learning how real users work can lead to software that vastly improves users' work practice and even the communication structure of the company as a whole. Site visits help identify typical users, their tasks and the context of the software-based work. They provide a wealth of data; however, user roles and scenarios are their most handy results for creating a new design. When site visits are not possible, user interests have to be promoted by "experts," various (and varied) internal members of the development team plus experienced external consultants, using brainstorming methods for exploring user roles and scenarios.

It is important that new design ideas are tested with users to ensure that the design truly fits users' needs. This is where the users and the developers collaborate. User days provide a variety of possible testbeds: Design concepts can be presented to users and discussed with them, prototypes can be tested with users, as can the final or close-to final application. All of these user inputs can help settle design issues and lead to improvements in the design. Prototypes or applications can also be taken out to the users and tested under real working conditions.


Build on the Knowledge about Your Users

It is important to interpret and use the data gathered during site visits with care and – best – with approved methods. This ensures that design specifications are grounded in data, not in intuition. SAP uses the Holtzblatt models for interpreting user data. This methodology provides a solid transition from the analysis stage to the design and implementation stages.

The methods used for verifying the design are also a valuable source for user data. We already mentioned workshops, prototype tests and tests of the application itself. The latter can range from informal tests at the users' sites to more formal tests in a usability lab. Reviews can provide an expert prospective of this data.


Find New Ways to Integrate Users into the Development Process

To keep the user-oriented process running, it is necessary to find new and innovative ways for integrating users into the development process. As an example, SAP conducted a contest where users from all over the world could contribute design ideas which were ranked and awarded. Workshops, mailings, questionnaires, and online communities are further possibilities for generating user input – each contributing to the improvement of our software for the users' benefit.



Developing software without integrating end users may sound like a funny idea. Nonetheless, this has been common practice for years. It took a long time before software companies realized the importance of user integration. A user-oriented development process does take time and resources, but it is well worth the effort! It is the only way to achieve our common goal of user-friendly software that "works the way I do," as the SAP Enjoy initiative put it.


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