CUA of the Month – April, 2008

Imran Riaz
"In the beginning, I was the only usability expert. Now everyone in the organization knows what usability is. The usability team is being invited to participate in projects as large as 60 million dollar initiatives, and much smaller as well. The end-users are so happy with the work we've done, they're really coming after us!"
 
Imran Riaz
Senior Software Designer and Developer
American Electric Power

Putting Power in the End-Users' Hands Institutionalizing Usability at American Electric Power

by Christine Schrum

Imran Riaz says when he first began HFI's Certified Usability Analyst (CUA) training in 2006, he really took the following words of advice to heart: "Find your first success story and build on it."

In the months that followed, Imran certainly put that principle to action. As soon as he completed his full CUA certification, he played a key role in an integral, user-centric software redesign initiative that spurred the institutionalization of usability at American Electric Power (AEP).

AEP is one of the largest electric utility providers in the United States. The Ohio-based company delivers electricity to more than 5 million customers in 11 different states, owning nearly 38,000 megawatts of generating capacity in the U.S. AEP employs over 20,000 people, with an IT department of more than 1,200. In 2006, Imran was brought on board as the company's senior software developer – and its first and only usability analyst in IT.

"Basically, they were looking for usability help, but they weren't even completely sure what the term 'usability' meant," recalls Imran. "Company-wide, the idea of usability only went as far as creating general guidelines around user interface design and having some consistency in the applications and websites."

At the time, Imran himself was a skilled UI designer and developer with "a passion for elegance and simplicity," but he lacked the tools and skill set needed to really do the job. So he researched his options, came across HFI's usability certification track and immediately started the coursework, sponsored by AEP. It was just what he was looking for.

"I took my first class and was happily surprised at the knowledge I gained and how practical it was," Imran recalls. While he was "anxiously awaiting" his next round of classes to complete the usability certification, Imran started applying the knowledge he gained in his first class on the job.

"I made a lot of formal and informal presentations to anybody and everybody," Imran says. "I spent a lot of time explaining usability's benefits, how it can make things more efficient, save money, and so on."

And then, a golden opportunity arose.

Right after Imran completed his HFI certification, American Electric Power decided to upgrade the company's internal HR software system, an application that is used by all employees and management for HR-related information, from pay checks to time logging.

"The software touched everyone in the organization," Imran says, "but the previous version in production was cumbersome. We needed something that would be very easy to use with minimal training and effort on the user's part."

Taking the project on, Imran traveled around the country talking to end-users in 11 different states and researching their needs.

"I did this for two reasons," he says. "One, to get to the real representative users, and two, to give employees exposure to usability and create demand from the ground up."

Upon returning, Imran presented his findings to the software redesign committee and made recommendations for improvements, such as simplifying written content and implementing new, user-centered information architecture for better navigation and overall flow. Imran also suggested visual design improvements, including color changes and reorganizing the placement of design elements.

"This was the first time I did not have to sell usability because the sponsors of the project could see the users struggling with the website," says Imran.

Once the suggested changes were approved, Imran and his team commenced and completed the software redesign. The end results satisfied everyone – from the end-users to members of senior management.

"To this day we get feedback from the users saying how simple, usable and functional the new software is," says Imran.

From that point forward, AEP began to institutionalize usability across the board. They are currently in the process of creating an internal usability lab, whose members are all slated to take HFI's usability training in the coming months. User-centered design is rapidly becoming an integral part of the official software development lifecycle process (SDLC).

"In the beginning, I was the only usability expert," Imran says. "Now everyone in the organization knows what usability is. The usability team is being invited to participate in projects as large as 30+ million dollar initiatives, and much smaller as well. The end-users are so happy with the work we've done, they're really coming after us!"

Imran has seen some pretty dramatic shifts in his own life as well.

"HFI's CUA training has really boosted my career and given me quite a lot of visibility at the level of high senior management," he says. "It also gave me a lot of self-confidence, which is priceless."

Today, Imran maintains a strong presence at the local Usability Professionals Association (UPA) chapter in Columbus, where he and other board members network with local business professionals, university professors and others interested in usability. Both at the UPA and on the job, Imran continues to stress the importance of user research and user-centered design.

"The connection between the developers and the end-users is key," he says. "No matter how much experience and passion you have as a developer, at the end of the day, you're not the end-user yourself."

The future looks bright for Imran, who has every intention of "building on his first success," project after project.

He says, "HFI really helped me understand what usability is all about – what the procedures are, how to really apply that process within the organization, how to put simplicity and elegance into action."

CUA of the Month

Each month we highlight the successes and achievements of a different member of our CUA community. If you are a Certified Usability Analyst and would like to be considered for CUA of the Month recognition, please send a brief professional bio to hfi@humanfactors.com

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Reviewed: 18 Mar 2014

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