CUA of the Month – December, 2008

Globe telecom team
"Success' in the user experience game means you have to be ready to incorporate feedback and continue to iterate the project... it means you've guaranteed another version of the application!"
Steve Kersten
User Experience Designer
CheckFree Corporation

Classic Usability Timeless, user-centered design for modern business success

by Doug Gorney

Armed with a master's degree in Classical Studies, Steve Kersten was set to follow his muses into the ivory towers of the academic world. But the demands of modern living landed him in the software industry instead.

He went to work with CheckFree, the company powering electronic billing and payment services and automated financial transactions for most of America's banks. As a technical writer working on online bill-pay customer service interfaces, Steve was drawn to the world of usability "from an area of frustration. I found myself writing error message after error message for our interfaces," he says. Steve got tired of it, and the developers got tired of it too. "There must be a better way," he thought.

Ultimately, it was his early mentors who put him on the road to usability expertise – Homer, Aeschylus, Ovid, and Virgil.

"It's easy to be dazzled by the intricacies and sheer beauty of the grammar and syntax of ancient languages, but you have to remember that these ancient writers are really communicating something important. In our case, financial service customers and representatives need to get their work done – getting caught up in fancy code and gimmicky features is kind of like getting lost in classical Greek grammar."

Steve works closely enough with developers and project managers that he has great respect for their work. However, he's also confident that his contributions as a usability specialist are a vital part of the success of mission-critical applications that banking customers must be able to use with complete ease.

When the stars finally lined up for Steve to take HFI's training courses, the died-in-the-wool scholar was delighted. "The subject matter was so interesting... eight-hour days went by in what seemed like an hour. It was one of the best trainings, period, that I've ever had."

The training came at just the right time. CheckFree was developing PartnerCare, CheckFree's first application developed for banking customer service representatives using user-centered design methods. The application would only be a success if it really helped reps help bank customers, so usability was critical.

But when it came to the design process, spreading the message of user-centered design was not always easy.

"We have many divisions and groups here with different levels of usability experience," Steve says. "A lot of my colleagues didn't know what to do with the layer of information and process I was adding. HFI training helps to get everyone on the same page. The greatest value HFI training has had is to ground me in a set of usability principles and best practices that you can adapt to your own corporate environment – or even environments."

Steve explains that the comfort level usability certification provides includes business stakeholders as much as end users. "As a CUA, I make business owners confident that they're thinking the right way when they have me on board."

When it came to PartnerCare, having Steve andUsability his usability colleagues on board ensured that the rollout went well. So well, in fact, that CheckFree's booth was mobbed at trade shows. Customer service personnel, the very users PartnerCare was designed for, shouted, "This is what we need!" CheckFree quickly expanded the scope of the product's delivery.

Not that the User Experience Design group could rest on their laurels.

"Transitioning existing banks to the new system was the easiest aspect of PartnerCare," Steve says. "'Success' in the user experience game means you have to be ready to incorporate feedback and continue to iterate the project... it means you've guaranteed another version of the application!"

Steve's latest initiative involves merging online bill pay and online banking, which, until recently, were two applications handled by two different companies. In many ways it's the culmination of all the user-centered design knowledge he gained from his HFI training.

"We set aside what we thought we knew and conducted a large-scale user research project, building a foundation of conceptual, ethnographic research we'll continue to use for years. For the first time we could start with the question, how do people imagine handling their finances online? Who is using these services? And how are they really using it? What makes them feel good in this environment? We made no assumptions. So even though this integration product is incredibly complex, knowing so much – and not having to guess – is a huge advantage."

CheckFree's users may never notice all Steve's hard work. But his study of the Classics taught him that's just the way it should be.

"Aeschylus made a point in one of his dramas that I think about. The greatest prize a Greek warrior could receive was the armor of their hero, Achilles. Did they give it to their tallest, strongest, fiercest fighter, Ajax? No. They gave it to the wily Odysseus. Why? Odysseus knew he was most effective as a warrior not by standing out, but by blending in among everyone – friends and foes alike – and helping his whole army accomplish its goal."

"Marketing teams measure their success in making something ‘shiny' and noticeable, so that people are attracted to it. But user-centered application design is really successful when it's not shiny. You don't notice it – you just get your business done. And when you work on an application design team, you have to be able to become part of the process, like Odysseus, and not think of your contributions as shiny things themselves."

While he's happy to stay in the background, Steve takes real pride in how his user-centered design gives CheckFree an edge in the hyper-competitive world of financial software.

"Often our beta test users are so vocal, their management asks us if they can have the prototype we're testing. We don't even have to market the product – meeting users' needs does it for us. Now those are business relationships our competitors are not going to be getting."

And that's just classic.

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

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