CUA of the Month – August, 2009

Torey Maerz
"I was once told that, 'The measure of frustration is how far away reality is from expectations.' And, I've determined to avoid unnecessary frustrations in life. You can either expect less or change reality, and I chose the second option."

"We are very far down the path of fitting our user experience or usability processes inside the software development lifecycle at Principal. This is a huge, huge step for us. It's certainly been a long road to get here, but having our UX process really baked into our software development lifecycle is one of the most important things in a company that has a very conservative nature and is very process and task oriented. If it's in the process, it's going to happen."
Torey Maerz
Senior IT Application Analyst
Retirement and Investor Services User Experience Team
Principal Financial Group

A Usability Evangelist: A passion for UX results in award-winning design

by Diane Chojnowski

Torey Maerz leads the UX Team within the retirement business unit at Principal Financial Group. HFI recently visited with him about his work in UX and an award-winning project. We are pleased to share the story about how he helped move the vision of great user experience forward within Principal.

Torey, tell us about your work and what your job entails.
Usability departments grow out of different departments in companies depending upon who recognizes the need for it. My user experience team grew out of IT and my responsibilities lie in leading the user experience team in the retirement business group at Principal. We also have a corporate web team that grew out of the marketing department at the same time we were growing our team. (There is value from both aspects.) My team and I, with a technical background, bring a practical approach to understanding what it takes to develop something within the current environment.

Principal Financial Group is set up to handle development by service teams. Each service team handles different business processes. The UX team serves as a consultant group across all the business teams for user experience and my team is the glue across all teams. We make sure we provide a good, consistent experience to our users across the board.

We have a close relationship with our business partners in the Retirement Services group. They are used to working with IT who asks the question "What do you want?" We've been able to step in and help guide the conversations and dig deeply to understand what is needed and not just what they are asking for.

Tell us about your career path.
I've been at Principal for six years in two phases. It was my first job, and after three years, I took a brief stint at a college where I helped design a custom ERP system. I came back to Principal three years ago, to the Web Content and Design team. At that time, I started to really push the usability side of things, which resulted in not just re-naming our team, but really changing our responsibilities to become a User Experience (UX) team. So, that's what we are today, and have been for the last two years. We're still relatively young.

User Experience is an evolution. The concepts, ideas, and methodologies have been around for quite some time, but, I'm not sure that everyone has seen the value we're seeing now. Eric Schaffer's book, Institutionalization of Usability, really pegs it. Usability is one of the main differentiators between businesses. We've certainly recognized that here at Principal, which is why we are putting forth the effort and growing a UX team.

With your experience in IT, what drew you in the direction of User Experience?
Unofficially… my entire life I've been interested in usability. My whole life, I've been observing how people use things, not just web applications or computers. I remember working at my dad's store when I was a little kid and helping him label his bins and design shelves so things were in the right place and people could find them. Even then, I wanted to create a better shopping experience. I've had this interest my entire life. So, why did I go into Usability? Primarily, it's PASSION.

I was once told that, "The measure of frustration is how far away reality is from expectations." And, I've determined to avoid unnecessary frustrations in life. You can either expect less or change reality, and I chose the second option. To a certain extent, you also want to change other people's expectations – to expect greater, because that is a big part of the culture change. Unless others are feeling the frustrations I feel, they are not going to want to change reality. So, it's not that I want people to feel frustrated, but if I can get people to expect better UX, they will want to change as well. That's a huge part of our culture change – to really change people's understanding and expectations of how something should work and the kind of experience users really should have.

Which aspects of usability do you enjoy most?
It's creating something and watching it succeed. It's very satisfying. I am a problem solver. It's really enjoyable working with a team to come up with solutions to a problem. I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for my team.

There's no way that the average person using a web application can understand how much hard work goes into it and what goes into making it work well. I've used applications before and not thought about how much effort goes into making the design work. It's great to see hard work really pay off, to watch a usability test go flawlessly, and to get fantastic satisfactory results back. I have to say that definitely the most enjoyable thing is working with the team to take a problem full on together, figure it out, and then watch it succeed.

I try to bring an entrepreneurial spirit to my UX team because those are the kinds of attributes you can infuse into a team to help drive a project and make it successful. These are qualities that you can bring to any team. We try to have a really good time. I want my team to really enjoy what they are doing and have fun. There are days it is frustrating to work through design problems. However, at the end of the day, everyone loves what they are doing, and having that passion is so important.

What are your biggest accomplishments? Being the team leader, my biggest responsibility is to make sure the team gels well. And we work together to produce good things. We certainly have that in the retirement group. We have a team that works very well together, that enjoys what they are doing, and has a good time working together. That's certainly one of the biggest things.

From a usability perspective, one of the most recent wins or accomplishments is that we are very far down the path of fitting our user experience or usability processes inside the software development lifecycle at Principal. This is a huge, huge step for us. It's certainly been a long road to get here, but having our UX process really baked into our software development lifecycle is one of the most important things in a company that has a very conservative nature and is very process and task oriented. If it's in the process, it's going to happen.

It's important to really understanding the mental model of your organization. In a large company, you need to make sure that you have a well-defined process laid out. For us, it's super important to make sure that User Experience is baked into the development lifecycle. Otherwise we would be constantly struggling to do things when they need to be done. With that said, we've adjusted the way we work as usability professionals to make sure that our process fits within our larger organization's process.

We need to treat our internal partners the way we treat our customers – understanding how we do our work, how our projects get done, and figuring out a way to fit or to bake in our usability process to fit our organization's mental model. There's not a book anywhere that you can read that will tell you exactly how to lay out how this is going to work for you.

How has the CUA training helped your work?
The value of CUA training and what HFI has brought me is that I learned the critical techniques and processes I need to know to be successful. Without HFI and the CUA track, I think I would have been missing a lot of key tools, a lot of key processes, a lot of insights. That's the biggest value training has brought to me, helping me to know: What are the key things that we need to do, the when and where and a lot of the how. We don't want to re-invent the wheel, but we do want to figure out how to fit the wheel on the car.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of working in UX?
The best advice I can give is that you have to find a balance for what you want to do and how your company actually works. You want your usability process to match the mental model of how people work in your organization. It is up to you, as someone responsible for usability in your company, to make sure your UX strategies fit into your culture and your processes in a way that is going to be successful.

The CUA track teaches you the important things you need to focus on, and gives you a huge toolbox of methodologies to pull from. Without the CUA program, you aren't going to have the tools that CUAs have. The training is a great resource. You also need to understand that once you're trained, the job's not over. You need to go back and start the institutionalization of usability within your organization, if that's where you are, and really drive it, and find a way to make it fit into your company.

It sounds like you've really been an evangelist!
One of our most important accomplishments is getting executive support from our CIO and several VPs. Our executive champion is our CIO. Growing out of the IT world, that is fantastic. She's helped us make the right organizational changes to position us as a consultant team across many business services and called us out as the user experience team (we are no longer the web content and design team).

I talk to people in our organization all the time about usability and user experience. People think of me as the usability guy, the customer advocate, the out of the box thinker, the guy that is really selling this user centered design and analysis process, and I talk to somebody about it just about every day.

Is your UX evangelizing formal or informal?
Both, but, the most powerful connection you can make is informal. I'll have lunch with someone, or be in a meeting sharing usability stories.

One story I like to share is about our My Principal® Edge Milestones calculator. This tool was recently given an award. The interesting thing about it is that the design needed to be very simple. The project team gave it their first shot. They pulled us into the project when it was already underway. It would have been better to be there earlier. We really tried to make the best with what we had and we convinced them to usability test it. I knew that if we were usability testing it, what the results were going to be. And I knew that we needed to get our business partners in to watch the usability tests in person. We brought all of the stakeholders into the usability tests and they saw first-hand how their expectations of how users work and how users actually do work were different. They saw how far apart they were, and they saw the users really struggling and failing the task. That was the turning point in so many ways for what we are trying to accomplish.

I tell this story so often because after that usability test, our stakeholders said "we need to completely redesign this". It wasn't coming at that time from the UX team, because if we were going to say that, there would be a lot of battles. We would have to convince them of it. But, because they saw it for themselves, they suggested the re-design. Huge win. We did re-design it in less than a month's time. The project team really pulled together to deliver this very quickly and it's one of the most successful retirement calculators that's out there right now. It's simple and easy to understand. It's fun to use. We got an award for the design! We received an Honorable Mention for the rollout of the tool and a Merit award for the online experience from the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC).

The fantastic thing is that we have WebTrends analytics to show real results. On the first page of the WebMilestone Calculator, we have 12% drop off because of the terms of use disclosure. After that, we keep 97% of the people all the way through the process. That's fantastic!

This project has been a champion project that really showcases our value. After the success of this project, we had a huge influx of requests from people asking for our help. This was a big win for our team's reputation. In fact, we had to prioritize to make sure we are working on the right things for the right people to make sure to further our vision of where we want to take our team.

Torey, we've enjoyed seeing your contributions in the UX communities.
I really believe in the communities. I think that HFI Connect and CUA Central are truly fantastic. I enjoy posting and I really like to contribute. And truthfully, if you contribute to a community, you get ten times more back. You can follow me on twitter using @toreym and catch my user experience blog posts on HFI Connect and CUA Central.

Any closing thought?
Because I've been passionate about usability all my life, I've really let intuition guide my design. But, what HFI & the CUA track brought to me was to help me understand why I thought a certain way and to bring new perspectives and additional tools. It really helped to enhance how I design by making my intuition better, and backing up my ideas with a lot of research and tools – the why AND the how.

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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