Harnessing the Value of Usability

RW Patel
4 min readJan 1, 2019


Revisiting Toyota’s Lean Manufacturing from an Enterprise UX lens, I’m struck by how Toyota leverages the power of user testing during production to address quality. It’s noteworthy to pull out how cross-functional teams consulting with designers continue to play a pivotal role in the reducing design waste, aka “muda”.

As background, the Toyota Production System (TPS) — the philosophy which organizes manufacturing and logistics at Toyota, including its interaction with suppliers and customers was created by Toyota founder Sakichi Toyoda, his son Kiichiro Toyoda and Toyota chief engineer Taiichi Ohno to empower their people and processes to reduce waste, called “muda.”

Muda source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muda_(Japanese_term)

Professor Jeffrey Liker, who studied “The Toyota Way” explains the philosophy like this: “You cannot be sure you really understand any part of any business problem unless you go and see for yourself firsthand. It is unacceptable to take anything for granted or to rely on the reports of others.”

Core to “The Toyota Way” philosophy is eliminating defects or “muda” that impact users. But, there’s no trade-offs in the tackling the seven wastes in the TPS vision. Going faster in production also means increasing quality. Thus, a key to addressing defects is tying together the core constructs with core capabilities.

Addressing usability during dev-ops, for instance, translates to more design updates in context, tackling more customer problems earlier. Using usability metrics in this context to audit and test product performance issues before it impacts users. So, what are the are the usability costs in our business?

Identifying the Usability Costs

Quality problems stemming from a product or service design, can show up in usability somewhere else in the enterprise and not always reported back to the design team. Usability costs can include:

Usability costs due to increased customer support costs. Customer support representatives are spending time answering calls that come from the user experience.

Usability costs due to lost productivity costs. Engineering backlogs are requiring more working hours or rework that prevent the organization from making efficiencies or innovating.

Usability costs due to unused feature development. Engineering costs for unused features wasted time that could’ve been used to build something else.

While working at a large bank, we found that the UX costs of handling transactions due to security verification were costing the call-center support team $25 million each year. These metrics were enough to get the attention of senior bank management to invest in additional user testing to address where engineering efforts really needed to go.

Addressing Usability Issues Caused By Poor Experiences

By definition, user experience is good when it delights its users and poor when it delays their ability to get their job done. Yet, it might not be the direct users.

At a large insurance company a few years back, we followed a user-centered design strategy, while engineering re-wrote and componentized the architecture. Then our user profile began to change to become an indirect person who then interacted with the multiple services directly rather than users of the products entire user journey from start to finish.

Within the organization, UX then had to partner with new areas of the business:

Customer support center management responding to usability problems that generated support calls. Call center teams aren’t equipped with functional expertise to diagnose user interaction problems.

Managers dealing with lost productivity. A legacy application that has too many steps or is poorly integrated with other tools will force the job to be done to take longer than it should, frustrating the user.

Engineering managers watching their teams rewrite interface code. When engineers get the user interface wrong the first time, they spend time refactoring it to be easier to use. User testing the design could’ve addressed this in the first release.

Learning that features aren’t ever used. Whether a feature wasn’t wanted or the product was too complicated for the users to take advantage of the feature, no developer or manager wants to spend time on features that don’t generate value for customers.

Partnering to Reduce Costs

Large organizations often have multiple groups in charge of dealing with the costs of usability. However, they may not be working together.

When UX metrics are aligned to quality and delivered throughout the organization, they have the influence to impact the rest of the business.

Lean UX

Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden’s book, Lean UX: Designing great products with Agile teams, discusses driving vision with outcomes. They point out that product and service teams have traditionally been feature-focused as their main driver as opposed to focus on user outcomes.

“Lean UX radically shifts the way we frame our work by introducing back the strategic context for our feature and design choices and, more important, how we — the entire team, not just the design department — define success. Our goal is not to create a deliverable or a feature: It’s to positively affect customer behavior or change in the world — to create an outcome.”

Addressing usability for a large B2B company, we leveraged a Lean UX approach to introduce new capability into a legacy software. After getting the business buy-in and leveraging a small, cross-functional team for a Lean UX project, we tested a hypothesis with real users to validate that our rough engineering estimates were close to correct.

By assembling this small task force with members from all over the organization, we collected more accurate data about the user outcomes and UX metrics we were building for and made decisions about reducing engineering backlog before production began.

Calculating the cost of the usability is a beneficial way to address “muda” in engineering and business while creating a measurable benchmark for design. Showing the organization how good design can be more profitable is priceless.



RW Patel

Helping teams find digital relevancy through user experience and data-driven insights.