CUA of the Month – February, 2009

Garth Von Buchholz
"Usability is what you most want to focus on in a tough business environment."
Garth Von Buchholz
CEO & Chief Web Strategist
Digital Practices Media Inc.

Making Good Ideas Great User-Centered Design Brings out the Best in Clients – Even in Tough Times

by Doug Gorney

"If it sounds like I'm selling usability to you, I am!"

When Garth Von Buchholz catches himself trying to convince Human Factors International about the benefits of usability, he laughs. The head of British Columbia's DigitalPractices is a true evangelist of user-centered design, with a firm providing usability architecture, design and analytics for the Web. He's a big believer in user experience as the foundation for success in online business environments.

But usability hasn't always been a laughing matter for Garth. He recalls working for a large organization and seeing people design websites and write content without any training in usability – or Web design for that matter.

"It was symptomatic of what was going on in the '90s. The results usually didn't give business owners a return on their IT investment. It seemed to me that there was too much money being invested in corporate websites to have people without usability training working on them. So I guess you could say that was my wake up call – I decided that I wanted to get involved and get usability training."

Before starting his own practice, Garth was always preaching the gospel of usability in the larger organizations he worked in. "As far as usability went, they paid lip service to it – while actually thinking that usability was an anti-creative process. Everybody looked at the usability guy as the one who would come along and throw a monkey wrench into the development process."

But usability is not only essential, says Garth, it's highly creative. "User-centered design is what makes good ideas great."

"Take the invention of the hammer. Now, say the first person comes up with a U-shaped hammer. Interesting, yes, but useless. Then the usability guy sees it and says, 'Hey, if we straightened out this hammer, it would actually work!' The credit usually goes to the person who first invented something. Really, though, isn't the person who straightened the hammer out at least as valuable to the process as the guy who developed the U-shaped original? Usability is about seeing something that doesn't work and making it into something that does."

"Technology should speak a human language and usability is the best translation tool for that process."

After becoming a Certified Usability Analyst, Garth founded DigitalPractices in 2002. His philosophy is that the best web design is the one that works. "You can have the best web design in the world, but if it isn't usable, it's not going to serve the clients," he says. "It's as simple as that."

As to his methods, Garth enjoys the collaborative process. "It's not about me and what I'm doing. If the client succeeds, I succeed." That collaboration starts at the very beginning. Garth wants to be involved as clients start developing objectives for the site. "Some clients bring you in, saying 'We have it figured out, we just want you to execute it.' That's when I say, 'No, let's take a step back.'"

Garth makes usability objectives part of the usability architecture process – "the big picture stuff," as he calls it. "I like to be involved in the project charter. I want to be there at the beginning so I can show something measurable once we've reached the end."

Garth cites an example from a provincial government website he worked on recently. The stakeholders wanted a site and had content for it. What they hadn't done, though, was to think about how people would use the site. From a citizen-centered design standpoint, it wasn't a place where people could really take care of their needs. Garth was able to help government stakeholders see that, and help them develop the site based on user scenarios. He also looked at other related sites, and asked the client how they were going to differentiate themselves.

"Really, there was no clear objective for why the site should exist. They got that. Together, we were able to determine how the home page could be more usable to meet those objectives."

"Getting the client closely involved is essential. Eliminating the Wizard of Oz mystique about the design process – that is, taking the client behind the curtain and showing the thought that goes into user-centered design – helps to institutionalize usability. There is fantastic research available from HFI that really makes user-centered design principles concrete for clients. I have to give HFI a lot of credit for leadership. Their resources help people who are responsible for the process get a good understanding of how a design has evolved. And that makes it easier to get buy-in."

Institutionalizing usability is critical in this tough economic climate, Garth says. "Many clients think of usability only in a major redesign cycle. In between major changes the site changes, of course, and usability starts to go out the window. So then they feel they have to do a big, expensive, new redesign. Well, you might be able to do that when you're flush with cash, but not now. These days everybody is tightening their belts. So ongoing user-centered design practices like usability testing are a great way to improve usability of a website in a cost-effective way – that is, without incurring the expense of a major redesign cycle."

Makes sense Garth – you've sold us on the idea!

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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