In user experience, not all tasks are created equal. Think of the tasks you associate with being exciting. Prototyping, designing a user interface, working on a slick product upgrade, and generally, anything pertaining to ‘new’ would qualify as exciting.
Maintenance tasks tend not to fare so well. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut: “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.”
In a UX context, everybody wants to design and deploy; nobody wants to work on usability maintenance. Maintenance is unsexy. Unfortunately, it is also an essential aspect of usability that deserves (even demands) a seat at the table.
What Is Usability Maintenance?
Usability maintenance is a dedicated area focused, as you might guess, on maintaining the usability of a product, site, or service. Sadly, it does not entirely exist. It occurs in a diaspora, if at all.
There are certain acts of usability maintenance that might be dispersed over the course of a few separate tasks – a user test here, a technical support discovery session there. As a standalone field, however, usability maintenance is not much more than speculative.
The term itself, “usability maintenance”, is not one typically bandied around in design or development discussions. Reading it gives a vague impression of continuous qual and quant research, but nothing more substantiated.
The International Organization for Standardization does give a nod to maintenance in a sub-definition of usability. You can find an explanation stating that: “Usability is relevant to maintenance, in that it enables maintenance tasks to be completed effectively, efficiently and with satisfaction.”
This definition is somewhat lacking. It sees usability’s bearing on maintenance only as an enabler of software maintenance, rather than usability maintenance as a distinct area of its own. This mindset is problematic, if not entirely surprising.
The Software Maintenance Paradigm
Software maintenance has a defined, customary and well-established role. Indeed, it accounts for 70% or more of post-deployment operating costs and activities.
The odds are, you recognise software maintenance as a practice. You probably have some idea what kind of activities it entails, too. Fixing bugs, providing security patches, refactoring code, extending features or compatibilities – many of us roughly recognise all these maintenance tasks and the role they play without initial research.
Indeed, this simple field recognition is critical. A Google search for “software maintenance” (in quotation marks) yields 2,110,000 results. An Indeed job search retrieved 15,200 results. It is an area that is documented, defined, and deep-rooted in everyday working processes.
Usability maintenance has no such prominence. Compare the 11,000 results that come with a “usability maintenance” Google search, or the 1,480 job results. For most people, usability maintenance would require some level of research to associate the term with any specific tasks or jobs.
This begs the question: why do we not recognise usability maintenance as a clear and commonly implemented class of work?
The Post-Deployment Lull
From a usability perspective, maintenance tends to fade into the background after the thrill and bustle of deploying. According to a 2011 usability study, usability falls into something of a post-deployment lull. While 87% of surveyed usability professionals were regularly involved in the design phase, only 50% reported any direct involvement in the post-deployment phase. 70% even started working on another product or the next version of the current product straight away.
These statistics are reflective of usability maintenance neglect. The role of usability too-often tapers after a successful launch. The product, service or website is live. Great. Now what? Rather than post-deployment usability maintenance, the focus tends to shift to the next project or release. This fast-paced cycle leaves little room for usability maintenance to emerge as a field within its own right.
The Relentless Pace Of Change
As a culture, we are obsessed with “innovation”. The hype around the latest cool thing tends to lead to a general neglect of maintenance, and a disinclination to be a mundane “maintainer”. This is all too true in the worlds of product development and user experience.
The pace of product change that users must encounter is relentless. An endless rotation of updates, quarterly releases and new product launches create a constant demand for building rather than maintaining. The UX glitz and glory (seemingly) lies in innovation, not the maintenance that happens after it.
Now, it would be unfair to say that this release cycle does not produce usability boons. Often, those cool new interface changes or functionality extensions result in improved usability. The problem is that they tend to do so amid a haze of distractions dressed as “innovation” when dedicated usability maintenance is overlooked.
Plus, there is a darker side to relentless release. Overengineered software, disposable design and user frustration are all common side-effects of the drive to deploy, deploy and deploy. It is a race to push out the next shiny iteration; the next flashy feature. This race leaves slow and steady usability maintenance behind.
The Need For Usability Maintenance
We have got this far without usability maintenance. Why, then, do we need it? The simple truth is that maintenance and repair have more impact on people’s daily lives than most technological innovations. Indeed, amid a “Great Tech Stagnation“, innovations are not shaping or shaking, the world like the breakthroughs of the past.
Instead, ongoing usability improvements are guaranteed to impact your users positively. They prevent users from death by a thousand product paper cuts and keep their experience enjoyable over time.
Parmit Chilana writes that: “Within the field of usability, there needs to be an orientation towards usability maintenance.” Importantly, this maintenance is distinct from that of software or product maintenance. It does not focus on factors such as code correctness, but uniquely and specifically on supporting users and continually improving their experience post-deployment.
Many UX practitioners would advocate this kind of ongoing user support. It makes sense – your users deserve it, and your reputation demands it. Few companies, however, actively set time or even consideration aside for dedicated usability maintenance.
Current “Usability Maintenance” Practices
Usability maintenance today tends to be scattered. Brands might conduct some usability testing on conversion areas such as onboarding journeys or checkout pages. They might complete user testing around a major release, or pay an external company for a usability research project as part of an initiative to beat the competition.
Consistent, planned, and concentrated post-deployment usability maintenance – the everyday stuff without the glamour, is not quite so common. Continuous user testing is often advocated but scarcely adopted. However, it is this every day, behind the scenes stuff that helps you understand users and win their ongoing appreciation.
You would maintain software. You would refactor bad code. Why, then, would you not apply the same unswerving maintenance mindset to usability?
A Seat At The Table
In an innovation-obsessed world, maintenance is undervalued. It is true that maintenance will never be as superficially sexy as pushing out something new. However, it is every bit as valuable for the end user – if not more so.
Usability maintenance is not the enemy of product innovation. In its own quiet but committed way, it supports the very innovation that it is so often pitted against.
Make space for it at the table.
(Lead image: Depositphotos)