Case Study: User centred design at Reuters
In order to get a feel for how usability
is treated at the grass roots level I approached Greg Garrison
of the Usability Group at Reuters, UK on how usability is addressed
in the development of Reuters interactive systems. Reuters are
at the forefront in the involvement of customers in the development
of interfaces, a method which many other commercial organisations
are now emulating. I was invited to the Usability Laboratories
at John Carpenter St, London to meet with Sandy Schmid of the
group. After undertaking some background research I created an
interviewing proforma (Appendix 2) that proved effective in
keeping a structured interview plan at the meeting with Sandy.
This chapter reports the results
of my interview as well as other research into Reuters usability
methodology and describes what the usability group is and why
it was originally set up. It will demonstrate how Reuters subscribe
to the concept of user centred design by detailing how their products
are tested, evaluated and ultimately improved which allows them
to maintain their position as a world leader in information delivery.
Reuters Usability Group
Effective delivery of information
is of paramount importance at Reuters. With the increasing sophistication
of Reuters products it was becoming apparent (rise in help desk
calls etc.) that the information was just not getting through
as well as it should. Strangely enough, usability didn't seem
to be an issue in the 1850's when Paul Julius Reuter used pigeons
to carry share prices between Brussels and Aachen [Pandya 1997].
The role hasn't changed much but the hardware certainly has which,
in turn, has introduced usability problems that could have threatened
the effectiveness and credibility of the Reuters organisation.
As a result the Usability Group
was set up in 1993 to "...tackle the problem of producing
software that is efficient and intuitive to use, and easy to teach
and support." reports Bray . Greg Garrison, the group's
director, cited by Bray  continues:
"It was becoming increasingly
evident that we were beaming information to customers all round
the world, only to have it crash in the last millimetre as it
got to the screen, because of the usability... so we decided
we needed a comprehensive usability methodology."
The weight of importance that Reuters
attach to usability cannot be understated. The investment in usability
testing is "...a sum so large it won't even quote the figures"
[Bray 1995]. It is evident, then, that in an organisation that
is founded on information circulation, its ability to enable its
customers to glean information with ease from a VDU screen is
Reuters Definition of Usability & their Comprehensive Usability
Reuters' view on what usability
means to them is simply stated: "The ease at which customers
can use our systems" [RUG 1997]. However this is a very broad
definition which disguises the amount of research and testing
done under the umbrella of their comprehensive usability methodology.
Under this methodology the Reuters Usability Group's aim is to
ensure that "all Reuters products are easy to understand,
easy to learn and easy to use". The basic principles of "guessability,
learnability and experienced user performance" [Jordan et
al 1991] can, thus, be clearly seen in this mission. Products
must also be "efficient to support" [RUG 1997]; if a
system is hard to maintain, this may ultimately result in down
time which, by definition, is not usable.
Reuters would argue that you can
involve "customers in the creation of products that are intriguing
not mystifying, reassuring not frightening and fun not frustrating"
[RUG 1997]. This seems to answer the fears of Bertino cited in
Booth  who notes that "...novice users feel frustrated,
insecure and even frightened ...[in dealing with a system]...
whose behaviour is incomprehensible, mysterious and intimidating".
Whether the involvement of the users in the development and testing
of products does actually improve usability will now be discussed
in the next section.
Centred Design Process
Reuters vision of "truly usable
products" [RUG 1997] is achieved, they claim, by putting
the customer, rather than the system, at the centre of the design
process. The solution to the usability conundrum, (the paradox
of increasing sophistication against decreasing ease of use),
of Reuters products therefore is based on a "Customer Centred
Design" process [RUG 1997]. The benefits of using such a
Q) should amount to "improved design efficiency, increased
customer productivity, reduced training and support costs"
as well as "enhanced brand identity" [RUG 1997].
Initially this stage of the process
was carried out as a response to usability issues brought up in
help desk calls. In the infant period, when the group was set
up, its job was to review the current product line that Reuters
customers used with reference to its usability (or lack of it).
Now that the group has a permanent role in the assessment of usability,
its research can now be undertaken from the conception of a new
product (or version) rather than after it has been released. In
effect the start of the assessment takes place with a review of
the previous version. From figure Q it can therefore
be seen that the element of expert review is noted in this part
of the process rather than at the end as expected. Hence a continuous,
looping iterative design process is established. The role of the
expert review, discussed in general in Expert review , is more specifically
described in Reuters Expert review .
Reuters support marketing teams
who interview customers to identify what usability issues need
addressing and what future products may be required. These teams
also review the competition to ensure that Reuters products stay
in the forefront within the market place.
Being an integral and vital part
of the whole process, this stage attempts to improve the understanding
of "who Reuters customers are, ...how they work" [RUG
1997] and what they require from the products.
Categories of customers have been
documented over the years which has ultimately produced a catalogue
of generic "customer profiles" [RUG 1997]. This generalisation
gives Reuters a head start in understanding their client base.
It is used in preparation for subsequent "site visits, customer
interviews and customer group meetings" [RUG 1997] which,
in turn from this baseline, permits a more detailed profiling
of the users involved. For example, the customer profile of the
share dealer will describe certain attributes for that category
of customer; however, from interviewing users, it will be apparent
that a dealer in the USA, for example, will operate in a significantly
different way to a dealer in the Middle East. The tasks customers
undertake are modelled too; for instance, the American operative
will tend to concentrate on a smaller task area than one in Saudi.
During this stage, client visits
are booked to enable the enhancement of the customer profiles.
The completion of a participant questionnaire is one method used
to collect data. It will assess detailed matters; for example,
whether a mouse is to be used on the product and if so whether
or not the customer has had experience of using one. The completed
questionnaire aids in the modelling of tasks and enables the assessment
of how their customers work, at the same time. Simultaneous assessment
of both the task and the customer will help discourage any priority
of importance being made to the task, since it is vital that the
customer, is not divorced from the usability process.
Another method employed to model
the users and the tasks that they do is Job Shadowing. A member
of the team will undertake a site visit and shadow a customer,
over a period of time, to observe what they do.
The final element in this stage
is the creation of a product specification. By using the "customer
profiles... task models and usage scenarios" [RUG 1997] the
resulting description will be able to indicate what product is
needed and how the customer will want to use it, thereby enabling
the design to match closer to the customer's expectations. This
will avoid a situation of mismatch in task requirement against
the system function ensuring a close match.
Level Interface Design
In this stage of the process, customer's
needs are turned into a high level design of the required product.
This may take the form of a "customer-walkthrough of design
ideas" [RUG 1997] which can outline the basic concepts involved,
illustrated simply on paper or, more usually, with low fidelity
prototypes. Ideally, each task that the product must undertake
and other design elements are considered to be of equal importance
with respect to usability; no prioritisation is assumed and no
bias created. However it is only during the development stages
that trade offs are made and decisions of priority are forced.
Not all decisions are commercially
based. One example which can demonstrate a cultural design priority
is the expectation that the Reuters terminal screen should display
a yellow coloured strip, that has been a historical identifier
for the product. Therefore it can be demonstrated that a brand
identifier may actually out-weigh and take priority over a customers
The main rationale behind this stage
is to confirm, with the customer, that the Product Development
Team is on the right track. This entails a check of product specification
against the customer's requirements. Any changes that are required
to the product are therefore clarified and can be resolved at
an early stage of development; any changes that are needed are
implemented, at low cost, to the low fidelity prototypes rather
than against the high fidelity system further along the line of
This iterative design philosophy
enables crucial usability feedback from customers to be incorporated
at the earliest possible stage in a product's development. As
Garrison cited in Bray  points out "You don't let the
process go too far until you've checked it". Thus all the
effort put in at the design stages allows usability issues to
be flagged at the earliest opportunity, which, as proven by Reuters
success, ultimately affords more usable products in the long run.
A selection of products are utilised
to create high fidelity prototypes that are used during this stage
of the customer centred design process:- Visual Basic and Adobe
Illustrator to name only two. The use of detailed prototypes can
establish an exact copy of what customers can expect to see on
a finalised system. Not only that but they enable the customer
to make comment on, and offer their preferences for, the proposed
interface. For instance attributes such as screen layout, colour
and control methods can not only be discussed but can be demonstrated
to the customer in order for them to offer often vital feedback
which can be used to effect a revised design.
Designs can then be checked against
the "User Interface Design Guide" [RUG 1997] which Reuters
has constructed from material previously researched by the group.
This guide can be referred to during any stage of the process
to give designers a benchmark from which similar designs may be
drafted. Even though this is not an expert system, this computer
based training tool will avoid situations of trying to re-invent
the interface wheel.
During this stage of the process
customers test alpha and beta versions of a product thoroughly
which allows time to resolve any problems that may arise prior
to a full launch. Expert reviews are undertaken to again refine
the design. Improvements are prioritised targeting the most significant
to ensure benefit to the customer.
After the product is released onto
the market there is a continuous process of review which will
incorporate the use of customer questionnaires to provide valuable
information for future versions of that same product.
Therefore, finally, the design loop
is closed and further enhancements will take the process back
to the first stage of the Customer Centred Design Process, market
The whole concept of the Customer
Centred Design Process, Reuters main component of their usability
methodology, is one in which the customer plays a central and
integral part of the development, evaluating and feedback process.
Reuters would suggest that the inclusion of the customer in every
stage of their iterative design process is fundamental in ensuring
"the creation of products which satisfy customer requirements"
Therefore, even though I have listed
each process individually and quite formally it must be noted
that:- the design process is highly flexible; the usability group
communicate with their customers in an open and informal atmosphere
and that this exchange of information occurs during every stage
of the design process. Indeed the technique of design "cannot
be represented statically" as characterised by Carroll and
Rosson cited in Shneiderman  who also points out that "design
is a process; ...[and] not a state".
The final process of development
and testing contains, not only a final test of usability, but
also the usability testing methods by which the other stages too
can be re-assessed and re-considered. It is these methods that
I shall now turn my attention to.
The primary aim in testing is to
be able to "measure the effectiveness of the product user
interface" [RUG 1997]. It is noted by Shneiderman 
that it is important that the user "should be treated with
respect and should be informed that it is not they who are being
tested but rather it is the software and user interface that are
under study". This is the case at Reuters who stress that
the testing of the users "enables them to influence the design
of a product according to their needs and requirements" [RUG
1997]. Users will therefore feel empowered and will not feel alienated
when the system, a system that they have helped design, is released
The ultimate result of testing and
the iterative design and re-design by involving the users should
be a product which truly reflects what is needed by them. I will
now describe Reuters user testing methods which evaluate design
and effects revisions based on customer feedback.
Reuters have permanent usability
laboratories around the world:- London, New York, Tokyo, Milan,
Geneva and Singapore. They also use mobile laboratories that can
be used on site in the heart of the world's financial centres.
Within these laboratories prototypes of new products can be tested
or comparative tests can be undertaken to see if enhancements
on older versions of the same software make a real improvement
The laboratory is set up with a
conventional computer workstation upon which volunteer customers
are asked to undertake a specific series of tasks (task scenarios)
using the interface being tested. The layout of the Laboratory
is similar to figure R [NPL 1997c].
The task scenarios used in the testing
are created by the development teams and are based on the customers
description of what the system is required to do overall. By undertaking
the scenarios the customers get hands on experience of what the
real product will look like and the usability group are able to
appreciate how it will behave in genuine situations. The sessions
usually last for up to two hours and at least 10 customers are
tested individually to ensure accuracy. The sessions are video
taped, pending evaluation, in the following way: the whole scene
is recorded on a master tape made up of simultaneous views of
the face and hands of the customer and the workstation screen.
There is also an audio tape made of the users' comments.
After a session there is also a
structured, but informal, debriefing allowing the customer to
home into any specific areas of concern that they may have had
during the test. This too is audio taped. The customer will also
be asked to complete a psychometric usability questionnaire (a
SUMI is used. See SUMI).
to Development Teams
The final report, in the form of
a written document and video summary is then sent to the development
teams. The results are presented in such a way that individual
users are not identified. The report gives quantitative measures
such as "how many of the specified tasks did the customer
successfully achieve" and how fast were they done in comparison
"with a trained operator fully conversant with the system"
[RUG 1997]. Qualitative measures can also be gleaned from the
reports too. Aspects such as "attributes that are particularly
liked or disliked, customer wish lists and recommendations for
change", which is after all the main reason for testing,
can be uncovered.
Shorter tests, that check a particular
aspect of the interface, can subsequently be run as a result of
any changes to ensure that the amendment is effective. A video
link is often set up in these cases so that the development team
can actually view the customer in a live situation and so suggest
alternative scenarios for trialing. In this way a product developer
in say New York is able to test a product that is to be used in
the UK with a UK customer. Elements relating to international
specific design can thus be effectively tested and evaluated avoiding
problems that may, at a later stage, be too late to resolve easily.
Customer feedback cannot be undervalued.
It can identify any shortcomings in the designs and is able to
home in on problem areas quickly. Customers, who will intrinsically
know the task domain, will identify seemingly subconsciously,
the most effective way of performing it where alternatives exist
and, will at appropriate stages of the whole process of testing,
be able to validate proposed navigation structures. The customers
view upon the groupings of screen functions for example, would
be highly regarded and the change would be incorporated by the
development team at the next prototype stage.
Client trainers, who are the coaches
to customers after a product is released, are also involved in
the usability testing because it helps them in identifying where
and when customers may need training. Testing will also allow
the development teams to identify where additional software training
support (help screens for example) is likely to be useful in making
the interface understandable.
Reuters use various consultants
from differing fields of expertise when testing products. This
enables differing skills to be brought into testing allowing for
each element of the design to be tested by the most appropriate
expert. Also because independent consultants are used there is
no conflict of interest and thus independent analysis is achieved.
Jeffries cited in Cuomo & Bowen
 found that "heuristic evaluation is more effective
when a group of independent evaluators is used". Reuters
also take the view that reviewing products is more effective when
undertaken as a team. Formal expert reviews may therefore involve
a team made up from the following consultants: User Interface
(UI) experts; ergonomists; graphic designers; market analysts;
psychologists and domain experts. The expertise involved in reviews
is dependent on the product being reviewed so this list is not
Experts are able to offer decisive
refinements, based on specific knowledge and experience, which
will fine tune systems to customer requirements. They are able
"to estimate what will happen with longer-term usage"
[Shneiderman 1992] which would not become apparent during normal
user testing. As a consequence Reuters use a combination of experts,
as well as users, to test products when evaluating products.
Finally the list of initial customer
requirements is re-checked to ensure that the design specifications
are met before the product is released.
In conclusion I would propose that
the testing processes undertaken by Reuters are not just an end
evaluation exercise on current products; the testing spurns more
than a quick nod of approval if the product has reached a certain
level of acceptance (although the mark of 50 on SUMI questionnaires
is set as a standard Usability baseline). Testing, in addition,
is used as an iterative evaluation technique which does empower
users to effect design changes which ultimately increase the usability
of the Reuters products, version on version.
Maybe one reason why laboratory
usability testing has proved useful for Reuters is that their
designers and programmers may increase their diligence if they
know that in depth testing is to take place. This point of view
is supported by Gould cited in [Shneiderman 1992].
In this case study I have endeavoured
to uncover whether the involvement of users in the development
and testing of products does lead to improved usability. I have
demonstrated that Reuters certainly believe this to be the case
and I have given examples of where their Customer Centred Design
Process and user centred evaluation methods have led to a greater
understanding of who the customer is and the context in which
The underlying key principle in
creating usable systems appears to be the absolute need to understand
the users of them. This has been identified by Lazonder &
Van Der Meir  who propose that:
"since it is ultimately the
users of the software system who decide its usability ...[they]
suggest users be made an integral part of the software design
and development process".
Over the last few years this viewpoint
has gained greater prominence. As Morry & Dillon  conclude:
"research on usability has sought to become central to the
design and selection of technology for large organisations".
It seems that Reuters knew this
in 1993 and have been able to effectively turn their once usability
problem into an effective method of usability design that other
companies now aspire to emulate.