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Where in the organization should a usability group belong?

Companies often struggle to find the best place for the usability/UCD group within the organizational structure. While common placements for this skill set are in the IT/development department, in the marketing/communications department, in the Quality Assurance department or in Product Development, whether these locations are the best for any specific organization is a function of the capability of the usability group and the maturity of the organization to leverage that capability.

Detailed description

Part of the problem in devising an answer to the question of where to locate the usability / UCD group, is the variability in the tasks and focus of different usability groups. For example, the focus of some usability groups may be primarily on conducting interface evaluations against documented requirements, other groups may focus more on understanding the context of use of a product and providing input into requirements gathering, while other groups may focus primarily on supporting the production of design solutions by producing and testing various levels of task models and application prototypes.

In each of these cases, the placement of the usability / UCD group within their organization may vary and may be perfectly suited for each organization. So the question of where the usability / UCD group should be placed within an organization needs to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

While there is no set formula for identifying where the usability / UCD group should belong within any given organization, there are a number of variables that when clarified and considered next to one another will point significantly towards the best place for your usability/ UCD group within your organization.

  1. To what extent does your group participate in the following UCD processes (as outlined in the Usability Maturity Model):
    • Ensure UCD Content in Systems Strategy
    • Plan and Manage the UCD process
    • Specify stakeholder and organizational requirements
    • Understand and specify the context of use
    • Produce design solutions
    • Evaluate designs against requirements
    • Introduce and operate the system
  2. Who are the owners and managers of:
    • Requirements
    • The Design and Development process
    • End user research
    • Product design and development strategy

A genuine assessment of your usability / UCD group's capability, coupled with an understanding of where ownership of the key product development processes lies, will quickly provide strong directional information about the most appropriate location for your usability / UCD group within your organization.

For example, if the primary focus of a usability / UCD group is the evaluation of software designs against user requirements, this group is likely be most effective if it is located with that part of the organization that is responsible for requirements gathering. As this group's capability evolves and it takes responsibility for the production of design solutions, the group may be more effective if it moves into that part of the organization that is responsible for the design and development process.

There is an argument to be made for the usability / UCD group to be independent of the departments for which it predominantly provides input rather than be part of those departments. The best determination on this issue is largely a function of the organization's culture in regards to the interplay of organizational roles and accountability.

While there is no agreed 'best practice' for the positioning of the usability / UCD group within an organizational structure, the overall objective of any decision regarding this matter to ensure the usability / UCD group has a level of influence commensurate with its capabilities.


Strategies and Best Practices

Assess the capabilities of your usability / UCD group using the Usability Maturity Model.

Conduct an organizational assessment to determine which parts of your organization have responsibility for the management or ownership of the processes that your usability group will most frequently and or most critically, be involved in.

Decision Criteria

The most likely home for your usability group is at the intersection of the assessments mentioned above.


© 2010 Usability Professionals Association