There are two basic alternatives for structuring a usability/UCD group within an organization:
In a centralized organizational structure, usability professionals belong to one organizational unit (such as the Usability Department), and have their own usability manager. When project teams request usability assistance, one or more usability professionals work closely with the team during the project. This approach has several advantages, including opportunities for usability professionals to work across multiple projects and/or product lines, creating opportunities to leverage previous work and define standards. A centralized group can have a strong mix of skills and the ability to draw on support from colleagues, benefiting from specialized skills and sharing responsibilities during critical deadlines. A centralized group also provides opportunities for sharing of ideas and knowledge, encouraging professional growth (Borgholm & Madsen, 1999). However, it can make the usability professional appear to be an outsider on the development team.
In a distributed organizational structure, usability professionals are assigned to work on separate project teams and report to project manager. On many projects, this would mean only one usability professional per project. This approach has several advantages, including the ability of the development team to work together as a close-knit group. Staying with the project team from the beginning to end of the project may increase the chances of usability recommendations being implemented. For example, at Nortel Networks, after the usability group was decentralized, the human factors work became "more influential than it ever was when we had a separate organization for human factors specialists" (Lindgaard, 2002). However, this approach also has disadvantages in that it can isolate usability specialists, making them feel outnumbered. It can reduce opportunities for professional development, and miss opportunities to learn from experiences across projects.
Strategies and Best Practices
The best structure for a usability/UCD group may depend on the maturity of the organization. When an organization has just begun to adopt user-centered design, a strong central group can be beneficial, especially if it has visibility and a position with some clout. As the organization matures and integrates usability into all of its processes, there is less need for a central team (Norman, 1998).
Encourage open channels of communication, regardless of which structure you choose.
Conduct an organizational assessment to determine which approach would fit best with your company and its culture.
In centralized usability/UCD groups, a common mistake or issue is "dropping in" on a project, making sweeping recommendations or criticisms, and then disappearing. Usability professionals in a centralized group need to try harder to gain the trust of development teams and show that they are committed to the projects that they work on.
In decentralized usability/UCD group, a common issue is the lack of opportunities for usability professionals to connect with each other and undertake regular professional development.