Getting usability out of the lab
July 23, 2001
OK, I've been a little hard on usability specialists recently, so it's good to see some of the people within the profession are realizing the usability needs to be incorporated into the entire design process—and usability specialists need to be more aware of the bigger picture. Witness this report from the recent Usability Professionals Association conference [as reported in NetRaker's newsletter]:

This was an opportunity to issue a wake up call to the entire usability profession. This challenge was best proclaimed by Richard Buchanan, PhD., of Carnegie Mellon University in his portion of the Closing Plenary, "Usability - Past, Present, and Future", when he stated: "Any group that isolates itself brings itself contempt for others, and contempt from others. The key to the future of this profession will be how its specialists participate in the larger enterprise of product development, and even marketing." He went on to further state that for true growth to occur now that economic times have returned to normal, he would desire to see marketers, developers, programmers, product managers, etc., within the audience at such an event as UPA. "This will be the surest sign that this profession, and its virtues, have been assimilated."

Couldn't agree more. (And if you're a usability specialist, before you fire off that flame mail, just consider that if you're reading this you'll probably one of those in the profession who's got broader horizons—and I wish more usability specialists were like you.)

Update: Must be cosmic convergence... Today's IDblog spotted this ClickZ column by Dana Blankenhorn about Michael Roberts' usability consultancy MarketFace, that's trying to go beyond just looking at design to examine the development process as a whole to improve ease-of-use.

"All this is still evolving, Roberts says, and no single approach paints a complete picture. So he's using a combination of analytic methods, not just usability studies, to create a process he can recommend to clients."

Blankhorn also points the what-ought-to-be-obvious-but-isn't-always point that the internet is as much is its own media as print or TV and companies should have sounds development practices just as they avoid "just throwing together" their company's print or broadcast matierals.

While I obsolutely agree with the sentiment, my days back as a print designer, make me a little skeptical about Blankhorn's assertion that print and TV matierals are well-planned out. In my experience a lot of companies did just throw things together. The difference with the web (and other interactive multimedia, software, etc.) is that the problems with a hard-to-understand brochure may not be noticed, while problems with a hard-to-use site are much more likely to be glaring because people need to interact with it—in a way they don't with materials intended for one-way communication. ::

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Your thoughts…

Please, no flames from this usability specialist. I couldn't agree more with the need for usability folk to get more involved with other departments and across the entire design process. At Intuit, we're lucky in that we have a culture where usability is accepted and most of the people who practice usability go out of their way to educate others, but I imagine it's not like this everywhere.

It's tough for any culture of professionals to loosen their grip on their prize jewels (best practices, methodologies, tools, etc.), though that's depressing and shouldn't serve as an excuse. Most of it seems to come down to politics, both within a company and throughout a profession: we hold on to what power we can keep, and act as if we're the only ones who can dish out what others need.

Feh. Is that what's in the best interests of users? Is this user-centered design we're practicing?

Chad Thornton @ 07.24.2001

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Good point about people not wanting to give up their "prize jewels." Reminds me of something the ever-wise consultanting guru Jerry Weinberg once said: "When change is inevitable, we stuggle most to keep what we value most." So what does the usability profession value most...

What I think people fail to realize is that:
1) None of the best practices, methodologies, tools, etc. are really that secret, despite the pretentions of various consultants.

2) The best consultants give away their idea. Whether you like/dislike Jakob Nielsen, one reason he's been successful is precisely because he was giving out his ideas constantly

3) Even if you know the "secrets of the trade," it still takes skill and experience to do them off well. So while usability needs to be suffused throughout the development process, there's still job security for those who can teach and lead others (as well as tackle the difficult problems) -- but this means moving into more of an internal consultant role, than being the "owner" of usability.

george @ 07.24.2001

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