That Usability Guy

by Jin, 10-16-08 // 10 comments
motivational speaker

When I worked for a large corporation years ago, my project manager signed our team (programmers and designers) up for a mandatory training course on usability study, taught by some human factor expert. I immediately was resistant to the idea, because I was never a fan of those highly paid experts/speakers who come in and talk about nothing. After they leave, us poor grunts get stuck listening to our managers with their newfound vocabulary made up of “paradigm,” “synergy,” and “think outside of the box.”

The class went well. However, I didn’t feel I learned anything new. Most of the course materials were just common sense to me. As the years went on, I noticed a new title surfaced on job sites, “web usability analyst/architect.”

“Why not just hire a real designer instead?” I often thought. I’m not sure why I had such a negative feeling towards usability people. Maybe it had something to do with the hype of a greatly overpriced self marketer, or perhaps I believed usability is part of a web designer’s job.

It wasn’t until last year when I finally got to work with a usability expert. Seeing him in action gave me a whole new understanding and perspective of what a good usability professional can do. The key word here being “good.” For anonymity’s sake, I’ll refer to him as Bob.

Bob’s role on our team is to gather business requirements from the client, to understand the goal of the web sites we’re building, to conduct interviews with potential users. He then put his analysis in a very thorough report. Next, he creates a wire-frame (plain HTML) mock-up of the site on a conceptual level. He then uses the mock-up to conduct user acceptance tests with potential users and the client. This process repeats a few times until his mock-up meets all the goals.

I then take over his mock-up. I recreate it in Photoshop with graphical elements that are appropriate for the web. I present the mock-up to the client. After it’s approved, I convert it to valid HTML/CSS and JavaScript. During my mock-up creation phase, I often collaborate with Bob. Even though my primary duty is for the visuals and implementation, Bob gives me input on the design details, the best usability practices, and reminds me how a screen reader would really read the pages and much more. This collaboration is very similar to the paired programming technique used in software development. It’s been very beneficial because it keeps me highly focused, also I get to look at the design from another person’s perspective.

Essentially, Bob is a great business analyst, a technical writer, a psychologist and a designer combined in one. The benefit of having a usability expert on a team of multiple designers is the efficiency. With Bob focusing on what he does, it frees me and other designers up to focus on more hands-on tasks. He often works with multiple designer’s projects at once. This expedites the turnaround time for projects.

Of course, every web designer should know how to do the whole project process on his/her own. In the web development field today, there are many areas of focus. If you have someone who’s highly specialized in one field, then you get to focus on the areas you excel at. Personally, I’m not very good at writing documentations or sitting in long repetitive meetings.

Have you worked with a usability specialist on your projects before? If so, what’s your experience like?

10 comments

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Jeremy 10-16-08

I’ve met Bob, and I concur – he’s a great guy!

sandi 10-16-08

I’m not sure about that Bob guy….

Steven Clark 10-16-08

Is that what they meant about my lack of persona (fades out to “l hygeine”)?

Seriously, too true. I said to my last manager, when asked to put a page forward to him about my skillset that could be used by the other managers. I said, the problem is that nobody can see that they have the problem, therefore the need. It’s not until I do something to improve things that they get it.

And I’m not a Bob, by a long shot.

The value of asking those questions and considering the user experience is invaluable. And get people involved. The standard process had been to listen to the client for 2 hours and flick it over to the graphic designer who sent requests to programmers for functionality.

Excellent post.

Steven Clark 10-16-08

One caveat of my last comment being I am probably not a usability expert. But I have a strong knowledgebase around that area – interface design, usability, accessibility – that seems to often be missing. Its the why behind many questions.

OK I’ll shut up now and get to work. Thanks.

[...] not until you work with a usability expert that you can really appreciate the value of having them on your team (graphic designers and [...]

Jin 10-16-08

@Steven, thank you for your comment.

I think most web designers who are worth their paychecks know a great deal about usability. However, certified usability specialists go beyond that. They study the proven statistics of how users really use or navigate through a web site or web applications. Of course these stats don’t always reflect every site use, but it paints a close picture.

They also know about accessibility more in depth. Like how the screen readers REALLY reads a web site. Just some examples.

Antti 10-22-08

Remember the time when there were “webmasters?”

They were the early adopters of MS FrontPage, PaintShop Pro, and clip-art galleries. (I know NOBODY can forget the animated gif of a digging construction worker with a caption “page under construction.”) Back in those days web professionals were jacks of all trades and masters of none – which showed.

We’re seeing more and more specialized roles in the industry and in my opinion it is a sign of maturity. The truth is that a team with Bob the Usability Guy, Carrie the Coder(ette) and Drew the Designer beefed up with Quentin the QA person working together will always yield output higher than just the sum of its parts.

There is no doubt that having a Bob is integral to the success of any larger web project, but like you mentioned in your post, the profession/position is quite young. That’s why I am curious to see how it will weather the economic turmoil we’re seeing right now. With the most abstract role and the least tangible output, are the Bobs the first ones to go when times start getting rough?

On a lighter note, I must say this:

Jin, I am happy that you blog about web design and not software development. Otherwise I could only think of “Bob” from the perspective of Office Space.

Jin 10-22-08

@Antti, not every team will have a Bob. Having a usability person has a lot of to with the size of the firm/company, the budget, the awareness of usability and many other factors. The smaller the team and project, the more of a luxury having a Bob becomes, IMO. None of my past jobs had a Bob.

BTW, are you related to Michael Bolton??

Toby 12-10-08

Interesting.. I have yet to work with a really good usability guy (or a really good “guru” of any stripe – from Agile Methodology specialists to Usability to Marketing Strategy Coordinators…). Those that I’ve worked with have been 20% substance backed up with 80% hot air. It’s good to know at least that there are real experts out there, people who care about what they’re doing more than simply making a buck for giving a motivational speech every now and then.

Jin 12-10-08

Toby, thank you for the comment. I agree with you, most of the gurus I’ve met and worked with, were more about selling themselves to get more business than having any substance. And sadly, management buy their BS. I’ve had doubts about usability specialists before until I worked with a good one.