Friday, April 25, 2014

The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it is the same problem as last year. (John Foster Dulles)

Steve Krug and Caroline Jarrett put on an excellent session at UPA 2012 called “’...but the light bulb has to want to change’: Why do the most serious usability problems we uncover often go unfixed?”  

To me, this has always been the proverbial elephant in the room.  Everyone knows usability engineers do great work.  How often, though, is their work actually acted upon?  How often do things fall through the cracks?  How often do project teams pay only lip service to usability?

In a previous life, I once had a little time on my hands … and decided to find out.  I went through a year’s worth of usability reports, then tallied up what percentage of issues our different clients actually fixed.  As it turns out, the client that we seemed to be on the best standing with (they wanted our services constantly, observed sessions religiously, and seemed to “get” usability) fixed the fewest issues.  And a client who we had wrestled with on what seemed like everything actually fixed the most!  I’m really not sure what was behind all this, but it certainly was an eye-opener.

Steve and Caroline (in a survey that they ran on over a hundred usability engineers) found that the major culprits were capacity and politics.  Other issues included changes to business processes, technology, holding the fix for a future redesign, and legal.  Some ideas for mitigating these issues include:

  • Prioritizing (for example, putting easy fixes that have major impacts at the top of the list)
  • Making testing more collaborative (getting team members to observe, debriefing with the team, etc.)
  • Speaking the language of business and focusing on their priorities
  • Focusing on the big problems (i.e., avoiding the temptation to list anything and everything in your  report)
  • Doing the least you can to fix the problem (e.g., not redoing the whole system when adding a help link will suffice)
  • Equating usability bugs with any other kind of bug
  • Putting fixing usability bugs in the schedule
  • Celebrating fixes

I like these ideas.  Heck, anything that would get around reporting the same issue over and over again would be a winner with me.

John Foster Dulles was not a usability engineer, but was Secretary of State during the Eisenhower administration.  Dulles Airport, in DC, is named after him.  As afar as I know, there are no airports named after famous usability engineers.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Usability is about making technology work for you, instead of you having to work to use the technology. (Laura Downey)

There’s a certain kind of person who loves a challenge. That beautiful kitchen island with the marble countertop? They built that. That underground sprinkler system? They put that in. That home network? They set that up.

Then there’s the rest of us. We just want the stinking printer to work … so we can get our report … and go home.

Now, here’s the rub … As usability engineers, we tend to work with the first type of person. But we usually advocate for the second. When we’re in the lab, we work with the latter, but then typically have to explain what happened to the former.

It can be quite a challenge operating as translator. Luckily, most of us are used to drawing on both sides of our brain. In fact, that’s why a lot of usability engineers come from fields like technical writing or instructional design, in my opinion.   

At the same time, though, we are engineers. And there are some of us who take that part of the title very seriously. They might be stat heads who are interested in ANOVAs, Bayesian inference, and stochastic processes. Or they might just be closet developers.  

The latter are the ones I worry about. For those folks, understanding and working with users can sometimes seem to take a backseat to making the eye tracker run or tweaking the prototype or coming up with some homegrown tool for this or that. I know there are true Renaissance people out there (and I know I ain’t one of them), but I sometimes wonder if usability engineers like this haven’t gone over to the other side.

Mary Beth Rettger, Directory of Usability at The Mathworks and former UPA president, has called herself a “luddite.” I don’t know if I want to go that far. I do, however, like to keep myself somewhat “pure.”  

The only time I’m around non-techies these days seems to be when I’m in the lab with my users. Being able to channel them outside the lab is a lot easier if I feel I genuinely have something in common with them. So, I guess that’s why I’ll always be more on the “usability” – and less on the “engineer” – side of “usability engineer.”

Not Mary Beth Rettger