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

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