Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Criticism is a form of optimism. Only silence is pessimistic. (Carlos Fuentes)

I once heard one of my colleagues describe herself as a “professional scab-picker.” And that, sometimes, is a pretty apt description of what we do. Or at least a good representation of how some people view us, if nothing else.

Now, I like to think that that last group probably just didn’t work with a more seasoned usability engineer. Let me tell you, letting someone know their baby is ugly takes some real skills. Not only do you have to report some positive results as well, you have to be convincing with your arguments, offer some possible solutions, have enough emotional intelligence to know how your report will be received, and just let some things slide.

Actually, sometimes this has more to do with the team receiving the criticism than the one giving it. In particular, I’ve noticed that it’s the more seasoned, experienced teams who can’t wait to get something into the lab, come what may. It’s the ones newer to usability that might have a tougher time – whose skin is a little thinner, who tend to be a little more defensive. Ironically, it’s also typically the less experienced team that has more to fix, and the more experienced one much less. Ah well.

Now, I have been in some situations where I have, effectively, been “silent.” These typically arise when there is such a mismatch between a team’s capabilities and any form of usability that it simply just isn’t worth it. Are you surprised that there are actually places in this day and age where this might happen?

Well, it’s true. I just so happened to work on one just a little while ago. It was basically an internal team, developing an internal tool, for an internal client. Everyone was very heavy IT, and the atmosphere actually gave me a very heady feel of the 1990s. They had heard of me somehow or other, and I made some pretty basic suggestions as delicately as I could over the phone on our first contact, explaining everything in detail as I went. I repeated that approach again in another phone call, then a conference call, and then another …

At that time, it became pretty obvious that no one was going to actually act on any of those suggestions, so I eventually retired from the field. No reason dying on my sword for this one.

Carlos Fuentes, Mexican novelist. I’m pretty sure he never uttered the word “usability” in his life, but any author who says the first thing he thinks about when he begins is a book is “Who am I writing for?” might actually not have a hard time understanding user-centered design.