Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The only thing more expensive than hiring a professional is hiring an amateur. (Red Adair)

Not too many years ago, you needed some serious chops to pass yourself off as a usability engineer. In the beginning, you probably had a PhD, worked at someplace like IBM, and might even have had a white lab coat hanging in your closet somewhere. A little later, as usability really started to take off, you didn’t need so many formal trappings, but training at a real industry leader – like a Digital or a Fidelity or a Sun – was almost a prerequisite.

And then something funny happened … It was the days of the dot-com bubble, and all of a sudden, usability people were – well, not exactly rock stars – but well-known and somewhat respected people. Average IT and business people knew who Jakob Nielsen was, threw the word “usability” around right and left, and were willing to throw some money around as well to make their products “user-friendly.”

So, as it often does, the market responded by magically creating a supply to meet that new demand. People started sprinkling the word “usability” on their resumes, making sure they dropped it in interviews, and maybe even giving one of those usability test thingies a whirl all on their own. They didn’t necessarily have to study it in school, or train at an industry leader, or even read a book or go to a conference. Hanging out your shingle and making the claim that you “did usability” was often enough. Heck, the people hiring them had a hard time understanding the difference between usability testing and QA, so it wasn’t too hard to fool them.

Heck, it was just as easy to fool yourself. You have to actually know a little bit about a topic before you realize you don’t know squat. And that’s kind of what happened with this new crop of “usability engineers.” Now, some of them turned out to be great – they had the skills, and the motivation, and made an effort to educate themselves, and gained some real experience. But a lot of them were just awful.

I know. I saw them. I saw tests that were more like interviews and – in some especially awful situations – product demos. I saw facilitators who talked more than the users. I saw leading questions and body language that practically shouted. I saw tests that were run on the fly, and reports that were little more than transcripts. I know. I was there.

Now, usability is famous for abjuring purity in favor of results. In fact, this approach is really what’s behind Steve Krug’s Rocket Surgery Made Easy. Personally, I’ve often said that any test, no matter how quick-and-dirty or informal it is or how many things go wrong, is still going to give you some useful feedback.

The fact of the matter, though, is that there is a certain baseline to all this. No, you don’t need a famous brain surgeon to stitch up the slice on your hand you gave yourself working in the yard. But it’s not something you’d usually do yourself, is it? Chances are you going to head somewhere where someone with at least a little training and practical experience can set you to rights, right?

Yup, that’s what Red did.
Usability testing isn’t exactly in the same ballpark, but what the hey …

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