Friday, September 2, 2016

Usability bugs don't crash the system; they crash the user. (Jurek Kirakowski)

I was lucky enough to get in on the ground floor in my profession. My grad school, Carnegie Mellon, can make a legitimate claim to having invented the think-aloud method. My first company out of school, Digital, was one of the first companies to really take usability seriously. It’s where Jared Spool, Steve Krug, Karen Holtzblatt, Dennis Wixon, and Chauncey Wilson all got their starts.

Unfortunately, Digital also famously bet against the PC. So, after five wonderful years there, I found myself in a wonderful city (Charlotte, NC), but one that was not exactly Boston, or Austin, or San Francisco when it came furthering my career. Wanting to stay, I took jobs as a tech writer and instructional designer, but was always on the lookout for my next usability gig.

Sadly, that involved many interviews where I had to explain exactly what usability was. In particular, I had to explain how it wasn’t QA. That was what most people were familiar with, so I typically had to tie the two together somehow to explain what it was I actually did. 

I usually made the point that QA usually looks for things that “crash the system.” Usability, on the other hand, finds things that don’t necessarily crash the system, but might as well have. In other words, if the user can’t find your link, or doesn’t understand what to put in a field, or never goes to the proper menu item because it’s worded wrong, the effect is the same – the user can’t complete their task; ergo, the system failed.

Unfortunately, having to offer this explanation was also a signal to me that this place might not be able to best use my skills. And what was particularly frustrating was when the job description included the word “usability” in it – without HR, or the hiring manager, or whoever actually knowing what they were really talking about.

Yes, this story does have a happy ending. I finally found someone who did know what a usability engineer was – and also needed one desperately. Happily, they were also one of the biggest banks in the country, and I started their usability practice. Interestingly, though, they also no longer exist either. Hmm, you don't think it’s me, do you?

Jurek Kirakowski - professor, author, father of SUMI, and fashion icon

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