Thumbnail: Randolph Bias
By Clifford Anderson
Cliff Anderson is a Senior Usability Engineer at Wachovia, the fourth largest bank in the US. He has been doing usability work for almost 20 years.
Academia or industry? Industry or academia? To Randolph Bias, the two go hand in hand.
After graduating with a PhD in cognitive psychology in 1978, Randolph spent 20 years in industry, at places like Bell Labs, IBM, and BMC Software. All the while, though, he continued to teach, at schools like Rutgers and the University of Texas at Austin. "I always had a penchant for research and for writing," he notes. "I'm a scientist by reflex."
When a full-time faculty position became available at the University of Texas five years ago, he "jumped at it." Not surprisingly, though, he still finds time to do consulting, recently joining with Scott Butler and Rich Gunther to launch The Usability Team.
"One fuels the other," he points out. "The consulting keeps my teaching and research fresh. I am able to supplement my students' 'book learnin' with real world experience."
UT School of Information
The School of Information at UT is also a good match for Randolph's background and experience. He makes a distinction between his Masters students, with their "pragmatic" focus, and his PhD students, with their focus on "pure research." At the same time, though, the two groups do interact quite closely. "I think the twain shall meet," Randolph jokes.
Perhaps reflecting his industry background, Randolph takes pride in his Masters students. Citing their broad coursework - in usability, information architecture, and other fields, as well as internships and "capstone" projects - he proudly states that "we are developing digital professionals of all ilk." He himself concentrates on classes in usability and research methods.
As for his own research, he cites two interesting projects he is currently working on. One involves visually-impaired users. He and colleagues Doug Gillan at North Carolina State and Enrico Pontelli at New Mexico State "hope to leverage what auditory scientists have learned about human audition to design systems that go beyond simply screen readers to try to afford equal access to information to all." He sees it as the "perfect place for the marriage of pure research and application."
Randolph enjoys collaboration in particular: "I really enjoy that marriage of different expertise." He's also currently working with some hardware engineers to design a handheld device that can be used on construction sites. Other areas of interest include reading online, usability engineering methods, and cross-cultural issues.
Randolph's career in industry actually began with statistics work, at the Texas Department of Health. That didn't last long, though. "I noticed that all my buddies from the PhD program we're getting high-powered jobs at IBM and Bell Labs," he notes.
He still sees the importance of his statistical background though. "Good social scientists," he muses, "have to understand statistics pretty deeply."
In fact, Randolph considers himself a "total quantitative bigot." At the same time, though, he does "understand the joy in using qualitative research to identify particular problem areas."
He also jokes that, while at Bell Labs, he discovered that "I could pay attention to something that was not significant at the .05 level. It could still be interesting." After working there for a few years, "making mainframe products more usable for Bell Operating Company employees," Randolph moved on to IBM, where he stayed over 10 years. There, he worked on "making OS/2 user-friendly," a particularly exciting effort as his work "would influence hundreds of thousands of lives."
Randolph's next stop was at BMC Software, the "largest software company you never heard of." There, he was particularly proud of building and managing a team of 10. He also enjoyed bringing "the usability religion to a company that had never embraced it systematically before."
Even now, he sees his favorite consulting job as a company's "maiden voyage" into usability. "You get the resources, you run the test, you show the highlight film, and the product succeeds," he relates. "You can just see the light bulbs going on - 'Hey, this usability is good stuff.'"
Randolph's pragmatic approach is reflected well in his book Cost-Justifying Usability, published with Deborah Mayhew. This ground-breaking and still very popular book came about in a very interesting way.
"I knew nothing about the topic," Randolph confesses. "So, we gathered some people together who did and put together a symposium on it at HFES in 1990. I got educated," he jokes.
The book came out of his growing conviction that "we weren't going to get a seat at the table alongside engineering and sales and marketing unless we could show our value." Even today, Randolph thinks it important to "show early on that you don't do usability in order to be a good citizen, but purely for business reasons."
Randolph sees ROI mainly as a tool to help sell usability in organizations where usability may still be in its infancy. "There are plenty of pockets out there where usability's not embraced," he points out. "We're still fighting it everyday."
"There are a lot of people out there who think usability is just common sense," he continues. In fact, Randolph sees the "dangers of amateur usability" as a major risk in our profession. "Whether you're a good programmer or not gets discovered at system test," he notes. "For a usability engineer, though, you might not find out 'til the site goes live, through calls to the call center, or a drop in traffic. Management then thinks, not that we didn't do a good test, but that usability's not worth it. And it'll be five years 'til we're back in that shop again."
"There's a lot to know," he states. "The amateur may not know what methods to apply when. It's not rocket science, but it's not common sense either."
"I wish usability was seen more universally as a professional discipline," he concludes, "and not just something any smart person can decide to do one day." He counsels to "watch for a bit of a debate between me and my buddy Steve Krug on this topic, at a conference near you in the near future."
Over the Years
Having been in the business for almost 30 years, Randolph has seen a lot of changes. Two encouraging ones have been that usability "seems to fall earlier and earlier in the development cycle," and is "not simply a kind of system test that runs parallel with QA." In general, he also sees "more and more people seeing value in usability," and states with feeling that he "believe[s] that deeply."
As for the future, Randolph sees more "integration of automated usability tools with traditional user testing methods." That may well result in fewer usability engineers, or "at least people with that in their job title." Randolph sees instead "many more people with usability engineering as a tool in their tool belt."
However things turn out, Randolph hopes to still be doing a little bit of academia and a little bit of industry. And he sees UPA as being a large part of that. "I went to my first UPA conference about 10 years ago, and I was always told that it was for the newbie," he remembers, "but I was pleasantly surprised. There's something there for everybody. UPA is fighting the right battle to apply the science of human-computer interaction to practice."
He concludes, "When I was in industry, I was the research-y guy. Now that I'm in academia, I'm the more applied guy. I think of it as though I am continuing to work on building the bridge, I'm just working on it from the other shore."
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