Thumbnail: Sharon Laskowski
By Cliff Anderson
Cliff is a Senior Usability Engineer at Wachovia, the third largest bank in the US. He has been doing usability work for 20 years.
A Vote for Usability
The usability of voting systems is something almost all usability practitioners can get excited about. It's interesting, it's important, it's in the news, it's challenging.
Sharon Laskowski has been lucky to be in on this effort from the very beginning. Her team at NIST (the National Institute of Standards and Technology) was tasked with doing major research and coming up with standards for these systems through the Help America Vote Act, passed by the US Congress in 2002.
Though Sharon’s group did not focus on environmental factors like lighting, noise, and space (there are polling place best practices for those), there were plenty of challenges to deal with, especially when it came to making sure the systems were universally accessible and also usable by lower literacy users. “For example, blind voters need audio,” notes Sharon. “So, what makes for a good audio ballot? They may not want to listen to a two-page referendum,” she jokes, “so there needs to be some sort of skip-ahead.” Another challenge was to ensure that usability was preserved as security standards were developed. A final challenge involved coming up with a standard testing methodology to be used by the labs that will be certifying the voting systems.
All in all, Sharon's ultimate goal was to "create standards that people could trust and believe in." She feels confident that her group is meeting that goal. "With the older systems, there were a lot of errors going on," she notes, "With this newer generation, we're going to see a lot of usability improvements."
Other Areas of Interest
Voting systems are not all Sharon is interested in however. Her position at NIST has led to interesting work in biometrics, visualization, accessibility, and even human-robotic interaction.
Work on biometrics has focused on fingerprint recognition. In particular, her group at NIST has worked on the US-VISIT program for people entering and exiting the US. "Until very recently, the focus has been, how fast can you get this fingerprint algorithm to work, or this face recognition algorithm to work," she points out. "But it doesn't give you the human side of how to design this workstation for good throughput so you don't have long lines at the airport. The usability becomes critical at that point."
Sharon sees biometrics growing as security becomes more and more important. At the same time, though, she also sees an inherent conflict between the two. "In voting systems, we see a tension between good security practices and what's usable. How do you marry the two? Because they're both important. You can't value one over the other." She points to something similar in a task as basic as password creation, noting that "The more secure you try to make it, the more people try to defeat it, the more you encourage people to write it down."
Her work in visualization – "how you navigate through and understand large amounts of information" – has also had a heavy government focus. In particular, she has worked with intelligence agencies so they can profitably analyze the large amounts of data involved in, say, telephone conversations or social networking sites to identify terrorist activity. Other applications might involve business analysis or money laundering.
Sharon's work with accessibility has included automated tools and standards, as well as her work with voting systems. She sees this field as growing also. In particular, she cites an aging population and envisions a blurring of accessibility and usability. "As we age," she notes, "we don't think of ourselves as disabled. We want to be able to use products. We want to be able to use our toaster without putting our glasses on. It's small things like that that really affect your quality of life. The baby boomers set trends. It's definitely coming. I think that's the next hot area."
As befits someone who works at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Sharon has a big interest in standards. In addition to standards for voting systems, she has also done important work on standards for usability reports.
This work, also known as the Common Industry Format (CIF), was originally meant as a procurement tool. Its purpose was to allow government (and industry) to conduct standard usability tests on different vendor tools, to help decide which vendor to go with. Reflecting her close collaboration with industry in this effort, Sharon notes that the CIF can also be used in the private sector, and for development as well as purchasing. Though the CIF has focused more on summative (or quantitative) tests, current work also calls for standards on specifying requirements and formative (or qualitative) tests. The CIF is already an ANSI and ISO standard.
Sharon sees standards as very important in general. "They capture the best practices," she states firmly. She also points out how this is especially important in usability: "We have a lot of new people coming into our profession. Standards offer more credibility. They get more visibility to usability."
She also believes that standards help improve usability in general. They "can get more usability into all the products we use," she notes, "and that can generate cost savings, help you do your job better, and help make your life better." She sees her work at NIST as allowing her "to actually do something concrete about it, actually make a difference."
A Big Switch
Sharon wasn't a likely candidate for a career in usability however. Her academic background includes a math degree from Trinity College in Connecticut and a PhD in theoretical computer science (CS) from Yale. After graduation, she taught CS at Penn State University and then worked in artificial intelligence and knowledge engineering at MITRE, a Washington think tank.
At the same time, though, she always considered herself a "Jill of all trades" when it came to CS. And one piece of the CS puzzle that particularly interested her was the human side. When she joined NIST's Information Technology Laboratory in 1994, she saw it as an opportunity to get "government and industry to specify and require good usability for its products." A year later she became the manager of the Visualization and Usability Group, which currently has a staff of 13.
She does value her technical and theoretical background however. She sees her "mathematical, very logical, engineering kind of approach and training" as helping her "get at the essence of the problem," in "breaking the problem into parts," "analyzing it in a very thorough way," and in "understanding what research is all about." She's also finds it gives her credibility, "especially at a place like NIST."
Usability has also been a stretch for Sharon though. In addition to learning about another side of CS, Sharon also confesses that "I'm a bit of an introvert. I was more interested in theoretical problems rather than interacting with people." Luckily, she has "always loved the challenge of learning new areas and filling in the gaps in my background." "I've become much more comfortable in interacting with others," she notes.
Sharon has been very happy with the way her career has gone. She also feels very rosy when she thinks about the future of usability.
"It's on the radar screen now," she enthuses. "The Help America Vote Act specifically says, ‘These systems must be usable.' Not ‘should be,' but ‘must be.' This trend towards user-centered design – it's slower than I expected, but it's definitely a trend. But recognizing that usability is a specific requirement, I think that's amazing."
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