Thumbnail: Carol Righi
By Cliff Anderson
Cliff Anderson is a Senior Usability Engineer at Wachovia, the third largest bank in the US. He has been doing usability work for over 20 years.
Do usability engineers make good managers? It depends. It's a profession that highly values its practitioners, is famous for its consultants and gurus, and also attracts its share of introverts.
Ask anyone who's worked for or with Carol Righi, though, and the answer would be a resounding yes. Interestingly, Carol has managed to bookend her management experience around a long, productive career as a practitioner and individual contributor. "I really can't say I prefer one over the other," she admits.
Carol's first management stint in usability came at IBM, where she led a group of usability engineers in the early 90s. While there, she was particularly proud of her moving the group from a focus on testing "at the end of the development cycle" ("too little, too late," she jokes) to one that focused more on UCD, that "touched on all aspects of user experience."
"There was a groundswell," she remembers. "It was not just giving a new name to the same old stuff. We were expanding our scope, broadening our wingspan. We had a lot of smart people, a lot of talent," she continues, "and we didn't want to just tell the development team that something was broken when it was too late to fix it."
Carol found that selling the idea outside the group "was a process of expanding people's minds." Inside the group, she found that UCD was "much bigger than I thought it was, there was much more to it." She was particularly attracted to the multi-disciplinary nature of UCD.
Her group even started getting out of the lab, doing field research and activities that more resembled market research. In particular, Carol remembers sending her team out onto the Florida beaches armed with clipboards and laptops.
Carol interrupted her management career with almost ten years of practitioner work. "I definitely wanted to do [management] again," she explains, "but not before I had earned my stripes as a practitioner." Two years ago, the right opportunity arose at Perficient, and Carol jumped back into management feet first.
At Perficient, Carol currently manages a group of eleven. One of the highlights there so far has been what she calls a "dream project," starting a UCD group from the ground up for a client. This project, which reminded her of starting her group at IBM, was "very challenging, with a lot of moving parts," but also very rewarding.
In all of her management positions, Carol's focus has been on people. She particularly enjoys "being able to mentor, sharing things I've learned, watching people grow in their skill set."
At the same time, though, Carol realizes that management is not for the meek or the amateur: "It requires a lot of people skills, attending to people's needs. You have to put your heart and soul into it. You have to have an emotional commitment to these folks."
Related to Carol's love of mentoring and leading is her fondness for teaching. Though she has taught at a university (the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel), most of her experience has been in industry and less formal academic settings.
That experience began back in the mid 80s, when she did user support ("a little bit of everything," she notes) at a computer lab at Columbia University. There, she put on what she likes to call "computers 101." Since then, she has trained "thousands of students."
She honed her teaching skills in particular at IBM, where she had to educate and sell numerous employees on UCD, something she stills finds herself doing today.
What does she like about teaching? Once again, it's the people, "watching them say, 'Yeah, I get it" - that aha moment. It all starts to make sense. It's fun seeing people putting all the pieces together. It makes me excited about what I do."
Carol has also been deeply involved with instructional design, in creating training that has been delivered by herself, by others, or as computer-based training.
Carol's academic background also reflects her people orientation. As an undergrad, Carol wanted to be a psychoanalyst. "That still resonates with me," she notes, "working with the whole person, just like the whole user experience. It was really influential."
In her graduate work, Carol moved on to school psychology. Though she did do some hands-on, clinical work, she then moved on to educational psychology, where, "rather than treating problems," she hoped to "prevent them," a parallel to usability that she is quick to point out.
Though she confides that she "never really practiced much," there was quite a bit she could apply from a clinical setting to her new career. "It did train me how to test," she admits. "I was doing a lot of intelligence testing, a lot of projective testing, and it is directly related. It taught me how to be non-leading, how to get the participant to be as forthcoming as possible, how to run a study."
Carol's move into usability came with her exposure to early computers, while she was still working on her degrees. "I got hooked on the power of the technology I was seeing," she remembers. She saw usability as a way she could "integrate her formal training with computers."
Even Carol's work as an individual contributor reflects her strong people orientation. As a consultant, both at IBM and with her own company, she particularly enjoyed working closely with industry leaders like Janice James, Stephanie Rosenbaum, and Dana Chisnell. "Everybody's game gets notched up," she explains.
Consulting is a particular love of Carol's. "I got totally hooked," Carol remembers of her first stint of consulting with IBM's Global Services. "I loved the variety, the new teams, the new challenges."
Carol estimates she's worked on about 350 projects over the course of her career. Taking a "lot of short-term projects," she admits her goal was to "see the inside of as many companies and projects as I could, to see what works and what doesn't work. Talk about variety!"
Over the years, Carol has worked with clients as diverse as Yahoo, American Express, Hotels.com, Tivo, Qwest, Cisco, Nokia, the Washington Post, BP, Cabela's, Deloitte, McGraw Hill, and even the UPA.
One of her favorite projects was a kiosk for Chrysler. It was one of the first "configurators" ever built, and allowed the user to pick a color and other features for their car and then see what it might look like. "It was very complicated," she recalls, and involved teaming with graphic designers, developers, hardware specialists, marketing, and even actors and video experts to "bring this thing to life." "It wasn't the easiest project I've ever worked on," she admits, "but the user satisfaction was really, really high. It was a pivotal project for me."
Another favorite was a test she ran for Google - actually 120 tests, for a single project, and all in a week! "I spent about fifteen minutes per user, and had about four users per hour." "That's got to be some kind of record," she jokes.
Carol also plays other roles within the profession. For one, she is an active volunteer with SIGCHI and UPA. Her UPA work includes helping design the current website and serving on the board for the Journal of Usability Studies.
Carol also enjoys public speaking, and sees parallels with it and teaching. "It helps you get your game on," she explains. "You have to think it through, sharpen your understanding, learn things you might not have known before. I do enjoy it quite a bit."
A particular interest of Carol's is writing, and she has over 30 publishing credits to her name. She's most proud, though, of her two books. Both tie back to recurring themes in her career.
The first, User-Centered Design: An Integrated Approach, which she wrote with Karel Vredenburg and Scott Isensee, came out of the evangelism work she did at IBM. "We took everything we had learned and said, 'Okay, here's how you do it.' We wanted to move away from back-end user testing and say, 'Here's the ideal approach.'"
Carol's last book, User-Centered Design Stories: Real-World UCD Case Studies, which she wrote with Janice James, returns to her interest in people. To put it together, she and Janice went to the "best folks in the business, and got them to tell their stories." The result was 22 case studies, a learning method that Carol thinks is "the best way to learn."
Reflecting her interest in others, Carol admits that she likes to "write with somebody." Indeed, of her 30-some publishing credit, only a handful were done alone. She also likes how writing can get her "more reach, to get the ideas out there and start a dialogue."
Carol's interest in people has served her well in her career - from writing, to facilitating, to educating others, to managing. "The things that stand out," she reflects, looking back on a long career, "are the people you work with."
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