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UPA 2009

 

Thumbnail: What I Want To Be When I Grow Up

Cliff Anderson

Cliff is a Senior Usability Engineer at Ally Bank. He has been doing usability work for over 20 years.

"So, what do you do?"

Oh no, not that again. What can I say? This never goes well. I knew I shouldn't have come to this party.

Now, I've basically got two strategies here. One, I can tackle the monster straight on. I can simply say "I'm a usability engineer."

Now, if that were only it, I'd be all set. Saying "I'm a usability engineer," though, isn't like saying "I'm a doctor," or "I'm a lawyer," or "I'm a rodeo clown." Saying "I'm a usability engineer" typically involves the other person screwing up his nose, tilting his head like a dog that's heard the word "walk" or "dinner," knitting his brows together, and then asking the inevitable "So, what's that?"

And here's where everything starts to fall apart. Where do I go from here? Do I actually explain what I do, in gory detail? What is it that I do? How can I ever explain that to an accountant, or a journalist, or a rodeo clown?

At this point, I typically start babbling about "HCI" and "user-friendliness," "verbal protocols" and "qualitative testing." The rodeo clown usually gets a glazed look in his eye and has a sudden urge to go to the restroom, or get another drink, or call a cab. "Those computer people," he probably mutters to himself as he steps inside, "How do they ever expect anyone to understand them?"

Now, my other strategy might be best described as one of retreat. "I'm in computers," I usually say. "For a bank," I might add, when I'm feeling particularly loquacious.

Typically, that stops almost everyone dead in their tracks, and we can continue to talk about traffic, and schools, and local sports teams.

Sometimes, though, the other person - or perhaps his brother-in-law or nephew or neighbor - will be in computers too. This usually leads to the inevitable, "Are you a programmer?"

"No, I'm more on the human side of things," I'll say, and launch into babbling about "prototypes" and "intuitiveness," "SUS questionnaires" and "Morae." Depending on how much I've had to drink, I might even be tempted to get into the research side of what I do - "card sorts" and "ethnographic research," "FIDOs" and "personas." And, once again, Mr. or Ms. Rodeo Clown has disappeared.

I've been trying a little variation on the retreat theme these days. "I'm in market research," I'll say, "Focus groups, stuff like that." I figure the average person might be more familiar with that. And, technically, it is true (I do run the occasional focus group).

What I have to watch out for, though, is that inevitable follow-up question. It typically begins with a story about testing baked beans, or discussing dog food, or watching a commercial about adult diapers, then the inevitable "What kind of stuff do you study?" "Computers," I'll say, and then loop back to my old sub-routine.

The last time I was asked, though, I kind of surprised myself. For some reason, I was particularly articulate. "I study how people use computers," I said. "I have my own lab and I bring people in, and give them tasks to do, and videotape them, and see how they do. My ultimate goal is to change the software or website or whatever to fit the user - to make it as easy to use as possible."

Somehow or other, this seemed to work. It sparked a good discussion, and I finally felt myself at least a little bit understood. If I can remember it, I'll definitely try it again.

So, what is it that you do?

 

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