Usability Professionals: Stay Prepared for Business Waves


Usability Professionals: Stay Prepared for Business Waves
By Anne M. Pauker

Editor's note: Anne M. Pauker anne@alignment-advantage.com is the founder & CEO of Alignment Advantage in Princeton Junction, NJ. She shares her expertise with us in this article on how usability professionals can measure and show the value they bring to their companies or clients. She also offers suggestions on how to evaluate the stability of your current company, how to approach a job hunt, and what issues to weigh when deciding whether to become an independent consultant. There is useful information in this article for all of us, things we need to know.

The current economic climate is a little like the weather this winter. You just don't know what it will be like from day-to-day. Just as it's been a good idea to be equally ready for a beautiful spring day or a sudden plunge in temperature, the current economy has meant pretty much the same for usability professionals. Whether you're an internal to a company or an independent consultant, no one has escaped the ups and downs of this uncertain business climate.

Along with colleagues in other parts of the business, you've had to be ready for the vagaries of today's environment: celebrating record business results one day, bemoaning a plunging stock price the next. Not knowing what lies around the corner: a rosy future full of prospect or closed-door sessions signaling layoffs ahead?

This article is about how you can prepare for the uncertainties of the waves of the current work environment, both how to ride the wave and how to handle it if you fall off your surfboard.

Staying Afloat When the Waters Get Rough
Usability professionals - like everyone else today - are worried about keeping their jobs. They may not be totally thrilled with where they are, but at least they have a job. Daily news accounts of bankruptcy, mass layoffs, and hiring freezes mean that people are sticking with the job they have. All in all, it's a very tight job market.

It's even tighter for usability professionals and others in support positions as compared to those in line jobs that directly generate revenue. When business conditions are uncertain, companies place their top priority on their core business and areas of competitive advantage. They keep expenses down in other areas. This can lead to project cuts or job cuts. It's important to understand how you contribute to the bottom line, in as specific terms and as concrete ways as possible. Usability professionals know their work contributes to the bottom line, but their work is not always appreciated. Rarely are they able to accurately measure their success because how to measure it is often difficult and unclear.

To help you anticipate how business conditions can affect you, there are several factors you can assess these areas of your work: What is your link to the business? How do you create value? How much value? Who else knows the value you create?

What is your link to the business?
As a usability professional, you probably have a clearer understanding than most people have of how you contribute to the results achieved by your group, team, or department… even if others don't! But it's not always easy to make the connection between your activities and the success of the business as a whole.

Companies try to focus on their "core business" or "value proposition." They make reference to their "core capabilities" or "business drivers." Business drivers are easy to find. They are linked to the company's mission and are emphasized in newsletters, brochures, and annual reports; on the corporate website and intranet; and sometimes on posters. These become the scorecard items for performance and compensation. They are the strengths that are considered essential (rather than peripheral) to the company's long-term success.

The closer you are to directly supporting these core capabilities, the stronger your link is to the business.

How do you create value?
You may know what you do every day at work. But what value are you producing for your (internal or external) clients and, through them, for users? Start thinking - and defining what you do - in terms of what you accomplish, rather than how you spend your time. Describe the benefit others receive because of your accomplishments:

  • What can they do - or do better - as a result of your work?
  • What difference can they see?
  • How do you improve their ability to do what they need to do - and why is this important?
  • How will they behave differently because of your work?

These are all examples of how to describe the value you create for the company or client.

How much value do you create?
We all know that business people think in terms of numbers, especially when it comes to talking about value. When you think about making software easier to use, think in terms of what the impact means in quantifiable or observable terms.

Start by answering questions such as, "How would the user know it's better?" or "How would my client know it's easier?" Frame your answers in terms of increase in sales, new or retained customer base, expanded market, or other items on your company's or client's scorecard.

The value you create should be directly related to items line managers - not necessarily items IT managers - are held accountable for. Other measures may be important, but in tough times they tend to fall into the "nice to have" rather than the "need to have" category when cutbacks are being considered.

Who else knows the value you create?
Many people feel uncomfortable "tooting their own horn." They feel that they should be able to just do their job well and not have to get involved in company politics in order to get appropriate recognition for their work. They resent it when other people - regardless of their talent - take all the credit when things go right and take none of the blame when things go wrong.

The problem is that if the right people don't know about you, your value to the organization, and how much value you add, it's hard to stay on on board when the sailing gets rough.

Who are the right people? Your manager, your manager's manager, and your (internal or external) clients have the most direct impact on your job. If you work in a matrixed organization or in a team environment, the various people you work with are equally important.

Ask for feedback

How do you know what others know about you or your contributions? Your performance appraisal is one indication, but it's not enough and it's not current. The environment and priorities change too frequently to be captured in a once-a-year, if-you're-lucky document. The better way is to ask for feedback on a regular basis. It may feel awkward at first, but you'll get used to it.

You don't have to use the favorite line of former New York City mayor, Ed Koch, well known for asking, "How'm I doing?" Ask a thoughtful, specific question that doesn't lend itself to a simple answer. For example, "How effectively did I present my ideas to the group?" or "Do you have any suggestions for ways I could have more influence over the decision?"

Ask people whose opinion matters and who will offer feedback you can put into action. Thank people when they give you feedback, both literally and by trying changes they suggest.

Finding a new boat
When business conditions are uncertain, companies place their top priority on their core business and areas of competitive advantage. They keep expenses down in other areas. This can lead to project cuts or job cuts. Even if you are not directly impacted, the work environment may have changed or become so unpleasant that you may consider looking for a new job.

The name of the game is to be in a job where you can add value to the organization and where, at the same time, the investment of your time, energy, and capabilities pays off for you. If that's with your current employer, then you need to assess the viability of staying. If not, and the business outlook isn't favorable, then it's probably a good idea to consider looking elsewhere.

Launching a job search
Boatloads of information about conducting a job search are available, in print, on line, in the media and though networking groups. If you are laid off and offered outplacement assistance, take it.

The key components to your job search will be:

  • Exploring your options
  • Networking
  • Creating a resume
  • Researching employers
  • Interviewing
  • Securing an offer
Where to begin: exploring your options
An excellent site that recruiters use to learn about online job sites is http://www.interbiznet.com. It sells employers information on the top electronic job sites. Prior-year information, while a little out of date, is still a good start for learning about these sites. It also provides content for job seekers, as do most of the other online boards. Another excellent site, http://www.careerxroads.com, will get you connected with online job search gurus Jerry Crispin and Mark Mehler. They wrote the book (literally) on electronic job hunting. There is a wealth of information on their site and a free newsletter you can subscribe to.

Other ways to find out about job openings are print newspapers, search firms, networking groups - locally and through professional associations, job fairs, company websites and, most importantly, through networking.

Bar none, the most successful technique for job search is networking. Prepare carefully by spending a lot of time thinking about what you want out of the conversation and the best way to say it. Avoid being overly aggressive, or directly asking the person if he or she can get you a job.

Enlarge your network by using it wisely. Not every networking opportunity has to have the same purpose. For example, you can network to:
Learn what's happening in an industry, or a specific company
Learn what's happening in a field of work, or area of specialization
Ask for advice and the names of others who might be able to help you in your job search
Ask how you might be able to help that person, as you gather information from networking with others

Be considerate of the people you network with. Prepare for the conversation by doing research before you talk with them. This will enable to use your time with them wisely. Follow-up and let them know how you're doing - with a thank you, and let them know when you land your new assignment.

Your resume
Your resume is your personal advertisement. Make sure it says exactly what you want it to say and how you wish to present yourself in the job market. Communicate what you've done in terms of its value - the impact you have had on others, particularly customers and the business. Technical positions like yours also call for a description of what you know, your competencies and capabilities.

The ease of posting and submitting resumes on the Internet means that the sheer volume of resumes that comes in for a particular posting can be overwhelming. Make it easy for a recruiter or hiring manager who only has a few minutes to quickly screen the resume. Clearly outline how closely your skills match the required criteria, at the top of the resume and again in the cover letter.

Researching prospective employers

When researching a prospective employer, think of it as doing research on the investment of your time, energy and capabilities:

  • What kind of a return is important to you?
  • What will make your investment grow and become more valuable in the future?
  • What is your tolerance for risk?
Read as much as you can about the company from as many different sources as you can. The company's website will give you a good idea of how the company portrays itself. Read it carefully. Study the areas of the site aimed at investors and customers, not just those dealing with career opportunities or benefits.
  • What are the core capabilities and business focus?
  • How closely will you be able to demonstrate value in these areas?
  • What does it say about its "core values" or other indications of the company's aspirations for its relationships with employees and customers?
Look at other sources - your network, news sources, business magazines, industry sites, better business or other sites where customers weigh in - to find out how closely what the company says about itself matches what others have to say.

Employers use a wide range of screening techniques, including testing and interviews. You may be asked to participate in a phone or videoconference conversation as well as face-to-face interviews. It's likely you will interview with several people, each of whom is looking for something different. For example, as a usability professional, you may have a technical interview and also meet with internal clients.

The best way to prepare for an interview is to learn as much as you can beforehand about the company, the people you will be meeting, and the position. Dress and act professionally, even if you know it's a "dress down" environment. Be prompt, be courteous to everyone, and fill out an application if you're asked to do so, if you want to be viewed as a serious applicant.

Securing an offer
Your goal is securing the offer you want. Go back to your list of investment critieria. Some items you'll be concerned with are the terms of the offer:

  • Compensation - short and long term potential, cash and non-cash
  • Benefits - health and other insurances, retirement or investment options
  • Training and Education Support - tuition assistance, on-the-job, mentoring, seminars, support for participation in professional associations
  • Work-Life Integration - flexible work arrangements, employee assistance and work/life resource and referral programs, onsite fitness center
  • Work Environment - "24/7" vs. "balance", collaborative vs. individual contributor emphasis, micromanaging vs. empowering, matrix vs. silos
As a usability professional, for your long-term satisfaction with the position, you'll also want to consider some of these factors:
  • How much influence will you really have in software development?
  • How much of a battle will you face with the developers?
  • How clear is the vision for the software before the coding begins?
  • How involved are users in software design?
  • "Who decides who decides?" Or, who holds the real authority for making software design decisions?
  • How is customer satisfaction measured? Is user satisfaction with software measured, and how?
  • How important is usability to revenue generation, customer service, and cost containment in the company? How do you know? To what extent is it measured?

Launching your own boat: independent consulting
Because usability professionals often work as internal consultants, many at some point consider independent consulting. This is a huge step and very different from an internal role. In addition to the general information that is widely available on starting your own business, you may wish to consult the Institute for Management Consultants, http://www.imcusa.org/, a national professional organization for independent consultants with local chapters. Talk with lots of people you know who work independently to find out what life as an independent is really like.

You'll want to find out about the legal, accounting, and administrative support issues related to starting your own practice. Other hurdles you'll face have to do with generating and closing sales - finding leads; making sales calls and presentations; and developing and pricing proposals. As an internal consultant, you have a lot of support for these activities inside the company. Not only is this support not available to you as an independent, you'll find that external consultants often say they have a hard time getting phone calls returned.

Other issues to consider may be more personal:

  • Do you have an appropriate workspace and work environment?
  • Do you have access to health insurance or a retirement plan?
  • Do you have the personal discipline to work independently and isolated?
  • Do you have the resources to continue learning and improving your technical and design skills?
  • How comfortable are you with the "feast and famine" cycle of consulting?

    Stay on board or jump ship?
    The current environment has meant more work, fewer resources available to do it, and shorter times in which to deliver it. Many of us say we're working harder and longer hours than we'd like. That's certainly the case if your company has experienced layoffs. Even though the staff has been reduced, the work hasn't. Sometimes the stress of the workday can make it feel twice as long as it really is. In that atmosphere, it can be hard to find the time or energy to focus on your career. To be prepared for the uncertainty of the marketplace, make it a priority. If you don't, no one else will.

    Usability professionals need to consider their contribution to the company's core business, in terms that describe value to others. When thinking about where you will get the best return on the investment of your time, energy and capabilities, consider not only the returns related to compensation, benefits, and work environment. For long-term success, added value in the job market is best derived through opportunities to create software solutions that have a direct, positive, and observable impact on the business and the behavior of people who use them.