Building Usability Specialists

Scott Butler
UPA 2003,
Scottsdale, AZ
Thursday, June 26
8:30 - 10:00 AM

Introduction

This Idea Market topic attempted to articulate the gap between the skills that practicing Usability Professionals (uPro's) use to perform their jobs and the training opportunities that schools and professional organizations offer. Originally, this topic was titled Usability Specialists: Technologists or Luddites  and was going to focus on the gap between the skills we bring to a product development team and the expectations of those teams. This intent changed within minutes of beginning the Idea Market because it became apparent that these factors were highly correlated; that is, uPro skill sets evolve to meet business needs.

Framing the Discussion

The idea of uPro skill sets was framed as follows:

Assume that a uPro is expert in user-centered design methods and is assigned to a product design/development team. To what degree is their effectiveness impacted by their familiarity, or lack thereof, with the relevant technologies and work domains for that product?

For example, a uPro with 1-2 years of experience who is responsible for usability testing an automobile insurance site might have a skill set that looks like the following:

Domain

Level of uPro Expertise

Usability Testing Methods

High

Automobile insurance

Low

HTML design

Medium

HTML technologies

Low

Talking about What uPro's Know

Using this stereotypical profile as an example of the kinds of skills that a uPro might have, topic participants talked about their own skill sets and how they acquired their skill sets (see Appendix 1: Skill Sets for data.) Most of the time when they were asked where they learned how to do the tasks they were responsible for, they listed the following:

  • on-the-job training, e.g., learning a proprietary technology
  • learning through work experience, e.g., learning how not to present usability results through trial and error
  • reading various publications, i.e., books, journals, magazines
  • already possess the skills through innate ability, e.g., communication skills
  • possess the skills through life experience, e.g., sensitivity to design by being subjected to hotel shower controls.

By the end of the session, I had hoped to have some sort of indication of whether participants had received formal training in the different skill areas, but we did not have enough time to rate each item. 

In talking with uPro's about their skill set, the following "troubling assertions" were made by participants:

  • uPro's are good at writing requirements because they did a lot of writing at college.
  • Psychology majors have really good people skills so they are inherently capable of dealing with people. Also, people who are engaged in a humanist profession like usability have the interpersonal skills required to deliver the kinds of feedback we usually have to give, i.e., usability test results with lots of bad news.
  • People who know "too much" about a technology will lose the ability to envision novel solutions, "think out of the box", or empathize with users.

During the phase of our discussion that centered around skills development, these statements were particularly troublesome because they tended to completely discredit certain kinds of training that were suggested as being useful for uPro's, e.g., communication skills, technical writing, and technical training. Counter arguments to these statements are presented in the next section under the Moderator Commentary heading.. 

Evolving a uPro Curriculum

One way to develop a curriculum is a bottom-up approach where one reviews the data in Appendix 1: Skill Sets and offers courses in the areas where practitioners say they received no formal training. 

A top-down approach to developing a curriculum could be guided by the needs of uPro's and trends in our profession. One way to identify these needs and trends is to draw inspiration from themes and insights from UPA 2003. The following table merges UPA 2003 Themes, "Troubling Assertions" (from the previous section), and Moderator Commentary to identify Curriculum Opportunities.

UPA 2003 Themes

Troubling Assertions

Moderator Commentary

Curriculum Opportunities

At the end of this idea market session, a participant said, "It just hit me that I have a background in engineering, but most usability people don't have anything like that. Maybe they should minor in something like engineering."

(none that is relevant to this theme)

uPro's are people who fancy themselves to be design knowledgeable, but usually have no medium in which to demonstrate their expertise.

Universities could require minors in computer science, technical writing, or instructional design for people in HCI programs. This would enable HCI practitioners to gain experience with all phases of the product development lifecycle.

Drawing insights from the plenary speaker, architects are highly technical individuals who are also trained in design skills and can produce multiple designs to meet a client's need.

People who know "too much" about a technology will lose the ability to envision novel solutions, "think out of the box", or empathize with users.

It seems ridiculous to me that knowledge would somehow lessen a person's vision. I think that it is the incentives and pressures that people are subjected to that result in a lack of creativity. To that end, uPro's should be as knowledgeable as possible in technologies that are relevant to their product. 

UPA could offer short courses on technologies like Flash, HTML, and C# that are geared towards teaching uPro's the benefits and limitations of these technologies as apply to user interface design.

Besides learning more about technology,  uPro's should learn more about design methods. uPro's should have opportunities to be formally trained in methods that artists and other design specialties use to generate multiple design alternatives.

UPA 2003 Themes

Troubling Assertions

Moderator Commentary

Curriculum Opportunities

After talking to the participants in this topic, it became very clear that in the absence of formal training, people are training themselves using a variety sources ranging from self-directed reading to trial-and-error learning. 

uPro's are good at writing requirements because they did a lot of writing at college.

uPro's are able to acquire new skills on their own so they are perfectly able to teach themselves to write requirements documents. However, perhaps our profession would be better served by training uPro's in formal requirements methods so uPro's stand a better chance of integrating with a team of formally trained computer science majors. 

At an introductory level, there could be a workshop at UPA where 2-3 requirement specifications are compared, much like Molich, et al did with usability report formats. This workshop would also include a general introduction to requirement writing and alternative formats. 

An advanced course could delve into this topic in more depth and breadth. 

 

Psychology majors have really good people skills 
+
People who are engaged in a humanist profession like usability have the interpersonal skills required to deliver the kinds of feedback we usually have to give, i.e., usability test results with lots of bad news.

The moderator for this topic was a psych major; therefore his challenged interpersonal skill set disproves these troubling assertions.

UPA could sponsor workshops on interpersonal dynamics with an emphasis on conveying bad news. I suspect that professions like Human Resources have courses like this for HR professionals who have to lay people off.

UPA 2003 Themes

Troubling Assertions

Moderator Commentary

Curriculum Opportunities

Steve Krug, in his panel talk on the state of web usability, stated that we need to start focusing on "the difficult problems."

(none that is relevant to this theme)

I'm not sure that the stereotypical novice uPro has a skill set that is robust enough to convince upper management that we are the ones to be responsible for tackling the difficult problems.  

Formal training in computer science, management, design, and traditional HCI methods would lay the foundation a uPro would need to focus on the difficult problems. I think that the curriculum opportunities identified above start to close the gap between where we are and where we will need to be in the future.

Appendix 1: Skill Sets

The sections following represent the skills that topic participants said that they use on the job. The following conventions are used:

  • A green "Yes" indicates that topic participants thought that uPro's were formally trained in a skill.
  • A red "No" indicates that topic participants thought that uPro's were not formally trained in a skill.

"Raw Data" links go to photographs of the actual idea market flip chart materials used in this topic. 

Basic Skill Set Raw Data

UCD design principles from

  • School, training Yes
  • Life experiences (e.g., scalded by the inscrutable hotel shower) Yes
  • Reading books, articles, any publication. Yes

Soft skills

  • Negotiation No
  • Communication
  • Creativity

Business Knowledge

  • Bottom line drivers for your business
  • How to run your usability practice either internal to a corporation or as a consultant
  • Engaging with other units in your corporation (how to talk to them, who to contact and when to contact them)
  • What are the goals of the corporation/business?

Technology Raw Data

  • Coding using proprietary languages No
  • Coding using industry standard language No
  • Constraints of technology No
  • Architecture/IA No
  • Prototyping - visionary/impractical No
  • Prototyping - pragmatic/viable No
  • Scientific writing Yes
  • Writing specifications No
  • Gathering requirements
  • Writing pseudocode or functional prototypes
  • Paper prototyping
  • Task/User Analysis Yes
  • Design walk throughs No
  • Tech writing
  • Instructional design
  • Formal training in design No Yes
  • Knowledge of state of the art and practive for both technology and design. Raw Data

Work Domain.Raw Data