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What’s Wrong With Usability Anyway?

old man

Old Man Usability

 

Okay, fine. I get it. You don’t think that I, usability, am cool anymore, and you don’t want to be seen with me now. I’m the dorky, embarassing parent, and you want to hang out with your cool, “user experience” friends. That’s okay. It’s only a natural part of growing up, I guess.

 

Although I brought you into this field, gave you your first job, supported you, and brought you respect and recognition, I guess you’re ready to go out on your own now, and you need to establish your own identity. That’s understandable, but I must admit I was a little hurt when even my most loyal child, the Usability Professionals Association changed its name to the User Experience Professionals Association. Okay, actually that one hurt a lot.

Don’t get me wrong, I do admit that “user experience” makes sense. There’s more to what people experience than just usability. I realize that. But don’t ever forget that usability is still very important. In fact, I’m probably the most important of the elements that make up user experience. If something isn’t usable, then it can’t really be useful, desirable, or valuable can it?

In fact, most of what you and your friends do under the name “user experience” today is what we did back in my day, under the name “usability.” So I don’t really see the big difference.

I think I deserve a little respect, though. I spent many years making a name for myself and getting people to think about the needs of the user. The current popularity of user experience wouldn’t be possible without the trail I blazed first. At least people know my name, usability, and what it means. Try finding a consistent definition of user experience, ha!

So after all I’ve done for you, this is the thanks I get? People declare that usability is old, tired, boring, uncool, not innovative, and even claim that I’m dead? Just wait until you have offspring of your own. See how you feel when they move on from user experience to the next buzz word.

Already I can see it beginning. Everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon and calling themselves a user experience professional these days. The term user experience is getting too broadly defined and overexposed. I can feel the pendulum starting to swing back. At this point, I’m so uncool that I’m actually becoming cool again. Soon I’ll be able to say, “I’m back!” Just you wait and see!

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Tattle Tale Participants

Have you ever come across a tattle-tale participant? See if this sounds familiar.

You conduct a user research session (interview, contextual inquiry, focus group, etc.), asking simple questions to get the participants to speak about the subject at a basic level of understanding. Although you may know some of the answers to the questions you’re asking, you ask the questions anyway to hear the answers from the participants’ perspective. Misunderstanding your intent, the participant is alarmed that you don’t know what you’re doing and tattles on you to the client, “It was clear from his questions that he didn’t know anything about our process/system/technology.”

For example, a few years ago I was doing research on a company’s use of SAP. We had a group of interns show us the HR tasks that they do in SAP. Our questions led them to conclude that we didn’t know anything about SAP (which was mostly correct). They tattled to their manager who contacted our main client, alarmed that we weren’t SAP experts. Fortunately, he reassured her that we were user experience experts, and we weren’t supposed to be SAP experts.

What turns a participant into a tattle tale? Usually, it comes from a misunderstanding of our role. As user experience consultants working on many different projects, we constantly have to learn about new organizations, new systems, new processes, new technologies, and new types of people. We interview business stakeholders and conduct user research to learn about these things, but our goal isn’t to become experts. In fact, it’s often better to not be an expert. We have the advantage of seeing a group, system, process, or set of tasks from an outside perspective. Because we don’t already have the same insider knowledge as the business stakeholders and participants,  we can get them to explain things to us as outsiders. To do this, we often need to ask basic questions and sometimes even act “dumb” to get participants to fully explain things that they would otherwise forget to explain or gloss over at a high level.

The worst thing about tattling is that it can make us afraid to ask questions for fear that they might expose our “ignorance.” So make it clear who the experts are – the users and the business stakeholders, and where your expertise lies – user experience. Combining the expertise of business stakeholders, users, and user experience professionals is the key to a successful project.

Caring for Your User Researcher

Affectionate dog

Affectionate dog (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Congratulations! You are now the proud owner of a user researcher. Treat him or her well and you’ll have years of effectively designed products. This guide will help you in the care and nurturing of your user researcher.

Feed your researcher well

  • Research days are often very busy and unpredictable. The most important person to consider on these days is not the clients or other observers; it’s the person who has to remain sharpest – the researcher.
  • Make sure your researcher is well fed and has enough time to eat meals. This will provide the energy needed to concentrate on the research session.
  • You may remember the meals, but don’t forget the snacks. If everyone else gets cookies, make sure you save some for the researcher.

Avoid burnout

  • Research is often very mentally challenging. It’s easy for your researcher to get burned out, and when that happens, he or she can’t operate at top form, which could mean missing things or not asking the right questions.
  • Don’t schedule too many sessions in a single day. Four to five usability testing sessions and three or four field studies are about the maximum before burnout sets in.
  • Provide enough breaks between sessions, and allow your researcher to relax during those times.
  • Don’t fill the break times with meetings or discussions with clients. Provide time to rest the mind. Your researcher may need to step away and have some alone time.

Provide variety

  • Most researchers don’t want to do the same things all the time. If you don’t provide enough variety, eventually he or she will seek variety by going to another company.
  • Provide variety in the following aspects: clients, platforms to work on (websites, intranets, mobile devices, software, products, service design, etc.), research activities (usability testing, unmoderated studies, field studies, etc.), and types of people to work with.

Let your researcher run free

  • Don’t micromanage your user researcher. Trust his or her judgment.
  • Provide input on what you want to learn from the research, review the research plan, but give your researcher the independence to make the final decisions on how to accomplish the research goals. Remember you selected your researcher for his or her expertise. Listen to it.

Provide enough time to do quality work

  • Ensure that your researcher has enough time to plan the research and analyze the results.
  • Understand that your researcher will often get very interested and involved in the results and will want to produce a thorough deliverable. If there is time, allow for this.

Give praise and recognition

  • Like most people, your researcher will appreciate praise, recognition, and rewards for a job well done.
  • Your researcher will appreciate it when people take the user research seriously and appreciate the findings.

Let your researcher out to play with others

  • Your researcher will often interact with users, but otherwise, research is often a solitary activity that can get somewhat lonely.
  • Encourage your researcher work with others on the project team, such as designers and developers, to provide a more well-rounded perspective of their work and to give them a first-hand insight into the research.
  • Don’t exclude your researcher as soon as the research part of the project is completed. Keep your researcher around to use his or her valuable knowledge in the design and development phases.

Encourage your researcher’s development

  • Encourage your researcher to keep up with developments in the field by reading books, reading blogs and other Web resources, and attending events.
  • Encourage him or her to publish, present, and attend conferences and other industry events.

By following these guidelines, you should have a long and healthy working relationship with your user researcher. Good luck and have fun!

 

New Article: Capturing User Research

My latest article for UXmatters is about Capturing User Research. It discusses the pros and cons of various methods of capturing user research from handwritten notes, typing up notes on a laptop or tablet, having someone else take notes, recording the audio, recording with video, taking photos, logging, and simply relying on your memory. 

Read the entire article at UXmatters: Capturing User Research.

IA Summit 2012 presentation: User Research is Unnatural (But That’s Okay)

I just got back from the IA Summit 2012 in New Orleans, where I presented User Research is Unnatural (But That’s Okay). Yes, that may seem like a strange topic for a user researcher to present, but I think it’s very important to remember how strange and unnatural user research can seem for participants. The point of my presentation is that by remaining aware of the awkward and uncomfortable aspects of user research, we can take steps to minimize or eliminate those problems to get better research results.

See my slides on Slideshare:  User Research is Unnatural (But That’s Okay)

This was my first time attending the IA Summit, and it was a great conference with some excellent speakers and intriguing topics. As a user researcher who more often attends UPA and CHI conferences, it was interesting to attend a more design-oriented conference. I’m already looking forward to next year’s IA Summit, which will be in Baltimore.

New article: Communicating User Research Findings

My latest article for UXmatters is about Communicating User Research Findings.

I’ve created a variety of different types of deliverables over the years, to communicate my findings and recommendations from user research. It can be difficult because you often have a variety of different people in the audience, from management, product owners, designers, and developers. Each brings a different level of interest in the findings.

This article discusses the considerations of choosing a deliverable format, types of deliverables, and elements of effective deliverables.

Read the entire article at UXmatters: Communicating User Research Findings.

The Seven Stages of Conference Acceptance

My UPA 2011 presentationDecember was that time of year again – conference proposal notification season.

If you’re slightly neurotic like me, you submit proposals to conferences thinking, “What the heck? It’s worth a shot. It probably won’t get accepted, but at least I’ll feel good that I tried.”  Then you forget about it for a few months until you get an email notifying you of the status of your proposal. You open the email a little apprehensively, and perhaps you go through the same stages I go through…

1. Skepticism

Okay, brace yourself. You probably got rejected. Well, whatever happens, at least I tried.

 2. Surprise

What?! Accepted?! Is that right? Wait, let me read this again.

 3. Elation

I can’t believe it! They accepted it! Awesome! I feel really honored.

 4. Terror

Oh my God! They accepted it. I have to actually come up with a presentation now. When’s the conference? March?! What if I can’t come up with anything by then?

5. Self-Doubt

Why did I submit this proposal? Who do I think I am? I have to go up in front of all those people who really know what they’re doing. This is when they’ll finally find out that I’m a fraud. Well maybe there won’t be that many people attending anyway, because who would want to go to this topic over all the other choices? Wait, what if no one attends my session?!

6. Rationalization

Okay, calm down. Don’t panic. This is probably a normal reaction. A lot of people probably feel the same way when they get accepted. I have about as much experience as these other people. And they wouldn’t have accepted this proposal if they didn’t think it was a good topic. It beat out a lot of other proposals. I can do this. I give presentations all the time at work. And I’ve seen a lot of bad presentations at conferences. Surely I can do better than those.

7. Acceptance

Okay, I can do this. It may be difficult, but I’ll make it through. It may be scary, but it will be a good experience, and I’ll be a better person for it. Let me just send in my official acceptance before I lose my confidence and back out.

What comes next? – The stages of preparing a presentation for a conference, which include multiple iterations of fear, self-doubt, rationalization, determination, and satisfaction. Ultimately, the conference comes, you give a successful presentation, it’s a rewarding experience, and you realize that none of your fears actually came true.

By the time Fall rolls around again, you’ve forgotten all about the fear and doubt, and you submit more conference proposals, thinking, “What the heck? It’s worth a shot. It probably won’t get accepted, but at least I’ll feel good that I tried.”