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The Push-Pull of Usability and UI Design

... and a Job Description for "Usability Director"

His Calling

I got a call from a previous boss a few weeks ago. Actually he was founder of a company that shot up to 600 people during the Internet boom and then merged, morphed, and smurfed into almost nothing. Anyway, he's moved on to another place, one that needed someone to design a web application for them. Immediately.

My Calling

I've done that sort of work (here are demos of one I did, a pretty incredible multi-dimensional Excel likeness in a browser), thus his call. I didn't take the job, but, combined with another inquiry from a recruiter it inspired me to present some thoughts on the evolving—and competing—roles that comprise user interface work.

They're All Calling

Like my old boss, many organizations are scrambling like mad to find modern-day Leonardo DaVinci's, someone who can perform miracles at both the art and technical side of designing software in a web browser... the look-and-feel, not the code under the hood. Some companies even expect that, too. The "look" is graphic design and several other skills... layout, structured thinking, techwriting. The "feel" is interaction design, which is, well, all that previous stuff and everything that happens. What you click on, where it goes, and how the whole thing talks to you... if it does at all.

What Should We Call It?

For this type of design, whether it's known as user interface design or interaction design, there is very much a "pull" demand, but it arises 6 months at a time and runs very hot-and-cold like most project work. The company has a blank web page and desperately needs someone to fill it up. In younger (most?) companies this happens in timelines that are not conducive to producing quality-oriented results, so user-friendliness suffers. The reason that quality can't be delivered in a short time frame is because users expect approximately 500 features built into software before even discussing the functionality of the particular application (such as banking, or shopping). In 1992, Microsoft built these 500 features into Microsoft Windows and enabled users to instantly include them in applications via MS Visual Basic or other, geekier developers' tools.

Call Off All Bets

Then came the web. The Web. Every page and project starts like this: <HTML></HTML>. And developers try to make it friendly in 6 months. Every project slowly uncovers the 500 features that are missing. Not a prayer. That's why there is so much bad software to complain about on the web. (Now you know.) To combat this, I created my Software Function Tree. It's a list of the 500 features. It's not as good as the eventual solution, a framework that pre-codes all of the features, just like Windows, but you gotta start somewhere. Some day, all projects will start from a full solution and work backwards instead of starting from a vacuum and working up. Then they won't suck anymore.

It Doesn't Matter What You Call It as Long as It Does This

Making the transition from blank pages to good design is the missionary role of "usability director." (I recall hearing the phrase once, "missionary zeal and evangelistic imperative.") Usability direction, however the job is titled, is very much a "push" situation in the work world... it is folks like me saying "solve the quality problem by building the solutions in at the only level that can work, the cultural-, tools-, and framework level." It's only occasionally advertised by larger companies. Here's a job description I like, originally from GSK. I've wordsmithed it quite a bit to match any context and my own slant on usability. I encourage all organizations to fill this role, if even part-time or part-person.

Job Description for Usability Director

  • Requirements
    • Several years of IT experience
    • Experience with...
      • Many projects from start to finish
      • Hands-on user interface design
      • Success implementing usability principles, human factors design, and best-practices.
      • Off-shore projects
      • Development of business cases using benchmarks and metrics.
    • Broad command of-, and resourcfulness with the technology, including familiarity with software tools, web resources, and techniques.
    • Ability to manage multiple workstreams, virtual teams inside and out of the organization and country.
    • Proven ability to influence both business and IT stakeholders.
  • Role
    • Act as the advocate for the end-user.
    • Drive adoption of clear usability standards, practices, and solutions across all business units for both custom and purchased applications.
    • Lead improvement of intranet & extranet applications, and web content to increase end-user value and usage while decreasing the cost of publishing, training, and support.
    • Ensure that employee self-service applications are showcases for usability best practices.
    • Partner with internal and external application providers during purchases of applications.
    • Influence and educate senior management on role and value of usability.
    • Identify emerging industry best practices.
    • Ensure proper communication, planning, and change management to foster usability.
    • Design mechanisms for measuring performance and ROI of usability improvements.

"My interest in usability arose from the pain and tears of patching the wounds of suffering interface designs with the inadequate bandages of help files and user guides." — Daniel Cohen

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