Fresh: ask Doctor Usability

XIV.1 January + February 2007
Page: 9
Digital Citation

Cool vs. usable


Authors:
Dr. Usability

Dear Dr. Usability,

The guy I work with is always quoting some usability guru, but he’s wrong, I just know it. For one thing, this guy’s Web site is totally unreadable and looks terrible. How can I promote his ideas when everyone looks at it and scoffs, "This guy knows something?" And it doesn’t look like he’s updated the site in years. Where do I look for ammunition to shoot down this loudmouth?

Signed,
Guru-less and Happy About It

Dear Guru-less,

Guru-less? Maybe "Clueless" would be a better name? First of all, do not question a guru. (Who do you think you are, anyway?) You know he’s wrong, do you? What presumption! Where’s your proof—examples, data, anything? "Doesn’t look like he’s updated the site in years." Maybe what he lacks in usability knowledge he makes up for in branding savvy? Also, you should never expect a usability anybody to have a sexy Web site (see below).

Guru-speak (or guru-talk, to those from England) is fraught with problems: It lacks the context of a specific situation. You can no sooner apply one guru-speak to a problem than you could apply a single design guideline and expect perfect results. But that is the genius of it all: When someone takes guru-speak out of context (or in context, for that matter), you have the brilliant opening to put that person in their place and teach them a thing or two. If you can’t do it, then the guru was right. It’s really that simple.

But seriously, I feel your pain. Gurus are not created; they are made, and they are made by the communities who follow them. You yearn as I do to be quoted, feted, and celebrated. Until then, you have to put up with our occasional miscues. Why, just the other day I heard someone quoting me. I had to gag: It’s really incredible, some of the things I say.

Yours sincerely,
Dr. U.

UX Pros: Sexy?

Dear Dr. Usability,

My girlfriend doesn’t think that what I do is important. How do I convince her that usability is sexy—or at least pretty darn cool? She thinks I’m an engineer or something. She says, "It’s not like you’re saving people’s lives like a doctor or helping people like a lawyer—you’re just watching people doing things in a lab all day—a techno-voyeur." How can I convince her that my job is meaningful and important? I’d like her to think more highly of me.

Signed,
Not Just Watching

Dear Not Just,

If you think of it, we really do have pathetic jobs. Other people created the problems you find. Still other people find the problems. Yet still others solve them for you. And at the end of the day, the problem will more than likely continue to persist because you are too removed from the real development process to be effective. And you evidently aren’t a PIB (Person in Black—i.e., you don’t wear exclusively black). To top it all off, you have to work with Excel spreadsheets. Sorry, but it crosses you off of my coolness list, too.

Hey, I don’t like it either. Get a real job, if you want to impress people. On the other hand, if you are more motivated by the humbler ethics of technology, you are in the right profession. I don’t think usability is sexy. (No one has ever put the moves on me during a usability test—there’s a statistic for you: p=0—that’s true usability humor, and see how pathetic it is!) The results of collaborating with usability professionals and others can be both sexy and cool, but that is the product of a process, not a profession.

Just look at our underpaid, underappreciated profession. With our almost pyrrhic dedication to the cause, you must be proud that we are trying to get technology to take the high road, make it work for everyone. Look at your leading professional organization, SIGCHI. What is their slogan? Is it "Make it anyway we can?" or "The ends justify the means?" Is it "Claw your way ruthlessly to the top no matter who you trample on?" or "STOMP ON THE MEASLY MINIONS?"

No. It reads: "Making technology accessible to everyone."

Who wouldn’t be proud to be in that profession? Even if it costs us a date or two.

Sincerely,
Dr. U.

Author

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©2007 ACM  1072-5220/07/0100  $5.00

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