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IX.6 November + December 2002
Page: 17
Digital Citation

How to cope with success


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This is not an extremely immodest article where I describe how I cope with my tremendous wealth, wit, and happiness. Indeed, were I writing about my own success, the Law of Cussedness (also known rather unfairly as Murphy's Law) would guarantee that by the time this article is published, System Concepts would have joined Enron and Andersen by crashing (though not making near as big a splash).

No, the success I am talking about is that human-computer interaction seems to have finally become recognized as a significant and important endeavor. Usability, testing in particular, is featured in popular magazine reviews of hardware and software. Even in the recent economic downturn, I am not aware that usability was cut back or suffered any more than any other aspect: The pain seemed to be fairly widely shared.

If I am correct that we have succeeded in getting firmly established on the business agenda, why then do I believe that such success might be a problem? My concern goes something like this: Now that people recognize that HCI is important, they will also think it is too valuable to leave to us. The implications of this and our response to it through protectionism may tear our profession apart.

That's why I think our success may lead to our own downfall. Of course, it does not have to, as long as we recognize what is happening, and behave appropriately. In this article, I would like to explore some of these issues in more detail and stimulate debate. I think I know some of the questions we should be asking, but I certainly do not have the answers.

back to top  Everyone Wants to be a Consultant

As I pointed out in an editorial in Behaviour and Information Technology (20, 3), a similar situation occurred in the United Kingdom when the European directive on display-screen work first became law (it was transposed into the Health and Safety [Display Screen Equipment] Regulations 1992 as part of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974). The legal requirement for employers to conduct workstation assessments of ergonomics risks generated a dramatically increased demand for ergonomics services. New consultants sprang out of nowhere, and many individuals and companies from barely related types of organization (architecture, furniture retailers, physiotherapists) started claiming appropriate expertise and skills.

Almost any usability testing is better than none.

Of course, as with HCI, much of ergonomics is not "rocket science" and conducting routine assessments in line with the legislation does not require postgraduate training. Much the same can be said of usability testing. Although it is arguably more effective, reliable, and efficient when conducted by professionals (and we certainly argue that to our clients), almost any testing is better than none. A designer who conducts a few user tests not very well may still produce a better design than one who never even considers having his or her design tested.

However, apart from the design of the tests (which certainly benefit from professional knowledge of experimental design, bias effects, and controls, and so on), the main application of skill concerns the interpretation of the results.

The same was true in the workstation assessment field. The checklists people used were typically based on the official guidance to the legislation and so did not vary much. The main problems arose when interpreting the results. The Schedule to the Display Screen Regulations contained very general statements, for example, "workstation shall be dimensioned and designed so as to provide sufficient space for the operator ..." For those who want more specific information, the schedule refers the reader to the relevant British Standard (BS EN ISO 9241 Part 5), which recommends a minimum height of 650-mm unobstructed legroom under the front of the work surface. Inexperienced assessors, using checklists in a simplistic manner, would measure the distance and decide that the workstation was a health risk if the space was "only" 645 mm and must be replaced. The fact that some of these so-called consultants doubled as furniture salesmen further discredited the process.

back to top  Once Bitten, Twice Shy?

One might think that organizations that had been misled by underqualified consultants would be more careful to select properly qualified consultants in the future. Unfortunately, what seemed to happen was that they lost faith in ergonomics.

I suspect the same will happen in the field of usability. Now the demand for improved usability or user experience architects, or whatever, is causing the same kind of enthusiastic bandwagon jumping (at least in the United Kingdom, although I suspect elsewhere too).

This in itself is not a bad thing, and I am sure there are many individuals and organizations from a wide variety of backgrounds who work professionally and competently for their clients. However, there are signs that enthusiasm for usability is not in itself sufficient to ensure competence or skill.

At System Concepts, we continue to receive significant numbers of unsolicited job applications. Many of these are from people who have been shed by overblown new media companies struggling to downsize to meet a shrinking market. What appalls me is that even individuals who seem credible from their experience and the organizations from which they have recently sprung often prove to have only the most superficial understanding of usability when questioned.

back to top  Proving Our Worth

So how do those of us who believe we have the credentials to do the job properly ensure that people recognize our competence and come to us rather than the latest bandwagon jumpers?

Enthusiasm for usability is not sufficient to ensure competence or skill.

I suppose the first issue is: What do we actually mean by credentials and competence in HCI?

By the way, I assume readers of interactions will know that by HCI, I mean human-computer interaction (especially since that is part of the subtitle on the front cover). However, I remember sitting at a working party (which I shall not name, in order to protect the guilty) that spent half of its first meeting about how to raise the profile of HCI debating whether the "I" stood for "interaction" or for "interface." You will not be surprised to learn that the working party never made much impact on the profile of HCI.

However, I believe one of the difficulties in defining credentials and competence in human-computer interaction is that it is a broad field—a cross-tribal community as Aaron Marcus aptly described it in interactions IX. 4 (July-August 2002).

Thus, when it comes to HCI research, there is a long list of "core disciplines," from psychology to computer science, that might claim the rights to the specific components we typically research—from perception to cognition to design.

In terms of practice, like many other interaction-based endeavors, when we do it well, what we have done is often "invisible" in the end product. And in some ways that is absolutely correct. When we help a client design an accessible and usable Web site, only a few people are likely to know and appreciate our role in the final success. This is particularly true when we help a client adopt a more human-centered design process. The credit for success (and similarly, the blame for failure) tends to fall on the designers and technologists. Our role in facilitating and supporting the process is usually most effective when it is unobtrusive.

This can make it difficult afterwards for others to appreciate what we actually contributed. It's not a problem when the same design team moves on to new projects; project managers are usually very good at assessing who has contributed what to the outcome of a project. But it can be difficult to explain our work to new project managers without decrying the work of others.

back to top  Usability Labs and the "Black Arts"

The easiest area to prove value is probably usability testing. One approach adopted by some HCI practitioners is to emphasize the mystique of usability testing and attempt to gain credibility by the sophistication and complexity of their usability laboratory. Although we have used sophisticated facilities on some projects, we often find that far simpler facilities can be much more cost-effective. Not having to justify and use expensive laboratory equipment also makes us more flexible in customizing testing programs to suit the problem (rather than trying to ensure we use the expensive technology). Nevertheless, trying to make usability testing into a "black art" does not really fool anyone for long, and the risk is that they end up believing that it really has no basis in science or experimental method—hence anyone can do it. I think we need to be much more willing to share our skills with other team members.

Trying to make usability testing into a "black art" does not really fool anyone for long.

Another way to protect our role is through certification. Other disciplines manage this quite well, and there is growing interest in the HCI field. I know, for example, that organizations such as the Usability Professionals' Association have been developing ideas for an approved certification scheme. Even some private consultancies will claim to "certify" practitioners so they can "prove" to prospective employers or clients that they have recognized qualifications. I find myself deeply skeptical of the value, on its own, of certification. I know people in various other fields who have long strings of qualifications that bear little relationship to their competence. I also know people who have very limited formal qualification but who are excellent in practice.

The one aspect of this certification hunt that reassures me is that there seems to be growing recognition that ISO standard 13407, human-centered design processes for interactive systems, could provide a useful input. As project editor of the standard, I naturally welcome this! I believe its value in this area is that it represents an international consensus on some of the processes necessary for human-centered design (more than 20 countries were involved in its development). I believe that anyone who claims to be competent ought to be able to perform these processes—for example, deriving the context of use and specifying user and organizational requirements.

Nonetheless, we will need be vigilant to avoid the trap of confusing competence with paperwork when it comes to certification. It is certainly not something that I would want us to rush into.

back to top  The Importance of Professionalism

In the meantime, I believe that those of us who can claim relevant qualifications, professional affiliations, and experience should make more noise about it and try to influence public opinion to seek out such credentials in their consultants. We should also try to improve the professionalism of our field.

The word professional comes from the Latin profiteri—to profess an art or science or medicine (hence also the word professor, one who makes instruction in any branch of business). However, the sense I mean is more akin to sport, where professional generally means paid to perform to a high standard. Obviously the quality of our work should be high—I assume that's what most certification schemes aim to achieve—but I believe the commercial aspect is important also. Sadly (well, not that sadly), clients seem to value work they pay a lot for.

Over the last few years, there have been various government funding programs in the United Kingdom and Europe to subsidize HCI for industry. Although some interesting work has been done in this way, the interest from industry seems to wither away as soon as public funding has ended. The theory was that like a plant, once it was thriving, it could survive on its own without support. Taking the analogy a step further, I think what happens is that the roots are not sufficiently strong to support the overextended foliage.

It seems to me to be better to start with sound commercial justification for what we do rather than artificially lower the price. It is not difficult to find expensive commercial failures that could have been saved with a little more HCI input. However, it is often difficult to justify HCI input throughout the life of a project. Many times we get called in when it is too late to reverse an earlier, bad HCI decision and we spend a lot of time on damage control.

One possible solution is to offer more than just HCI skills and play a bigger part in the project. Some HCI people double as designers, but I believe that good HCI skills are essentially analytical, and that tends not to go well with creativity. The area that I believe uses the most similar skills is project management.

But we need to be credible as managers and speak the language of business, not science, to fulfill this role. I have been lucky enough to play this role on a couple of projects, and I believe the HCI perspective can add great value to project management (as well as ensuring that HCI skills are available at all times, even when the participants do not realize that their decisions have any HCI significance). Having learned my business skills the hard way over 20 years as a consultant, I encourage others to adopt a more professional approach and take the time to acquire an MBA or other management qualifications. That way we can credibly aim to manage design processes and ensure that HCI runs throughout the entire project.

back to top  Conclusion

Maybe I am straying too far from my initial theme. The point I wish to emphasize is that HCI is becoming successful, but if we are not careful in how we add value to projects and open up some of our skills to other members of the team, I am not sure the success will be ours. Certification and other forms of protectionism may not be the best way. In my view, they should be approached only with broad discussion and debate and with considerable care.

back to top  Author

Tom Stewart
System Concepts

Business Column Editors
Susan Dray
David A. Siegel

Dray & Associates, Inc.
2007 Kenwood Parkway
Minneapolis, MN 55405
fax: +1-612-377-0363

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