The whiteboard

X.5 September + October 2003
Page: 12
Digital Citation

Usability engineers

Laura Downey

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The masked woman swooped into the room and hovered over her prototype, contemplating her next move. The colors were in perfect harmony, the navigation superb, but something about the design just didn't work. As she mulled over several alternatives, also wondering how she would deal with the hard-nosed project manager who wielded his budget-slashing pen like an axe, her mind drifted back to that long-ago conversation that had set her on this path:

"But MOM! I don't wanna be a doctor or a ballerina. I want to work with computers and technology. I've decided to become a...

[Drum roll]
[Majestic music]

"What the heck is a usability engineer?" her straight-talking Texan mom demanded.

Clearly, this called for an explanation.

"Well Mom, it's a super-cool engineer who makes really neat stuff that people like and can easily use. And I want to make things like that! I've decided I'm going to design software."

"So what do you need to learn, then?"

"Well, I have to learn how to find out what people need to do...and then make the right thing that helps them do it and enjoy it too. I also have to understand the people themselves...and their jobs and activities. Then I'll need to draw some pictures of how the software will look to people using it. And I'll have to make sure the pictures are in some kind of order that makes sense to them.

"I may have to get some training in colors and fonts and layout and buttons and icons and those really cool moving ads, and all that neat stuff. But I worked on the school annual and newspaper, so that might be fun. And of course I need to learn how to use all that software for making images and things, because I may have to design and produce all the graphics and screens, too.

"I need to understand how and when to present certain information, and to group it so that people get what they need when they need it and easily understand how to find things and move around in my software. No one likes getting lost, and I sure don't want people cursing the software I design. You've seen Dad when he can't make the computer do something he wants!"

Mother and daughter both laughed.

"Also, I get to do this really cool thing called usability testing! I might even get to use some fancy video and recording machines. I'll have to recruit people for testing, make up the tests, run them, and ask questions and take notes, so I can see if people understand my software and like it.

"After the testing, I'll review how people did and figure out what changes need to happen to make the software better. Of course, I'll have to do reports and convince people my work is worth something. But most people have to do that. You know, Barbara's dad says we all have to watch out for the big bosses, no matter what field we are in. Mine will want me to tell them exactly what is wrong in 10 words or less, and how to fix it for nothing.

"I know it sounds like a ton of work and almost impossible, but it is exciting and you know I love a challenge. I want to make a difference! Besides, everyone from my colleagues to my bosses will love me because I'm helping make what people want and need and like!

"All I need to do is learn about requirements analysis, visual design, user interface design, information architecture, usability testing, survey design, facilitating, interviewing, all kinds of analysis, ergonomics, statistics, industrial engineering, and psychology. I'll have to be a really good writer—and persuasive also, so people will do what I say needs to be done; and so that the bosses will give me oodles of money to make really good software! Oh yeah, I almost forgot—and I'll need to understand all the limitations of the technology out there.

"Do you see why I want to do this, Mom? A usability engineer is like a super-superhero! Imagine the power and money I'll have!"

Mom laid a hand on her daughter's shoulder.

"Slow down there, Supergirl! Before you get your über-engineer's cape fitted, think a minute! Where are you going to learn all this? How does someone become a usability engineer? Is there a degree in it? A certification?"

The teenager rolled her eyes.

"Oh Mom, there's lots of stuff! Industrial engineering programs, and graphic design programs, and technical writing programs, and psychology programs, and system engineering programs, and computer science programs and information technology programs, and..."

"Wait a minute! Are there any usability engineering programs?"


"You mean like electrical engineering and software engineering degrees and things like that? Well honestly, there aren't that many. When I asked the school counselor, we did find a few called 'human-computer interaction,' but that was it, and most of those were graduate programs. Mostly, it seems like usability is just part of other programs. But schools have lots of individual courses in usability, and a bunch of consultants teach seminars. And I'm seeing ads for plenty of internships and jobs that include usability as a requirement.

"I did hear that some people were trying to do this certification thing like they do for hardware and networks and stuff, but after everything I've read about all the different things that usability engineers do, I think they would need to have way too many different parts to their program. But I'm not going to worry about that, because there is this whole field out there with lots of people doing usability work. They have professional societies, conferences, e-mail lists, and...

"No, it just can't be done."

Ms. Super Usability Engineer (SUE) snapped back to the present just as the cunning software architect was trying to destroy her latest ingenious design. She dashed to the mailroom closet and slapped on her techie hat. Fastening her Swiss-Army utility belt, SUE prepared for battle. She might need to switch hats in mid-argument. On returning to the room, she announced that all that was needed was a simple CASE statement, and she didn't want to hear again how they didn't have a widget to support what she wanted to do! Honestly, these geeks always think they can throw out some jargon she won't understand.

Satisfied, SUE headed home for the day. Chuckling at the memory of that long-ago conversation with her mom, she thought of her own, more recent job-hunting experiences. Not only do today's companies want a usability engineer to be an über-engineer that includes kitchen sink design, but some of them are even combining usability engineering with the developer who programs the user interface software! Sheesh!

SUE laughed as she thought of software companies in the year 2525 that would need only one employee in engineering! A vision of a cross between Jakob Nielsen, Alan Cooper, and Bill Gates in a kilt flashed before her eyes. She imagined this hybrid engineer with a banner repeatedly scrolling across his computer screen: "There can be only one."

SUE was approaching the local shops. "Whoops, gotta make a stop at the grocery store," she thought.

As she was checking out, she cursed for the umpteenth time the designers of the store's debit card machine.

"Why in thunder did they put the words on the screen opposite to the way they arranged the pushbuttons?" she muttered under her breath.

She just can't understand how people would produce a design with the word "Yes" displayed on the same side as the "No" button! Even though she has dealt with this kind of debit card machine often, she still manages to push "yes" when she means "no," and "no" when she means "yes." She wonders to herself how many other people do this, but she knows there are many!

In the car, SUE thought again about the multitude of usability engineering position descriptions she had seen while job hunting. The usual questions popped into her head:

  • Do people really "get" what a usability engineer is?
  • How often has our field tried to define itself?
  • With what success?


Startled from her reverie, SUE made a right turn and continued to ponder simple definitions and other mysteries of the usability universe.

She remembered one of her previous employers, where the marketing department had a revolving door. Whoever was running the department just couldn't seem to come up with an easy and simple statement of what the company built. So, the company went through four or five marketing executives until they found one who could communicate the right message.

Now, if you can't communicate your message, you imply that you don't know what the heck you're doing. SUE thought back to the conversation with her mom where she described all the things usability professionals do. She smiled at her naïveté in thinking she would ever have become an expert in everything she had described, and she winced again at her colleagues' struggle to build a usability certification program.

After being in the field for 12 years, she has come to realize that the wide variety of activities in usability makes certification a sticky issue. How can we create a single certification that encompasses the myriad activities that usability professionals perform? SUE classifies usability people into three broad areas: analysts, designers, and testers. She believes that many people are very good at one aspect; some are good at two. Rarely does she see people who are experts in all three areas.

SUE fondly remembers a project in which the usability staff divided the responsibilities according to their specialty areas. As an analyst, she collaborated with the user interface designers to develop the designs. She would profile the users, analyze tasks and usability requirements, and design the basic interaction. SUE worked with interface designers and visual designers to satisfy the user needs and to create a professional appearance and cohesive visual language. Sometimes she would also plan and conduct the usability testing. This approach brought together the different strengths of analysts, designers, and testers to produce the appropriate user experience and, ultimately, a successful product.

Now, how to convince the rest of the world that this is the right way to do usability? Hell's bells! She became a usability engineer, didn't she? She welcomes challenge!

SUE pulled into the driveway. Ahhhhhh... home! Her reminiscing and pondering would have to resume another day.


Her boss's voice crackled from the cell phone. "SUE, I need the user profiling results for our new product on my desk in the morning...And will you please show the new intern around tomorrow, and get with software again ASAP? Testing thinks your design is too complex for them to finish testing it in time to meet their deadline."

SUE assured her boss that she would take care of everything and stepped out of the car with her arms full of groceries.


Damn! Not again! Replacing these capes was costing her a fortune.

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Laura L. Downey
Computer Sciences Corporation
Laura Downey is a senior principal engineer with Computer Sciences Corporation, currently working on air traffic management projects. Previously she enjoyed HCI research in the federal government and a 4+ year content-management stint in the commercial world. Her coworkers have called her many names, from "The General" to "Human Factors Goddess." Leisure time may find her teeing off or floating in underground caves following the route of ancient Mayan priests in Mexico and Central America.

Elizabeth Buie, Senior Principal Engineer,
Computer Sciences Corporation
15245 Shady Grove Road, Rockville, MD 20850,
301-921-3326, fax: 301-921-2069,

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©2003 ACM  1072-5220/03/0900  $5.00

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