Kevin Cheng  

What Do You Do Here?

December 26th, 2003 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

If you haven’t seen Office Space, the joke may be lost on you or simply not as funny. I highly recommend the movie for anyone that enjoys Dilbert style office/cubicle humour. In case you don’t want to watch it, the script is here. Just search for “people skills” for the appropriate segment.

One of the questions I have the most difficulty answering is “what do you do?”. Within a corporate context, this is easier to answer because you have context to relate people to your job but try explaining it to your relatives or to somebody you are meeting at a party. I find I have different versions depending on who I’m talking to and what aspect they may be interested in. Most of the time, it’s a 10-30 second pitch so it’s either “I work with Computers” with a capital C (this answer is reserved for distant relatives or acquaintances) or sometimes it’s “I make thing user friendly”. If I have more time, I might give an example using an everyday appliance.

In work, however, defining your job may be more important. I have actually written down “I HAVE PEOPLE SKILLS” in a semi-annual self-evaluation form once because I realized how eerily similar part of my job was to the guy in Office Space.An article on Boxes and Arrows (an excellent site) talked about how time spent debating what our role is could be much better spent on other pursuits such as marketing ourselves.

I think the author is correct up to a certain point. We DO spend too much time bickering over what HCI should or should not be or even what our job should be called. In fact, trying to write the “About” section to OK/Cancel was difficult because we wanted to appeal to everyone in our field, no matter what they called themselves: Information Architects, Human Computer Interaction consultants, Human Machine Interaction, Ergonomist, User Experience Engineer, Usability Specialist, Industrial Designer, Interface Designer, Interaction Designer … you get the idea. There are subtle differences to some of these titles but others are used interchangeably.

Is a clear title really necessary? Probably not. For example, programmers are called software engineers, developers, programmers, etc. yet we have no problems identifying what it is they specialize in. What matters when hiring a programmer is their skill set. Are they database specialists? 3-D graphic programmers? What languages can they program in?

The problem for HCI, come performance review time, is two-fold:

  1. The manager understanding what we do.
  2. The manager having an ability to evaluate how well we did.

The first is clearly an issue of communication. If the manager doesn’t understand what you do there, there’s an inherent issue in the process. How did you get through a year without your manager even understanding why HCI exists in the company? Spend time actively marketing the tasks you are performing and why you’re doing them. Talk about the value and impact they are producing, not just during the review, but throughout the process. This communication is of course made easier if your manager is a part of your project.

The second part is slightly more difficult. For many organizations, there aren’t enough HCI people to necessarily have an HCI expert evaluating your performance for the period. I once had a manager say, “I would say your performance was exceptional if all the users said this was the most usable product ever. If it’s just usable, you’ve simply done your job.”

While that seems to make sense on the surface, HCI does not typically optimize only on usability. Reality, budgets, timelines, all play into the equation and an experienced HCI knows the meaning of compromise. Thus, in addition to the art of measuring how usable a product is, we need to be able to measure and document what trade-offs were made.

The true HCI genius is one who can work within a set of limitations, and still creatively make the tradeoffs and recommend a solid solution. Often, when we hit on the “right answers”, they seem obvious. 20/20 hindsight is the bane of HCI because managers can look at the solutions and think, “well duh, I could have come up with that.” So keeping track of the progression that led to the solution, and the multitude of variables constraining the decisions, can be crucial to helping the manager comprehend the difficulty of the problem.

Obviously, HCI has a very creative component to the work and it’s often counter to our nature to keep a well documented trail of design decisions. However, if people are to truly understand not just what your job is, but how good you are at it, keeping a log can be the difference between “What do you do here?” and “Here’s your bonus”.

6 Responses to “What Do You Do Here?”
Peter wrote:

YO YO YO , I feel you on that one. “Whatdo you do?”

If i say i do “commercial insurnace” then they say “oh insurance, life insurance?”
i say, ” no, commercial.”

Or i just say ” risk management, we manage risk”

Wundt wrote:

I rarely find this an issue. That is not to say there haven’t been managers over the years that have ask “What is it you do?” and engineers who think we have nothing to offer. But, in general, most development teams I have worked with have been happy to have us there. If I am asked to define my roll in the process, a couple of phrases that I think sum it up nicely are “Advocate for the user” and “The keeper of the big picture”. In both cases, I believe our job is to make sure the development team (including the marketing people) are thinking about the product as more than just a list of “features”, and are considering how it all fits together in a unified package.

Tom Chi wrote:

Experience will definitely vary. In some organizations HCI people have well-defined roles and widely understood processes. In many other organizations, however, HCI people are called upon to cover numerous roles ranging from usability testing to visual design to info architecture to UI coding.

At any of these places, the question: ‘what do you do?’ is a fair one for both manager and HCI person alike. If you are an HCI Consultant, as KC and I both were in former lives, you might find yourself having to justify the cost/benefit of your particular “keeping of the big picture”. Afterall, isn’t that what the project manager and account manager are for?

I see HCI being at the point in its practical maturity that software development reached around 20 years ago. Way back then there were a small minority of companies “doing it right”, while many others (including some big companies) were just winging it.

Livia Labate wrote:

I used to have that problem until I adopted: “I don’t work here, I’m a consultant” ;)

Anon wrote:

Why would we look up the script online? You put it in the comic there, just replacing “customer” with “user”. I mean, yeah, it was a cute joke; but it was someone else’s joke and repeating it with your characters isn’t an homage, it’s just being unoriginal.

Tom Chi wrote:

Point well taken. If you have ideas for strips that you want to see, then you know where to mail us. -tom

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?