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The Joy of Usability - by Carolyn Snyder

September 3rd, 2004 by Carolyn Snyder :: see related comic

Itís a challenging time for the usability profession, no doubt. Many people are still unaware of (or worse, profoundly uninterested in) what we do for a living. The job market, at least in the US, has been tough for usability specialists the past couple years. More insidious but perhaps more deadly, we threaten to tear ourselves apart from within, fighting (albeit politely) over methodologies, certifications, or points of protocol such as whether itís appropriate to have observers in the room during usability tests.

So letís pause for a moment to reconnect with the joy of usability.

Ever read a book titled “The Joy of ?” (There are several; don’t leap to conclusions which one Iím talking about :-) One thing I’ve noticed about such books is that the methods they describe require a fair amount of work if you do them right. But your efforts are rewarded by that elusive and satisfying feeling of joy.I find joy in usability. I happen to be an independent usability consultant, but my reasons should resonate with anyone who works in the field.

Do you remember why you were drawn to usability? Although I became aware of the profession a dozen years ago, I can trace the roots of my interest back to my childhood when my sister and I built elaborate “mousetraps” in the basement, despite the fact that our house was devoid of rodents. Accompanying our contraptions made of sofa cushions, encyclopedias, and sticks were equally elaborate stories about how the mouse would respond to each element: “He’ll be going by, and see this orange paper and think it’s cheese [Mom wouldn’t let us use real cheese, probably because it would have attracted mice], and then when he gets here heíll bump the stick, and then this cushion will fallÖ” At age 6, I was already fascinated by the concept of creating a seductive user experience.

Decades later, my tools (and users!) have changed but the fascination hasn’t. Understanding how a design can support a userís mental model, emotions, and goals is a complex but rewarding process. Sure, usability activities often involve hard work (like the time I conducted nineteen 90-minute usability tests in one week) but I can honestly say it’s never boring. I’ve been saying for several years that the first time I conduct a usability test and donít learn something intriguing, I’ll know itís time to quit the profession. Ain’t happened yet, and I ain’t even worried.

Here’s some other reasons why I find joy in usability:

  • I’m making the world a better place. Usually not in a dramatic way, but in thousands of smaller ways I’ve helped make interfaces more effective, intuitive, and pleasing so that people can accomplish goals that matter to them. I’ll never win a Nobel prize, but I’m happy with the legacy I’m leaving behind.
  • I get to see a variety of new products and services, often before they hit the market. (And, on occasion, in time to prevent them from doing so.) Though I’m not a visionary thinker, I’m still helping shape the future.
  • The people I work with are smart and interesting. And I’m not just talking about my clients Ė so many people in our profession are knowledgeable, hardworking, and willing to share what they know. My most influential mentor (I worked for him for 6 years) is known in OK/Cancel circles as “LL Spool J,” but I’ve been helped by dozens of others. My book Paper Prototyping would never have been published without the generosity of colleagues Ė several of whom were initially strangers to me Ė who contributed their examples and experiences.
  • It’s honed my sense of humor. Because usability testing is all about finding the unexpected, it’s taught me to relax and go with the flow. As a result, I’m able to laugh at situations that once might have paralyzed me. (Exception: the time I was teaching a class and went to the ladies room without turning off my cordless mic, the embarrassment did paralyze me for a few minutes. But I was still able to laugh.)

Yes, the usability profession demands skills and hard work. Sometimes the rewards aren’t readily apparent, or we take ourselves a little too seriously. But look past the mundane aggravations, and you’ll rediscover the joy of usability. And, while youíre at it, if you happen to have a “Joy of” book on your bookshelf at home, go dust it off and reconnect with the joy of doing that too!

7 Responses to “The Joy of Usability - by Carolyn Snyder”
Anonymous wrote:

A refreshing post that resonates on many levels - thanks Carolyn.

Let me share a quick story in a similar vein. After a typically hectic and slightly aggravating week, I was a little peeved about having to work today (Saturday). However, we wanted to take advantage of being able to do some testing of a navigation system with prospective international students, who were attending an open day at the university I work for.

It was the very first experience of usability testing for one of my team members, and for our colleague from the international marketing team, a first hands-on experience (she had watched, but not conducted usability tests before). We each learned heaps about our users, and basically, had a ball.

It was also a great marketing exercise for the university. Many of the prospective students I got to work with today were impressed by the fact that we wanted to involve them in the design of the website that they will be using.

Working in the usability field can be hard and frustrating at times. But it’s days like today that make it all worthwhile.

Leslie Chicoine wrote:

I donít know if I can claim to be an interaction designer yet, as Iím fresh out of college and off on a sidetrack in Japan for one year. I can though claim that it is the field in which I find joy. I donít speak Japanese and obviously than canít read anything. I am currently in the state of a ‘new user’ to my whole life. I am at the mercy of the designers of the products and environments around me. I canít read the buttons that say on and that say off, I can only guess and take hints from the design. I canít tell exactly what Iím buying at the super market; I canít read the signs that explain the bus schedules and ticket machines or understand the news reports following an earthquake (my very first one!). While Iím hurriedly working on improving this issue I am also taking a certain joy, as a designer, in being placed in this awkward and disconcerting situation. What other field would prompt me to take joy in my fear?! :)

Renate R-S wrote:

A delightful and timely comment, Carolyn! I was just thinking that it’s hard to take all these politics when everyone seems to be taking themselves so seriously. Taking another’s (or the users’) point of view would be a good thing for politicians. Imagine political messages that would address you as the individual instead of you as part of a large business, the other party, or you as part of a nameless mass of unemployed Americans. Ah - might votes be cast differently (or at all)if it were you, the voter) going off to war, right after you voted? Alas I digress… Inspired by Carolyn I really wanted to share my similarly inspired & enterprising childhood training in usability - (probably Age 7). I was much concerned about the effects of plush toy props on the perceiver. In this case our Dachshund “Raja” was the test participant. With a combination of intuitive design and Positive Reinforcement Association Training I developed an elaboate exercise course extendening over several rooms. I collected my rewards in “shows” for my siblings & parents by introducing RAJA as having extraordinary intelligence and a great memory. I cooly predicted what the dog would be doing and in which order. Low and behold - this was one of the few occasions when he actually performed perfectly! My career had started as an information architect for animals! I had placed his least resistable plush toy (my owl Germino with big fluorescent eyes) near the end, enhancing the chances of Raja’s success via minimum distraction at the start of the challenge course!

Fredy Ore wrote:

Hi Carolyn,

Thank you for your wonderful post and sharing this with us. You know, it is sometimes these posts that inspire us to discover, and innovate further, particularly from learning of experiences by others and those around us. We often forget the good in things and tend to remember everything other than.

I recall a story I once heard of the Network Admin that all he heard at work was, fix this and fix that — “the Net is down again” or “the printer needs more paper” or “I dont know why my PC can’t connect to the net”. His job demanded that he be immersed within the problems of others for him to fix.

His view and perception of what he did at work eventually turned him away from his job, as all he thought about was problem, problem fixing and more problems. There wasn’t the day where someone would come up to him and say, “Hey, I fixed the routing problem on my machine it was the TCP-IP settings, thanks for showing me that last time.”

Our field demands that we fix and solve similar problems aswell. It is up to us, learning from experiences and also through our perceptions of such “problem fixing” that determines our abilities and drive to learn and solve further.

Joe wrote:

Fabulous post, Carolyn!

I know what you mean–UX work DOES bring joy. Somehow we need to bring this sense to those who buy our services–whether they’re external customers or internal organizations, we need to transmit both value and benefit to them. That’s what I’m having a hard time doing right now, but your article certainly helps!

Victor wrote:

UX is always a learning experience and you always learn new things about people, technology, culture, and everything in between. What motivates me is that I can always learn something new, learn about myself as well and the human side that all the stuff that w e do

Moi wrote:

So what you’re really trying to say is that you want to squash your users with an encyclopedia? :-)

Interesting points though. It would be interesting to know what personality types tend to be drawn to usability type work. Alright, maybe it wouldn’t be interesting, maybe only I would find it so.

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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) ?