I Can Exist Now. The NYT Said So.

new york times article on usability professionals

I have mixed feelings about this article in the New York Times about Usability Professionals: Technology’s Untanglers: They Make It Really Work. I’ve read mixed feelings about this article as well.

Had it been written 5 years ago, I’d be really pleased about it. But it isn’t a very well written article and has some mis-information as well.

Enter the usability professional, whose work has recently developed into a solid career track, driven mostly by advancements in technology.

“Recently developed?” “Solid career track?” “Advancements in technology?” If recently means the past 10 years then fine, but I don’t see the “usability professional” as a solid career track on a large scale. And I have no idea how it’s been driven by technology. Most of the tired and true tools in our box are pretty lo-fi.

We bridge the gap between what technology is capable of doing and what users want to achieve.

We do? I think you could make a strong case that we identify the gaps between technology and user goals, but bridging? Our role has been viewed as expendable in the past and the companies that have cut us in budget shortfall times have still been profitable. Or they don’t even use us at all until after the product is ready to ship (hello Microsoft). “Bridging” makes us sound like we’re required for success.

You might not expect me to say that, but I see my ultimate goal as a usability guy as working myself out of a job. It would be lovely to get to the point where I am expendable not because of budget crises but because the organization I work for (no dig on my current employer, this is an “in general” comment, really) “gets it” and lives to make the user’s life effective, efficient, and satisfying.

In response to a growing demand for usability jobs, schools are offering degrees in areas like human computer interaction, new media and accessible Web design.

This has been happening for a long time now. Yes, the demand is growing (I get a lot of hits on my site for searches related to Human Factors degrees), but schools have been offering this for a long, long time. What is new, and isn’t happening that much, is focusing on accessible web design.

More specifically what the author should have written (of the editor should have caught) is Web Standards-based design techniques which does tend to solve most accessibility issues. There’s a neat looking program (really) at Boston University, CDIA. I went to an open house and asked about usability and web-standards design in the curriculum. The response I got from one of the professors was akin to, “if there’s time we get to it.”

The Usability Professionals’ Association offers tutorials and holds an annual meeting.

“Annual meeting” sounds like a closed-to-all-but-members-only. It’s a conference (at which the annual meeting happens) which, as far as I know is the only time tutorials are offered by UPA. Yes, there are chapter events year-round, but the article doesn’t mention that.

We’re working with companies like Microsoft and Yahoo and having a lot of trouble finding user-experienced people,” he said.

User-experienced people. People who are experienced with users? This is either an editorial issue or Harvinder doesn’t know what he’s recruiting for.

Then it might employ a usability design expert to incorporate the researcher’s findings into the way a product works.

I’ve seen countless job titles attempting to describe what we do. But I’ve never heard of a “usability design expert.”

Fresh Starts is a monthly column about emerging jobs and job trends.

The article is written in the style of an Emerging Job, but should have been a Job Trend piece. I think you could make a good case in writing this article about Experience Design or Design Strategy, but not about “traditional” usability professionals.

BONUS: For some odd interaction design fun, try double-clicking on the NYT article’s title (or any text for that matter). WTF? Talk about your discoverable feature.


  1. Found your post via tc.eserver. Very good response to an imprecise article. Some thoughts:

    I think the writer of the article intended “driven by advancements in technology” to mean that as technology is advancing, it is becoming increasingly more complex, which means usability professionals will become more relevant. But I do agree that “recently developed” is hogwash.

    “Solid career track?” That’s more debatable, of course, than the other assertions.

    “Bridging the gap” is an imprecise (and trite) phrase. For example, do programmers “bridge the gap” between what a product ought to do and what it actually does? (I can’t help but smile.) Perhaps, but there is quite a bit more going on in the “gap”. Same goes for usability work. No, we’re not required, but examining the usability aspect *is* required for a successful product.

    I haven’t seen the “accessible web design” programs mentioned in the article. Standards-based programs? Unfortunately, that’s pretty unlikely at this point in time. Right on, in identifying web standards as leading to accessible web sites.

    “User-experienced”–he only could have meant “user-experience people” (ie, those that design and understand the user’s experience).

    “Usability design expert” is a compound noun phrase from hell. And it doesn’t make much sense: one could be a designer, a usability expert, both … but a usability design expert is pretty vague (wtf is “usability design”?).

    I agree that “experience design” is emerging, and not the “traditional usability professional”. Still, I sent this article to my grandparents as I think it’s something they can really wrap their heads around.

    Do I think this article is indicative of poor quality control at the NYT? Not really. I’d expect very few editors without experience in the software design process to “get” the role of the usability professional. In sum, I think the article does more good than bad.

  2. For the record, I tried to respond to John’s post, but for some reason the comment doesn’t show up. Here’s what I commented:

    John, I guess I’ve been entirely too influenced by blogs as a source for information online. :) You said:

    It hardly phases me. If you look at the composite of articles, they do paint a reasonable picture of usability.

    My problem is people who don’t work “in the industry” don’t look at the composite of articles. There’s still a large contingent of people in the world (I am generalizing) that feel the NYT still has “All the news that’s fit to print” and don’t look to other sources.

    And from the article, how could they? There’s only internal-to-NYT links available, and then only to “named” companies (IBM, Sony, and Microsoft). The article doesn’t make it easy to find out more information about UPA or STC.

    That said, your blog and mine are contributing to the conversation about the state of Usability (or more accurately in this case the perceived state) and given the choice between only two, I’d choose flawed exposure as well. But it’s up to the people who know better to point out the expose and the and speak to the flaws.

    I think a better article would be to point out how Usability (in all its forms) helps make the world a better and safer place. Who wouldn’t want to learn how Human Factors people working with the military helped redesign camera (for recon) controls in tanks so the soldiers would stop accidentally shooting the target. Helps when the controls are not the same to take a picture and fire a gun in the cramped space of a tank. :)

    Real stories like that are what people connect with and what I really only see on blogs and in books. And for that people have to want to be in that space in the first place.

  3. I was just rereading this post, and noticed this which I had not before: “BONUS: For some odd interaction design fun, try double-clicking on the NYT article’s title (or any text for that matter). WTF? Talk about your discoverable feature.”

    Damn that is cool. I had no idea that feature existed, and I read the NYT daily (online and in print).

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