The Push-Pull of Usability and UI Design
... and a Job Description for "Usability Director"
I got a call from a previous boss a few weeks ago. Actually
he was founder of a company that shot up to 600 people during
the Internet boom and then merged, morphed, and smurfed into almost
nothing. Anyway, he's moved on to another place, one that needed
someone to design a web application for them. Immediately.
I've done that sort of work (here
are demos of one I did, a pretty incredible
multi-dimensional Excel likeness in a browser), thus his call.
I didn't take the job, but, combined with another inquiry from
it inspired me to present some thoughts on the evolving—and
competing—roles that comprise user interface work.
They're All Calling
Like my old boss, many organizations
scrambling like mad to find modern-day Leonardo DaVinci's,
someone who can perform miracles at both the art and technical
designing software in a web browser... the look-and-feel, not
the code under the hood. Some companies even expect that, too.
The "look" is graphic design and several other skills... layout,
structured thinking, techwriting. The "feel" is interaction design,
which is, well, all that previous stuff and everything that happens.
What you click on, where it goes, and how the whole thing talks
if it does at all.
What Should We Call It?
For this type of design, whether it's known as user interface
design or interaction design, there is very much a "pull" demand,
but it arises 6 months at a time and runs very hot-and-cold
like most project work. The company has a blank web page and
desperately needs someone to fill it up. In younger (most?) companies
happens in timelines that are not conducive to producing quality-oriented
results, so user-friendliness suffers. The reason that quality
can't be delivered in a short time frame is because users expect
approximately 500 features built into software before even discussing
the functionality of the particular application (such as banking,
or shopping). In 1992, Microsoft built these 500 features into
Microsoft Windows and enabled users to instantly include them in
applications via MS Visual Basic or other, geekier developers'
Call Off All Bets
Then came the web. The Web. Every page and project starts like
this: <HTML></HTML>. And developers try to make it friendly in
slowly uncovers the 500 features that are missing. Not a prayer.
That's why there is so
much bad software to complain about on the web. (Now you know.)
To combat this, I created my Software
Function Tree. It's a list
of the 500 features. It's not as good as the eventual solution,
a framework that pre-codes all of the features, just like Windows,
but you gotta start somewhere. Some day, all projects will start
from a full solution and work backwards instead of starting from
a vacuum and working up. Then they won't suck anymore.
It Doesn't Matter What You Call It as Long as It Does This
Making the transition from blank pages to good design is the missionary
role of "usability director." (I recall hearing the phrase once,
"missionary zeal and evangelistic imperative.") Usability direction,
however the job is titled, is very much a "push" situation
in the work world... it is folks like me saying "solve the
quality problem by building the solutions in at the only level
that can work, the cultural-, tools-, and framework level." It's
only occasionally advertised by larger companies. Here's a job
description I like, originally from GSK.
I've wordsmithed it quite a bit to match any context and my own
slant on usability. I encourage all organizations to fill this
if even part-time or part-person.
Job Description for Usability Director
- Several years of IT experience
- Experience with...
- Many projects from start to finish
- Hands-on user interface design
- Success implementing usability principles, human factors
design, and best-practices.
- Off-shore projects
- Development of business cases using benchmarks
- Broad command of-, and resourcfulness with the technology,
including familiarity with software tools, web resources,
- Ability to manage multiple workstreams,
virtual teams inside and out of the organization and country.
- Proven ability to influence both business
and IT stakeholders.
- Act as the advocate for the end-user.
- Drive adoption of clear usability standards, practices,
and solutions across all business units for both custom and
- Lead improvement of intranet & extranet
applications, and web content to increase end-user value
and usage while decreasing the cost
of publishing, training, and support.
- Ensure that employee self-service applications
are showcases for usability best practices.
with internal and external application providers during
purchases of applications.
- Influence and educate
senior management on role and value of usability.
emerging industry best practices.
- Ensure proper communication, planning,
and change management to foster usability.
- Design mechanisms for measuring performance and ROI of