Monday, August 13, 2007

Who is a Usability Professional?

edThere has been a perpetual acrimonious debate about the best educational background for a Usability professional. Who would be the best fit as a User Experience Designer so that he could do the job with perfection and finesse - is something which has perplexed everyone? As the usability discipline is its nascent stages, both the companies and the aspirants for this role are finding it hard to do justice with the quality of work. Here are my thoughts on this.

I hold no vengeance against anyone while writing this. I am writing just as a usability practitioner. You may agree or disagree with my thoughts. And disagreement sets off discourse, which is healthy for an intellectual to grow.

Majority of the entrants that we see in the field of usability are coming from three disciplines: Software, Design, and Psychology. Let me discuss each one-by-one.

“I am a developer, leave it to me. I know the technology. That's my job.” Would you let him to do the usability job? I would not leave it to a developer. A developer is someone in India who is an engineer (most of the times). Irony is that there is no guarantee of him is a computer engineer. Which implies, that he is not even strong in what he is supposed to do? He just knows some tools which can be learnt by anybody. TCS/Wipro/etc.. have a huge pool of employees who are into software development and have never attended any engineering college.

Knowing and being well-versed in a tool is skill, which can be learnt with guidance and training. Someone with time in hands and basic intellect needed for the tool could work with it easily. We all are aware that web development programming does not require a very high level of intellect. It does not require any innovation in terms of programming it. Not hard to believe but lets accept this crude fact.

An engineer is never taught to invent or discover something new. Engineering is just an introduction to basic fundamentals needed to understand a particular area. It teaches processes and relationships including dependencies of various parameters of the processes. During my Chemical Engineering course, I was taught to design a distillation column based on the influx, etc. but I was never taught to design a non-existent column to process something which is from the mars. They never taught me that how the design of the column would change if all the users in the factory are females or 40+ years of age. As an engineer, I was good at understanding the process (only pertaining to my discipline) but faltered when I tried to see the process holistically in the context of the user.

And those engineers (developers) who think that designers are a misfit first need to understand the difference between a visual designer and a designer.

“I am a psychologist, I know the users, and I will do it.” I agree to this. No-one can understand users as psychologists do. After all they have spent their lives understanding them. However, the flip-side is that they are bad at design process. They are never taught to design a non existent product or User Interface. They can figure out user’s motivations, aspirations, goals, tasks, etc. with precision but they would not be able to design something based on their findings. How would they design as it has never been their job? They are a misfit to design.

A new application design project does not only require understanding of the user but also to build the design around the findings. They would falter and fall if forced to design. They can fine tune an application, task flow, or a process based on their findings but they could never start adesign from scratch and nowhere. Also, psychologists tend to be more conservative to learn about technology because that has never been their forte and their background is primarily arts or anthropology.

Who will do it then?

Let’s now talk about designers. What do they learn in their design education? Design education teaches to design products that are non-existent. It teaches the methodology of design rather then concentrating on the tools. A designer is taught to design from nothing by following a process which places user at the centre of the process and thinking. Designers are taught to think out of the box and come up with creative solutions. Above all designers not only learn the process but also how to present the ideas in the most effective and aesthetic ways. Throughout their course they innovate new ways to present their ideas. For e.g. I during my design study submit my work samples at the back of playing cards. Play the cards and read about what I did in my last semester. Not that it was a great concept because I never evaluated its economic value but it was definitely out of the box concept. Never during my engineering course could I think of submitting my assignment on a deck of cards.

Design education opens the mind and senses to look at things from a fresher perspective which people are unaware of before. It opens our mind and teaches us to innovate and refine. You start seeing problems in small-small things around you and start critiquing about it. And this is what is exactly needed as designer. Products, user interface or even a process – all need in-depth study of users and context and include removing the difficulties and undesirable interferences. Designer has the capability and capability to design a non-existent product by sensing the need of the market by understanding user requirements.

In India, master of design courses at IITs (Indian Institute of Technology) are apt for this profession because they admit students from engineering and architecture discipline. Some people object to admission of engineers in design courses, however, this objection is not justifiable at all. It may be justifiable if we talk about pure design but when it comes to User Interface or Product Design, we cannot overlook technology. And I think an engineer would comprehend and absorb technical concepts faster and better than others. Having both engineering and designing background give the designer an edge to ideate, conceptualize, and materialize the design into something which is mass useful, usable, and scalable with high degree of retention.

Fortunately, in India most of the design schools have really good designers to fit in the usability role and meet the demands of the market. But quality is costly so better be ready to pay for it.

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