It’s time to make a bigger pond

a pond surrounded by flower beds

Given the choice between an image of heart surgery and a pond, we opted for this

“Very short sessions on usability testing could be bad for the profession”. It was another of those discussions that I have from time to time, where I know that we’re not going to reach an agreement but I’m trying to be polite and find common ground. It was hard, and I found myself thinking (but not saying) “It’s time for a bigger pond for usability. We’re spending too much time fretting about how to swim in our little niche. We should get out into a wider world”.

So what was that all about?

Let’s begin at the beginning. I am firmly of the ‘try it, you might like it’ school of getting started in user-centred design, and that usually means starting with a bit of testing. I started that way myself so it would be more than hypocritical for me to have any other view.

So I teach usability testing. A lot. And often in very short sessions. A whole day? Pah, I’ve had to convey the basics in 5 minutes to a sceptical audience of clients new to usability. But usually, it’s in the relatively formal setting of the full-day tutorial aimed at people who are ‘doing it themselves’: trying to learn about usability testing so that they do a better test the next day or next week.

I’m very sorry if I have shocked you, and I certainly don’t mean to denigrate in any way the full-strength understanding than can be derived from longer, academic courses. I’m proud of my role as author and practitioner member of the Open University team that wrote M873 User Interface Development and Evaluation. It’s simply that for many people I encounter, the choice isn’t between whether to hire a consultant or take a year out to do an MSc. It’s between doing some usability testing themselves, or not doing any.

Now I think the basic problem of the usability profession is that we’re much too precious about it. We’re thinking of user-centred design as being somewhat like heart surgery, where doing it properly is really rather important and several years’ training is essential. That’s great, but it’s restricting us. There are relatively few heart surgeons and getting a heart operation is difficult and expensive.

I’d rather think of user-centred design as being somewhat like quality. It’s not that hard or expensive to ‘do quality’. You may be shaking your head in disbelief if you’ve ever suffered through a particularly bad, bureaucratic audit of an ISO 9001 process – but really, would you rather read the ISO 9001 standard or undergo heart surgery? (OK, maybe I’ve taken that analogy far enough). Most of us strive to achieve some level of quality in our work, and many of us use some type of formal process or checking to help us achieve it. We may even have had some training.

Did you know that some people describe themselves as quality consultants? That you can outsource quality inspection to businesses that specialise in it? That you can take university-level courses in quality?  Do you think that you are harming the quality profession by your do-it-yourself quality activities? No? I take the view that it’s fine for people to try their best at usability, in the same way that we all try our best at quality, and that those of us in the profession should encourage and support their efforts. That would create a bigger pond for everyone.

What do I mean by a bigger pond? I’m not a great one for numbers but I thought I’d try the quick-and-dirty method of estimating the size of a market by Googling for some key terms. And here is what I found:

Term

Google hits

Usability

2,800,000

Usability training

580,000

Heart surgery

4,600,000

Heart surgery training

800,000

Quality

106,000,000

Quality training

7,800,000

So the ‘Google size’ of the pond for usability isn’t much smaller than that for heart surgery. The ‘Google size’ of the pond for quality is 30 times as big as we are. That looks good to me. Even their pond for training is double our total size. There’s room in that pond for a lot more specialists and consultants than our small pond can support.

So let’s try to get everyone ‘doing usability’ in the way that they currently ‘do quality’. Do you agree?

This article first appeared in ‘Caroline’s Corner’, in the February 2004 edition of Usability News.

featured image by Snapshooter46, creative commons