CUA of the Month – July, 2015

CJ Cuccaro
“My advice for those who want to enter this field of usability: do as much up front learning as possible. Work on core soft skills like presenting, selling, analyzing, and organizing. Look into the HFI certification programs. No need for a full degree, get the CUA from HFI. The cost savings compared to a degree is significant and you will get what you need to be successful.”
CJ Cuccaro

Lead Usability Engineer
Standard & Poor’s Rating Services

Switching From Programmer to Usability Mental Model

by Jim Garrett

Our Certified Usability Analyst of the Month, CJ (CJ) Cuccaro, has successfully switched from programming to usability. Now as Lead Usability Engineer at Standard & Poor’s Rating Services, he has gained some interesting insights along his journey.

CJ works on a UX team of four, with one or more consultants at any given time. Recently, his focus has shifted toward usability testing and analysis – the research end of it. He hopes to provide information to the rest of the UX team and help drive more informed design.

How did you get from programming to usability?

It has been an interesting path I’ve traveled. I did construction surveying just after high school leading me back into school for a two year Survey Technology degree. Upon completion of my surveying degree I decided to follow in my father’s footsteps and continue school and graduate as a civil engineer. While working as a civil engineer I did AutoLISP programming to customize and extend Autocad. Programming became my passion and my new career. I fully transitioned into a programming profession when the engineering firm I worked for at the time started to lay off engineers due to a turn in the economy.

One of the last programming positions I had was in Power Builder, which is a visual programming language, and is how I ended up coming to Standard & Poor’s. For me it was all about the front end, building the GUI. Being a visual person I really enjoyed putting the screens together. I did that for most of my years at S&P.

Here at S&P they decided to move away from Power Builder and standardize on Java. It was more backend and not enough of the front end GUI for me, which lead to a conversation with my manager about making a change. Her suggestion was to talk to someone in another department who was trying to start usability at S&P, which I did. As a result I ended up going on loan to that group and helping with the work and beginning to learn usability.

I took the lead person’s high fidelity Photoshop mockups to slice and dice them and bring her design to life in the portal being implemented at the time. While slicing, dicing and doing a bit of programming I began to learn more about usability, realizing it was the path I wanted to continue on.

Meanwhile, the company was looking to cut development costs, which included my area, and to implement an offshore development model. At that time, I didn’t think usability could be offshored. As far as I knew you needed to spend in-person time with the client; that you need to have face time with them to do usability work. It was then I decided to get into the usability field.

Then you found out about HFI?

It was probably about two years after that point that I found out about HFI. It took that amount of time for there to be an opening with the group starting the usability practice. When I was able to move into an opening on the team, the lead person of the group agreed to get me training that would help change my programmers mindset. I did my research and found HFI.

How did the CUA training help you make the switch from programming to usability?

Learning about mental models. The hardest thing was breaking my programmer’s mental model and adjusting to a usability mental model. My programmer mental model was one of being able to do it all, with little or no involvement from the user. Usability was not something we thought much about at the time. Going through the CUA program taught me about mental models and how to factor them into the design.

An example of this was on my first project after joining the usability team. They used Ext JS to develop the application and I used the Ext JS Designer to design the application screens. I would build the screens in the designer and then toss them over to the development team who would extend and tie them into the back end. That was just before taking the CUA course, when my programmer mental model was more prominent than my usability mental model. I enjoyed doing the UI development work; though, I should not have been that far in the weeds.  I should have been on a higher level, more in focus with the users. It was a good lesson taking the CUA and I was able to look back at it and say, yes, that was probably not the way to go about developing this application. I was too involved in the technical end of it rather than the usability end of it.

How did switching from the programming mental model to the usability mental model change your approach to projects?

One of the things I found a bit challenging to change, once on the usability team, was to not step on the developer’s toes and oversell to the business. In the beginning my programming mental model would take over and I would tell the business what, I thought, could or couldn’t be developed. This made it difficult to build a relationship with the development team. I needed to get away from the programming mental model and stop throwing them under the bus. Now I nurture a role between development and business. My usability mental model is more of an exploratory and prescriptive approach. When I have something to add requiring feedback from the developers I make sure I set the proper expectations with the business and ask the developers about the feasibility of implementing it and let them speak to it.

Do you feel you have a bigger picture of the whole process since you were in development and now you have the usability aspect?

Yes. Even during my developer days the picture was changing. When I first started developing at S&P it was the developers, who were systems analysts at the time, and the business. The organization began to mature and other functions entered the picture. Then business analysts and software quality assurance functions emerged followed by operational functions. It wasn’t until the tail end of my programming career that UX joined the picture.

Last year I got the opportunity to be involved in what we call here the Operational Maturity Group, OMG. I think my involvement was primarily attributed to having been the only one, at the time, who had gone through the CUA course. I represented the UX team within that particular group. We were looking at how to mature the different functions here at S&P. We had representatives from operations, development, SQA, architecture, risk and security, and me for UX; all of the different functions important here at S&P. The goal was to choose a maturity model and I chose the one for UX and actually did an assessment survey to determine the UX team’s maturity. Then I created a plan to improve the maturity of the UX practice here at S&P. The result of that plan is how HFI came into play. They became integral parts of the plan to train and perform the Wide Splash Review here at S&P.

Have there been results that the business side can acknowledge since usability has entered the picture?

Yes, I was the UX lead for one project focused on a portion of the rating process. We have one application the analysts use to do their rating process, and I manage the usability for that particular application. We wanted to improve upon the time it took to go through two workbaskets. A rating job will move through these different workbaskets, which primarily represent different roles. We were adjusting the screens to streamline them across two workbaskets.

We did the upfront baselining and I determined an overall time from start to finish, through the two workbaskets. After the improvements were made, but before the screens went to user acceptance testing, we usability tested again. From my analysis of the two sets of data I was able to show a notable increase in the saving of time, which was acknowledged by the business. I believe it was one more reason to help them see the benefit of having usability involved.

Now that you have entered the usability field, how has that affected your job satisfaction?

Greatly. Prior to doing usability work, I burned out on the development end due to having done it for so many years. Having made the transition, I really look forward to my workday. My typical day has much more interaction with the project team versus more heads down programming. It also provides a bit more variety between designing, prototyping, and usability testing. I consider this a passion. Now I’m gravitating more towards the usability research end of it. I enjoy the design part of it but I feel that I relate better with the research end of it. So it has really improved my outlook and job satisfaction on the day-to-day work here at S&P. I not only love working at S&P but also am striving to raise UX awareness across the company.

My advice for those who want to enter this field of usability: do as much up front learning as possible. Work on core soft skills like presenting, selling, analyzing, and organizing. Look into the HFI certification programs. No need for a full degree, get the CUA from HFI. The cost savings compared to a degree is significant and you will get what you need to be successful. The field continues to grow, so the HFI certification is a great way to enter into the field.

CUA of the Month

Each month we highlight the successes and achievements of a different member of our CUA community. If you are a Certified Usability Analyst and would like to be considered for CUA of the Month recognition, please send a brief professional bio to

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