CUA of the Month – August, 2007

Katie Pasko
"There is no substitute for watching someone try to accomplish a task. Sometimes you feel like you know what the different audiences want, but then you get their feedback and it's an eye opener."
Katie Pasko
Certified Usability Analyst
Research Foundation of SUNY

Usability: A Solid Foundation

by June Oliver

A solid foundation is a good thing and Katie Pasko has two of them. This year she completed all the CUA certification courses and earned her credential in four months flat. Now she's using the bedrock principles of usability to build a better Web at the Research Foundation of State University of New York (RF).

The Research Foundation is about as solid as a foundation can be. It's been around for 55 years. It's one of the largest academic research and development support networks in the world. The 2006 statistics are impressive: 7,900 research and training projects, $725 million in sponsored funding, 284 new invention disclosures, 193 patent applications, and $10.8 million in licensing royalties from corporate partners.

Katie Pasko is the Web Manager in the RF's Corporate Communications Department at the central office in Albany. "I came to usability from a communications background," she says. "To communicate effectively, you have to think in terms of different audiences and how to give them what they want."

Katie's Web site serves a variety of audiences, each with its own portal. "We have a public portal for people who want information about the corporation. We structured several separate portals around the specific needs of our internal audiences: principal investigators, research administrators, operations managers, and board members. There are more than 3,000 principal investigators conducting research on 30 campuses."

The Research Foundation is a private, non-profit educational foundation. Its independence from the state government allows it to flex with the shifting tectonics of sponsored research. It's a world where opportunities arise quickly. Competition is keen. Response time is short. Requirements are stringent. Collaboration is vital. And record keeping is critical. It's a world made for the Web, and Katie's Web is made for that world.

"When I was hired seven years ago, we were transitioning to Oracle from our mainframe and static programs like FrontPage and Dreamweaver. Now we are using Oracle Portal, which allows users to access information and applications anywhere and any time," says Katie. "We began to redesign the site two years ago, focusing on a user-centered design.

"We went about it in several phases, and our end-users were involved from the very beginning. We usability tested the old site. We found out what was wrong, where the frustrations were. We used focus groups representing the different audiences. Our customers gave us input on what they needed from the site."

Katie and the design team used an iterative approach, making wireframes and going back to the users for feedback. Once the prototype was released, the team continued testing and tweaking, gathering feedback through Web conferences and online surveys. Then they phased in a rollout for 100 users.

"Until people start using it, you just don't know what issues will come up," says Katie. "There is no substitute for watching someone try to accomplish a task. Sometimes you feel like you know what the different audiences want, but then you get their feedback and it's an eye opener."

When staff from the various campuses travel to Albany for meetings, Katie is sometimes able to piggy-back on them to conduct in-person testing efficiently. "I really enjoy talking to people and watching how they work. When someone shows you something you can improve, you can have a big impact. With thirty campuses, every change gets multiplied many times. The impact multiplies in dollars and cents – and in user satisfaction."

Though Katie was no stranger to usability, she found HFI's CUA training extremely valuable. "I've taken training through several companies throughout my career. I felt that HFI was by far the best I've attended. The courses are very interactive and interesting, very applicable to the 'real world.'"

Gaining expertise in usability was a career goal that Katie developed with her manager, Cathy Kaszluga, VP of Corporate Communications. She and Katie are now prime advocates for institutionalizing usability at the Research Foundation.

"I have more knowledge and credibility with this certification. I'm busy redesigning several areas of the site and plan to do usability testing with users. And I'm working on developing standard practices and methods that will help us to maintain the site more efficiently and effectively. I also write a usability article each month for our central office, about 200 people."

Katie's enthusiasm has spread to the Information Services (IS) staff, the technical talent behind the RF Web site. Two people in IS recently attended the HFI course on effective Web and application design.

"We all want our site to be intuitive and easy-to-use," explains Katie. "I plan to develop a continuous feedback loop with users so I can keep improving the usability of the site. I'm also in the process of recruiting for a Web Content Specialist who can help with that. A background in Web usability and user-centered design is a must."

"To anyone who is thinking of getting their certification I would say, 'Go for it. It's a great career move!'"

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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