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Ask Eric: Questions & Answers

Each month Dr. Eric Schaffer answers selected questions on usable interface design. Recent Questions
Archived questions and answers about ...

The Usability Profession

November 26 , 2003 – submitted by Rogel Ragadio of Makati City, Philippines

Question: I am planning to get a degree in human factors psychology, do you have a recommended university (online and off-line) that I can visit.

Eric's response: The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Web site has a free listing of university programs. Be sure to check if they specialize in HCI. Virginia Polytech has a great program. I have also been very impressed with staff coming from Clemson.

BTW, I am unaware of any distance program in HCI that is an appropriate professional foundation.

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August 21, 2003 – submitted by Rogel Ragadio of the Philippines

Question: Is there an online Usability course I can enroll to that you can recommend? I really like the courses you offer but you don't have it online.

Eric's response: I am sorry, but I am unaware of any substantive online program available to the public. At HFI we have a huge online training package for internal staff. But even this must be done in groups with facilitators. I am not enthusiastic about trying to develop interview and design skills with purely Web-based training. It requires more interaction. I strongly recommend taking live courses.

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August 21, 2003 – submitted by Mahavesh Sinha

Question: The HFI certification is incredibly expensive (for an individual sponsoring herself or himself). How do you justify the high cost given the condition of the economy and the market.... And what is the worth or value of this certification in the industry? Thanks in advance for your reply.

Eric's response: Actually, HFI set up the certification as a service to the industry. We lose money on it. We charge just $500 to take the certification test (less if purchased with HFI courses). It cost us $90,000 to develop the test for the first time, and more to administer it. We create a new but equivalent test every quarter. I did this because the industry had a crying need for software usability certification and I wanted to fulfill that. It is a gift.

I have been very much pleased with the success of the Certified Usability Analyst™ program. I get calls from companies who are deciding on a vendor based partly on their CUA staff. We have MANY examples of people getting promotions and jobs based on their certification. But most importantly, I see this as one of many essential pieces to moving usability to a mature and institutionalized practice.

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August 4, 2003 – submitted by Vijay of India

Question: The CUA certification on the whole costs $4000 approximately. In a very narrow area I understand the specialization of such a course. However in a country like India that is almost a years salary for some.

Does the Indian operations provide subsidized pricing as per local conditions.

Eric's response: I am very much dedicated to see Indian designers gain expertise in Usability. HFI provides the full certification program in India at local rates in rupees. We understand that two Lakh is beyond the reach and beyond reason in India (while that price is very competitive in the USA and Europe). So contact our office in Mumbai. Contact details. Incidentally, I now spend most of my time in Mumbai. We are serious about making offshore usability work.

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July 16, 2003 – submitted by Chitra Gurjar of India

Question: I would like to know if there are any programs for HCI certification or the like available in India through any university or any independent organization.

I have gone through lots of stuff on your Web site and have read the article published in the Business world. Great stuff!! very interesting and thought provoking.

Eric's response: There are very limited choices in certification for HCI work. The Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics provides a certification that includes HCI work, as well as requiring competence in other unrelated areas of ergonomics (workspace design, consumer products, etc). Because of this problem HFI created the CUA program (Certified Usability Analyst™). The test is available electronically. You will find quite a few certificants in India. In addition, Human Factors International, Pvt. LTD. (based in Mumbai) provides the full set of courses that are offered by HFI worldwide and will support successful test completion (you do NOT need to take the classes to take the test).

Incidentally, our office in India is working hard to support usability engineering education in India. We believe that India can make usability a part of its reputation in Info tech. We will try to make that happen.

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May 27, 2003 – submitted by Hal Taylor of Zurich, Switzerland

Question: As someone interested in getting into usability and interface design, I think your site is great, particularly the list of relevant academic programs; are you aware of any such programs outside of North America?

Thanks in advance for any info you may be able to provide...

Eric's response: Check this link. It has links to several institutes in Europe, Australia, etc.

http://www.hcibib.org/education/#PROGRAMS

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April 23, 2003 – submitted by Murali Pariyarakaran of India

Question: I'm a Web designer with 5 years of experience in Web/graphic designing and IA. I've been following the principles of usability, but still I would like to master the usability field. What are the best ways to master this field? Do I need to continue my same techniques? What is the best method to adopt? Is there any usability bible to follow.

Eric's response: Murali, there is a lot to learn to move from graphic design and IA to the full usability engineering discipline. I think one of the best ways to start is to complete the HFI certification track. This will give you a solid foundation (equivalent to many masters degrees in my opinion) but take only a couple of weeks to complete. We now are regularly offering the full set of courses in the Indian market. While there are many books in the field (the HFI Web site contains a bibliography that you can start with), I feel that you need the direct contact and practice that comes with personal instruction.

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April 16, 2003 – submitted by Rina Parakh of Stamford, CT

Question: Hi, I would like to know exactly what a Human Factors specialist has expertise in. It would be a great help to clear my concepts. Thank you, Rina.

Eric's response: 'Human Factors Specialist' goes by other names like 'Usability Practitioner', 'Software Ergonomist', and 'Engineering Psychologist'. They all mean the same thing. They are professionals trained to ensure that Web sites and applications are practical, useful, usable, and satisfying. They do this by applying research-based principles from the field of user-centered design. There is at least a billion dollars worth of research into the best design of user interfaces. They must be familiar with this material. They must also be familiar with the underlying models of human cognition, sensation and perception, biomechanics, sociology, environmental psychology, and consumer psychology. Finally, there is a whole set of user-centered development activities that the specialist must know. This includes contextual inquiry, interface design, and usability testing.

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April 9, 2003 – submitted by Elizabeth of VA, USA

Question: I have a couple of Masters degrees in psychology and worked successfully for over a year as a usability analyst for a prominent Web site near Washington, DC. Now I am interested in pursuing independent consulting work in usability but don't know how I should get started. Should I offer to do a free evaluation of a business site in my area? What else? Any good resources to recommend as I begin down this road? I would love to help local companies and Mom & Pops to improve their sites.

Eric's response: Elizabeth, I am delighted to see your enthusiasm for our field. But please consider one step before "hanging out your shingle." From your description you have far too little experience to be an effective consultant in the usability area. Even if your enthusiasm will land you work; you will almost certainly find yourself failing to offer the level of service your customers deserve. Get a job working for a major specialized usability consultancy, or a company that has a large usability team. Get at LEAST 5 years of diverse usability engineering experience under a good mentor. Get some education or training focused specifically on interface design. Get certified. Then consider working as a consultant. With 5-10 years of experience you may be part of the solution in making information technology meet people's needs, instead of part of the problem of unqualified people pawning themselves off as usability experts.

When you have a reasonable foundation in the field let me know. I will be happy to make some suggestions for how to work in the very difficult mode of a small consultancy.

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March 29, 2003 – submitted by Vimal Mistry of Leicester, UK

Question: I am a graduate having completed my Computing degree, during July 2000 from De Montfort University, Leicester. During the final year of the course I was extremely interested in the Human Factors of Systems, particularly Usability.

My question is what advice can I seek from you in order for me to pursue a career within Usability.

Eric's response: Vimal, I am delighted you are interested in the usability field. I think it is the most critical type of expertise needed to make the information age reach its potential.

A systems background is useful, but it will take some work to get transitioned into the usability area. There are basically two paths. First, you can consider going back to school and getting a Masters degree which is a good working degree for a practitioner. There is a list of programs at the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society site.

Alternatively, you can get a job where you can learn the field. Find a company which wants to get usability work done. Then have them send you to a training program (like the HFI certification track). That will give you a foundation. Then work with as many more experienced usability practitioners as you can.

In either case, I think you will find the field full of good challenges and opportunities.

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March 21, 2003 – submitted by Debra Smith of United States

Question: I often encountered the phrase "effective user interface" while searching the web. Can you please give me a definition for this phrase? Thank you.

Eric's response: Of course!

An "Effective Interface" is...

  • Practical and Useful. That means it has real value and fits into people's lives in a reasonable way.
  • Fast. Meaning the user can do tasks quickly.
  • Accurate. Meaning it is designed to minimize the likelihood that users will make mistakes and catches errors and handles them well.
  • Self-evident. Meaning it is designed to minimize or eliminate the need for training.
  • Finally, occasionally there are issues of safety.

While you might not consider user satisfaction "effective" we definitely count that as an essential part of the user interface design objectives.

ALL of the variables I have described are measurable. Speed is measurable with a stop watch, satisfaction with rating scales. So this is not "soft" and unknowable. These are concrete design issues.

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March 10, 2003 – submitted by Mazen Dadouch of Malta

Question: What are the key differences between machine-centered and human-centered design?

Eric's response: Wonderful question Mazen! In "machine-centered" design you start with the needs of the machine. You consider internal structures based on the logic and needs of the physical (or computer) structures. So you might start with the database structure based on a
"logical" construct. So you might have all the Accounting data in one file and all the insurance policy data in another.

In user-centric design we start by understanding what the user does and make the technology fit what the user does. For example you might find that the user virtually alternates between customer data, insurance policy data, and accounting data. It may make much more sense to structure things by new customers, existing customers, and past customers.

A user-centered process always starts with a focus on the user needs, limitations, and environment. THEN the technology is addressed. This is the ONLY way I know to reliably create a usable application or product.

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February 7, 2003 – submitted by Alan Douglas of United States

Question: I'm looking into pursuing a career as a Web site developer, but I'm not sure if I should pursue the field of design or go down a path for usability. They both seem exciting to me, but I'm not exactly sure of the difference. Perhaps you could help explain where they are the same, where they are different and what can qualify someone to consider themselves a "usability expert."

Thanks in advance

Eric's response: Both design and usability work have the same end goal: an optimized level of user experience and performance. However, they use different approaches. Designers take a more artistic role. Usability staff are more analytic, systematic, and scientific.

To go into design work you will need a graphic arts and creative background. You will get a MFA and hopefully specialize in online presentation. In the end you will do a lot of work on the graphic look of sites and ensure that the sites fit with brand objectives.

To go into usability you will need a psychology background and specialization in human computer design. There are specific degrees available in the field and a Masters degree is probably required. You will study human perception, cognition, memory, learning theory, and biomechanics. You will study methods of task analysis, testing, etc. In the end you will work on the structural organization of sites. You will establish standards and help with the wording, layout, color selection, and controls. But you won't draw much. That is for the designers.

There are some people who do both, but only a few. Most people come at the site optimization problem from an artistic or an analytic angle (though it is never quite that black and white).

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February 6, 2003 – submitted by Sudhir Nain of India

Question: My question and the underlying problem is exactly similar to that of December 11, 2002 question submitted by Max William of Mumbai, India.

I have been in the field of UI Design and Usability since last 4 years, but feel really inadequately qualified. I need to take up a course in HCI in India, preferably while working simultaneously.

Please guide me...

Thanks and Regards
Sudhir Nain

Eric's response: The first couple of years of evangelizing about Usability to the Indian Infotech industry felt fruitless. In each venue I was listened to with serious attention and treated with wonderful hospitality. But I did not see anything much being done.

Now I am deeply gratified to find so many companies embracing usability as a competitive advantage. I am working very hard to provide training and certification at reasonable local prices for the India market. We now have our full certification program available in India. In fact I write this response enroute to Mumbai for my 17th trip. I now feel sure that India will become known for its high quality and unique user-centered design work.

For more information on our offerings in India, please be in touch with Mahesh Menon.

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