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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 19, 2007 – submitted by Udit Sawhney of India

Question: Hi Eric, I recently attended HFI's 4-pack course in Mumbai and really liked it. I am presently working in the e-learning industry as the UI person. I am keen on changing my domain from e-learning to Usability Expert and was thinking to do a masters degree in the same. I wanted to check with you which are the best courses available out there (in USA or some other country) and how can I apply for it. I have seen the university listing on the HFI website but am unable to make out which are the best ones. Really need your support on this. Eric's response: Well I am delighted to hear about your interest!!

I think you would find Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and University of Maryland are all very good. We have also had some good experience with staff from Clemson University.

And DO give us a call when you graduate!

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August 16, 2007 – submitted by Amanda Mitchell of MD, USA

Question: Could you tell me how a college graduate would go about getting started in the field of usability? Is there an entry level job that could lead to information architect or user experience lead? Thanks for your time. Eric's response: While exceptions exist, most usability professionals have a Masters degree in usability or a related field. The MS seems to be the normal working degree. You can certainly try to get a job in industry and work your way up to the point where they will pay for your education and training in usability, but if you can swing it; get a masters in the field. Graduate programs are listed on the HFES Web site.
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August 16, 2007 – submitted by Pav C of London, UK

Question: As an international usability consultant (educated and bought up in the UK), I am of Indian origin. I wonder how much can someone of at least 7-8 years experience expect to earn in India, especially Mumbai?

Eric's response: Salarys depend on your skill set, including both usability techniques and management skills. With 8 years of experience and good management ability you should expect around 25 Lakh. With limited management ability but good technical skills you might see half that. Of course with that salary you will have quite a lifestyle in India.
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July 25, 2007 – submitted by Carla Khost of NY, USA

Question: I am interested in a position at a company where they have just completed the design/development of a new Web site.

The site is designed using current Web 2.0 technologies. While the backend is very sophisticated the managers of the firm have decided they do not like the new site design. If I accept a position as the new in-house designer how can I persuade them to go with my newer design and stick with it?

Eric's response: It worries me that the metric of success is that managers "LIKE" the new design. The proper metric should be business results!

If you take a job in a firm that has "Boss Likes It" as the key metric, you are certainly in an out-of-date and primitive place. Not the best for career growth OR stability.

But it is pretty easy to "suck-ceed". You just pay a lot of attention to what the Bosses like – if possible get them to made the design decisions. They will own it and love it. But I pity the poor users, and shareholders.

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June 1, 2007 – submitted by Deb Achyuta of Charlottesville, VA

Question: I have done my undergrad in Management and grad degree in Human factors (worked on designing automobiles for the physically challenged). I am keen on doing an HCI degree on a masters level as I am now able to appreciate the area. Do you think I can understand the field with my background AND find a job? :) Eric's response: Hi Deb,

There are certainly LOTS of jobs in User Experience these days. But I'm a bit worried for you. If you have just completed a degree with a focus on physical ergonomics, you are truly switching to a very different field. Much of what you learned will help, but there is a lot that is specific to the software arena. A masters in automobile ergonomics does NOT let you do masters level work in HCI.

So one suggestion is to get a job in the Automotive Ergonomics area, and then see if you can find opportunities to work and train in HCI within that company. Another angle is to get training in HCI and then job hunt off that. For example, HFI's CUA™ on top of the physical ergonomics masters is likely to get you more serious attention from software UX recruiters.

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April 5, 2007 – submitted by Srinivas Manda of WA, USA

Question: How are you? I am a CUA and I would like to upgrade and learn more about usability and HCI. Could you please point out some places where I can learn more about usability in US (basically I wanted to learn more about the methods, how users think, related to psychology, etc.). I am looking for something that can be done in a distance education.

Eric's response: Well congratulations on the CUA. That shows you have a good start. There are two paths you can take. One is to go ahead and get an advanced degree. There really are NOT any good distance programs that I have seen. But you might find a program you can work with. There is a fantastic listing of graduate programs in usability from the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

I am really glad that you understand that a CUA or Masters, or even a Doctorate is not the end of learning in this field. Al Capanis looked at the supporting literature in usability about twenty years ago and said there are 70 things published a DAY. So you must ALWAYS work to stay current. Go to conferences and join the local chapters of our organizations (UPA and CHI are probably the main ones right now). Keep track of the books that come out and read the ones that interest you. Read the related information, especially from the various fields in psychology. I ALWAYS read each year's "Annual Review of Psychology". It's a fantastic way to stay up-to-date in the foundational areas (I have copies of the review back to the year I was born.)

For professional development you should consider specializing. You might become interested in a domain (e.g., Medical Software Usability. You might address specific objectives (e.g., Emotional Design). You might also specialize to address certain usability functions (e.g., Usability Testing).

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April 2, 2007 – submitted by Surya Kiran of Pune, India

Question: What kind of skills should a Usability Engineer have? How is the future of this field? Is it open for people who are from non-design/human factors engineering, say computer science students?

What are the chances/further courses to develop in this field? As I see it this field is technically nothing when compared to Development and QA fields. These people can't even compete with Technical Support people. So, in this case how will it affect the future of a person who is from a computer science background?

Eric's response: I think there will be a continuing role for computer scientists. Of course that role will steadily be less, as tools for creating software become more sophisticated. Eventually, I think much software will be created with a usability practitioner working on a simple application building tool. There will of course be some work BUILDING the content management tools for software technicians.

The usability field still provides opportunities for people to join from a wide set of backgrounds. Usually we find that computer science backgrounds are a POOR foundation for usability work. Computer scientists TEND to see the world from a system background and miss the user-centric part. That said, we occasionally find someone who CAN bridge the gap. But generally we find that selected product designers, visual communication graduates, etc. have a better foundation to learn this work.

Training for the usability field is still weak in India. The field is profoundly complex and the existing programs don't really do it justice. You can occasionally get HFI's training in India (the same as provided worldwide). There are several lower priced courses also. The Master degrees are still a bit rough, but I expect I will be recommending programs within the year. They are finally making real progress in my opinion, and good Masters programs will really help.

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March 20, 2007 – submitted by Matt Floyd of Fairfield, IA

Question: Hi there, I would like to know how I could combine the knowledge of Robotic Engineering and Psychology together. I feel that the combination could be a "goldmine" career opportunity. I just need to know the right information and use it accurately. I personally think that psychology would give me the edge to Robotic Engineering. How would I go about this for college?

Eric's response: Hi Matt. There is absolutely a field that specializes in the design of robotic control systems. Teleoperator usability is a very interesting and complex area. It often involves challenges of data visualization, and complex control/display relationships, sometimes operating with significant time delay. Applications in industry, space exploration, transportation, and military systems are extensive now, and sure to grow in the future.

There is another area where a psychologist can be involved. The design of robotic systems often take a bionic approach. That is, they model the machine design after biological systems. Just as aviation has often modeled after the function of birds and insects; robotic systems model themselves (roughly) after human information processing.

So there are at least two major areas; engineering psychology (for design of control systems), and bionics (to participate in the design of robotic sensory and information processing systems. Fun stuff...

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March 7, 2007 – submitted by Vinod Chacko of PA, USA

Question: Hello! I am a physician in training. I am interested in medical informatics, a relatively new field. I do not have any programming skills. Even though I am pretty good at software and stuff, I am pretty new to usability. I would like to know and learn about usability. Since I am a practicing physician do you have any comment / suggestion on my career track in this. BTW, I love medicine and would like to see my patients (this is not a runaway from medicine). Can you help me in getting an insight into this? Thank you.

Eric's response: First, the idea of combining an MD background and usability is totally fantastic.

At HFI we are pushing hard to verticalize usability, so that our usability practitioners know the language and issues in specific domains. In fact we are just finalizing training in Medical systems, a separate program in pharma. I think the future of usability work is in fact verticalized. The days where most work is done by usability generalists is numbered.

Second, our courses will be perfect for you. They do not at ALL require a technical background and will give you a perfect push into the field.

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February 26, 2007 – submitted by Tricker Baron of Gurgaon, India

Question: With more than 6 years of Web designing experience I am working as a User Interface designer in a company in Gurgaon. Now I want to continue with the same profile of User Interface Designer. Kindly give me the suggestion which course of action would be helpful for me. In many articles on the internet I read that Human Computer Interaction is the best for my career growth in UI Designing. Is that correct? If yes, do you have any course like this or can you suggest another one which would be helpful for me?

Eric's response: Tricker, I've seen a really disturbing trend in India. I often interview people who report that they have many years of experience as a UI designer. But then I find that they know almost nothing about the profession! Often they have not had a course, or even read a BOOK in the field. This is sad indeed and from my viewpoint makes them pretty much unemployable in serious usability work. This tells me that companies in India are assigning people without qualification to do usability work, and then failing to provide even the most basic training! I would really expect that people in this position would be funded to at least take training classes and perhaps a certification (like HFI's Certified Usability Analyst™ program). Beyond this I hope we will see more and better usability masters degree programs.

So in short, the usability field is a WONDERFUL field to be in. But it is NOT a function of common sense and good intentions. It is a function of proper training. So be sure that you are trained and not just holding an empty title of UI Designer.

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January 18, 2007 – submitted by Asma Hanif of Allahabad, India

Question: For a cognitive science student, what computational or other skills are needed to join a usability testing firm?

Eric's response: Actually most usability testing requires very little beyond the ability to add numbers. Few simple usability tests require statistical analysis. It is important to UNDERSTAND the implications of probability in the interpretation of tests. But statistics are not needed.

If you are in a more sophisticated organization that does more advanced research then you will certainly need parametric and non-parametric statistics as well as multivariate analysis.

If you are in a more general usability firm, or expect to do more sophisticated work you will also need statistical skills to be able to properly interpret research studies that you read... if for nothing else.

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