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"What is it like to have a career in usability?"

The usability industry

While the field of usability has existed for decades, the profession has greatly matured in the last 10-15 years. The long-term prognosis for the industry is also great: there are constant opportunities in almost every industry since new products and technology come out all the time.

If you're pursuing a career in usability, you can expect to find fairly standard job titles such as usability engineer, designer, analyst, or specialist (those wanting to focus specifically on the usability of technology should be cautious about jobs described as "human factors engineering," which often refer only to the ergonomics of workstations and physical design).

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Skill sets & keys to success

The top two criteria for a successful usability career are:

  1. A passion for making technology fit human needs
  2. General computer knowledge and expertise of the domain you wish to pursue (e.g. medical devices, cellular phones, specialized software, etc.). However, it is not necessary to have a background in computer programming.

People come to usability from a wide variety of professional backgrounds (see our Certified Usability Analyst™ of the Month stories for some inspiring examples). Often, people make the transition to usability from a related area of a company like customer service, marketing, training, information services, operations, quality assurance, graphic design or Web/product development. Their usability work then builds on the business knowledge gained through this experience to improve user interfaces and task flows.

Usability professionals tend to be outgoing, perceptive, and inquisitive by nature. They have an innate desire to understand how people think and work, always striving to improve technology by making it easier to use. A skilled usability professional employs research-based methods and principles to understand users' "conceptual model" of a task and then design an interface that reflects this thought process accordingly. Refined interview techniques can also help users articulate underlying needs that had previously existed only subconsciously. While observing user behavior, it's important to distinguish between what people say they do versus what they actually do – which can often differ quite widely.

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Positions: who's hiring?

Traditional job search tactics all apply to usability. When talking with a specific company, ask if they have a user experience team or usability group (if they don't know what you're talking about, that's not a good sign!). It's easiest to join an established usability team within a company, rather than being a pioneer and starting a usability initiative from scratch. In the past it was easier to start out as an independent consultant, but as the field has matured, companies tend to look for consultants who are already well-established and credentialed.

Alternatively, job Web sites like www.monster.com contain listings if you search by keywords such as "usability" or "user experience." The industry associations and conferences listed in later sections are also great places to network and find opportunities. The Usability Professionals Association (UPA) posts openings on its Web site, and can also help put you in touch with an active practitioner (or university) if you'd like to learn more.

The pay scale for usability professionals mirrors that of a standard IT compensation package, with the following rough equivalents:

Jobs at Human Factors International

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How to get started

There are many formal university degree programs in usability (mostly masters level), plus professional training opportunities and practical hands-on options. As with most fields, the best way to learn is by getting experience working on real projects for 6-12 months. But this often represents a "chicken-and-egg" dilemma, since it can be difficult to get project assignments without experience. We recommend attending the major industry conferences and tutorials to jump-start your usability career, gain a broad understanding of the field, and get a clearer picture of available opportunities:

Industry associations include:

Listing of usability degree programs

An extensive reading list on user-centered design

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Research vs. design

There are two main branches of the usability profession: research and design. Some people have the ability to do both, but many find it more effective to specialize in just one.

Research
When people talk about "user research," they usually don't mean research in an R&D or academic sense. User research refers to the interviews and data gathering activities that generate the information needed to create user-centered technology – think of it as user-centered requirements gathering and analysis. User research also involves evaluating products and designs after they've been created, known as usability testing. Both of these tasks require skills of synthesis and reduction – i.e. collecting lots of information and distilling it into meaningful data. You must be comfortable interviewing and observing people in many different situations and also be able to put them at ease so you can witness real behavior.

Design
Usability designers must take the data provided by user researches and apply it. Designers must be problem solvers who create interfaces that meet end-user needs. By contrast, user researchers identify problems through their evaluation and testing techniques – and may offer recommendations – but it's up to the designer to actually implement a solution.

As you become familiar with the usability field, keep these two roles in mind and decide which one fits your personality and skill set best. Hopefully you can excel at both!

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What usability analysts want

Most usability practitioners go into the profession because they want to help make people's lives easier, better, and more enjoyable. Some who are new to the usability profession are surprised at the huge range of recognition among companies – some organizations embrace user experience programs while others only pay lip service to the idea.

Defining success
Defining what makes usability a success is important because it's frustrating when your recommendations aren't applied. But even though a product/technology may not be perfect, if your involvement improved its ease of use, then you should considered yourself successful.

Collaboration and challenge
Many people in usability are eager to work with a team to create usable designs. For those who are more experienced, it's also important to have interesting and challenging projects that stimulate creative thinking and problem solving. Most people don't want to redesign the same types of Web sites again and again. Lastly, many usability practitioners tend to be evangelists within their organizations – always intent on raising awareness about the value and need for user-centered design.

From everyone at Human Factors International, we thank you for being a part of this year's World Usability Day and look forward to a happy, more usable future together!

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