Volume 5, Issue 3 
September 2003

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Professional Title and Association du Jour

By: Janice James

There's been a lot of chatter recently on one of the Yahoo Groups I belong to (interactionarchitects) revolving around the issue of “we get no respect.” A few people seem to have spent so much time commiserating about their lack of respect, you'd have to wonder just how they get any actual work (respectful or otherwise) done. The discussions on this not-so-new theme topic began as a response to Bruce Tognazzini's recent article entitled It's Time We Got Respect.

For those of you who are not so flush with unbillable hours to have had time to participate in this lively debate, I'll provide you some background and then get to the heart of the issue I think we, as usability professionals , need to further examine.

“It's Time We Got Respect”

Tog's article is basically a call to action for human/computer interaction architects, for lack of a better title, to come together and decide upon a descriptive and powerful name, and then brand the name just as usability professionals have done. Tog initially implied in his article (but has since revised) that usability professionals = human interface testers . This implication inspired me to participate in the discussion early on. I, of course, asserted that usability professionals are more than testers and in fact frequently perform a broad range of usability processes. Many of us also do interaction design.

Consequently, a flurry of discussion ensued about what usability professionals are and aren't, most fervently it seems by those who aren't. Many seemed to be of the opinion that usability professionals are indeed only testers. Oh, I should point out that some did rush to our defense adding that usability professionals also do heuristic evaluations. The main theme of this phase of the discussion was possibly to establish whether usability professionals should even be a part of this movement since they, according to some, are just testers.

The Yahoo Groups discussion has initiated other related articles:

Molly Steenson and Mike Kuniavsky have even developed, tongue firmly in cheek, a tool that will help you find a new title for yourself if you're involved in designing interfaces (http://www.girlwonder.com/jobs.html).

And moderated discussions on the same Yahoo Groups have begun with leaders steering the ‘members' to find the perfect title for human/interaction designers and determining if it is necessary to create a new professional association.

Is Perception Reality?

I'm sure many of you have heard me “whine” over the last few years that the usability profession has become diluted . By diluted I mean that the term usability professional has been reduced in scope and more narrowly defined as usability tester. I've noticed over the last couple of years, as ‘usability' became a more popular and familiar term in the business environment, more and more market research and design firms started jumping on this bandwagon to claim they too do ‘usability.' Most of the firms don't provide a range of usability processes as part of a UCD methodology they advocate—they simply provide usability test services. This has added to the perception that usability equates to usability testing.

That the business community has a misperception (or even no perception at all) about the usability profession is troubling, but the realization that this misperception is common within our own professional circles I would say is a crisis that will become a defining moment for our organization.

Since the beginning of UPA, usability professional was always intended to represent those whose tasks ranged from, if not included, many or all of those defined in the aforementioned discussions as the tasks of interaction designers, namely:

  • ethnographical studies
  • develop personas, scenarios, or use cases
  • design high-level task flows
  • conduct competitive research
  • create information architectures
  • develop screen layouts
  • define the behavior of the interface: selection, popups, etc.
  • prototype early designs
  • analyze usage of already-built designs
  • develop page-level specifications
  • conduct usability studies
  • create information design
  • conduct usefulness studies

Meaningful Specialization or Unnecessary Splintering?

I would never criticize anyone who wants to start a new association to satisfy an unmet need! And no doubt there are some needs not being met by the Association. But the critical question, it seems to me, is whether these unmet needs might better be addressed within the existing structure of the UPA (or another Association), rather than splintering off into possibly numerous smaller, and ever more narrowly defined groups. Specifically, some of the questions we need to examine in this process of redefining ourselves, and perhaps our representative Association (UPA) are as follows:

  • Are the needs of those who do interaction design as part or all of their jobs truly not being sufficiently met by the existing associations? There's still so much discussion being generated about the real need for a new association that I am apparently not the only one left wondering.
  • Has this movement indirectly revealed that usability professionals might be in the midst of an identity crisis? Have we as usability professionals not effectively communicated who we are and what we do? Has the title of usability professional become ineffective and outdated? Or does it simply need to be better positioned and marketed to the business community?

Clarifying Reality—another call to action!

Only if we change the way we're perceived within our own circles can we then effectively communicate to those outside of our own playing field who we are and what we do. We spend a lot of time preaching to and debating things like titles and tasks, often disagreeing among ourselves. If we can't agree among our own peers, then we are not likely to raise the awareness and thus gain the respect of our co-workers and others in the business world. We need to take steps within the UPA and individually to make further progress in defining ourselves, and, more importantly, the purpose we serve. Some specifics I might suggest, without getting too detailed for this article, are:

  • First, we need to engage in an aggressive effort to better define and market the Usability Professional and the UPA. We need to ensure that we have clear, concise definitions of our profession, our Association and its direction, and, most importantly, the skills and value we as usability professionals can offer businesses. The messages must be meaningful to the uninitiated and not simply self-serving.
  • The annual conference is UPA's biggest ‘branding' opportunity. The content of the conference program should be strategically developed to ensure that the different disciplines and levels of expertise (and their unmet needs) within the field are sufficiently addressed.
  • The UPA board might add an item to their agenda that focuses on developing measurable goals for attracting professionals with the breadth of skills and experience that should comprise the Association's membership.

Let's get past the debate about which professional title owns which tasks. The fact is it doesn't really matter who the owner is as long as someone competent in the field is filling that role. Reality is that the size of the company for which we work often dictates the number of those tasks for which we have responsibility. We might use different titles (interaction architect, interface designer, user experience designer, usability professional, etc.) to describe ourselves, but let's at least be consistent in our communications about the UCD skills and experiences we have to offer and how they are beneficial to businesses. And, lets not pigeonhole a title to mean one specific task.

The bottom line is that no matter what we call ourselves, we share the common goal of developing products and services that people can actually use and enjoy using. Obviously we need an organization that embraces all that is involved in the UCD process and that assists us in communicating the value we have to offer businesses. If splintering is the only solution to better meet the needs of those who do more than just one piece of the process, then so be it. But that should come only after we explore the alternative solution of reviving, better defining and demonstrating the goals of our existing organization (UPA).

Usability Professionals' Association

140 N. Bloomingdale Road
Bloomingdale, IL 60108-1017
Tel: +1.630.980.4997
Fax: +1.630.351.8490
UPA: office@upassoc.org

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