Usability Professionals and Technical Communicators

Subject: Usability Professionals and Technical Communicators
From: "Cardimon, Craig" <ccardimon -at- M-S-G -dot- com>
To: "Techwr-l" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 12 Nov 2007 16:03:43 -0500

[Opening the can of worms...]

Okay, folks, how are usability professionals and technical communicators
different, and how are they similar? From nytimes.

-- Craig

July 8, 2007

Fresh Starts

Technology's Untanglers: They Make It Really Work


SOMETIMES there is a huge disconnect between the people who make a
product and the people who use it. The creator of a Web site may assume
too much knowledge on the part of users, leading to confusion. Software
designers may not anticipate user behavior that can unintentionally
destroy an entire database. Manufacturers can make equipment that
inadvertently increases the likelihood of repetitive stress injuries.

Enter the usability professional, whose work has recently developed into
a solid career track, driven mostly by advancements in technology.

Jobs in the usability industry are varied, as are the backgrounds of the
people who hold them. The work can involve testing products in a
laboratory, watching people use products in the field or developing
testing methods.

When the federal government was creating its informational Web site (now
known as, it brought in usability experts to look for flaws. By
watching users, the site's creators found that people were having
trouble finding an individual agency's Web site because they did not
know which department to look under.

"Even people in the Washington, D.C., area didn't know that," said
Janice Redish, a usability consultant who worked on the project in
February 2002. "It was an easy fix once we knew it."

Dr. Redish, whose background is in linguistics, is a usability
consultant specializing in Web sites and software interfaces. In 1979,
she founded the Document Design Center for the American Institutes for
Research to examine how the government could make its documents more
understandable. By 1985, she had established an independent usability
laboratory and was testing software interfaces and documentation for
companies like I.B.M.
iness_machines/index.html?inline=nyt-org> and Sony
index.html?inline=nyt-org> .

"It's really a field that has taken off in the last three, four, five
years," Dr. Redish said. "I think the Web has really made companies and
agencies understand they are in a conversation with their customers."

In some cases, usability research has become very sophisticated, relying
on equipment like eye-tracking software to analyze precisely what users
are looking at on a computer screen. But in most cases, Dr. Redish said,
the work relies on solid observation and interview skills.

Eric Danas, a geophysicist who worked for years in the oil exploration
industry, became involved in usability after seeing how information
could be tailored to different audiences. He went back to school and
received a graduate degree in human factors (the study of how people
interact with technology and other things) and advanced interface

In 1995, Mr. Danas became a usability expert specializing in software
design. Today, he works for Microsoft
tion/index.html?inline=nyt-org> , leading a "user experience team" that
examines how to make software more accessible.

"The users of our products don't really care about the technology," Mr.
Danas said. "They just have a job they're trying to do. We bridge the
gap between what technology is capable of doing and what users want to

Many usability jobs are related to computers and the Web. But usability
professionals are also in demand in fields like medicine.

Mary LaLomia, who has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, is a product
manager who specializes in usability at Philips Medical Systems in
Bothell, Wash. As part of the job, she recently surveyed 20 sites where
the company's ultrasound system was being used. She helped examine
everything from the design of the equipment to avoiding repetitive
stress injury to how patient information flows through the system.

In response to a growing demand for usability jobs, schools are offering
degrees in areas like human computer interaction, new media and
accessible Web design. But much of the training for usability jobs is
happening in the workplace.

"People come into it from many different areas," Dr. Redish said.
"Anthropology, for example, is a great background for the field service
aspect, going out to a customer's workplace or a person's home." She
said that linguistics is relevant "because it's all about how people

The Usability Professionals' Association offers tutorials and holds an
annual meeting. The Society for Technical Communication also has a group
on usability and user experience.

General online job boards are a good resource for usability jobs. In
addition, the usability association lists job postings on its Web site,
and job placement firms like Bestica Inc. specialize in usability design

Harvinder Singh, president of Bestica, which is based in San Antonio,
says that there is a shortage of people to fill usability jobs.

"We're working with companies like Microsoft and Yahoo
tml?inline=nyt-org> and having a lot of trouble finding
user-experienced people," he said.

More companies are dividing the various aspects of the job, he said. A
business might want a usability researcher to go out and talk with users
and examine what they're comfortable with. Then it might employ a
usability design expert to incorporate the researcher's findings into
the way a product works.

According to information compiled by the usability association in 2005,
annual pay in the field in the United States started at about $49,000
and rose to about $120,000. The average salary was $86,500.

Usability position are receiving more visibility within companies, and
high-ranking positions like director of usability are being created, Mr.
Danas of Microsoft said. "From a career standpoint I think there's a lot
of opportunity, and that's getting broader every day," he said.

Fresh Starts is a monthly column about emerging jobs and job trends.


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