Usability and Respect

I recently wrote about the display board outside our office on which I post inspirational UX and usability quotes.  Shortly after I published that post, I discovered that someone had scrawled “waste of time” and “waste of money” on some of the peices of paper I had posted on the board.

At first, I was really bothered that this childish act of vandalism and cowardice occurred in a secure, professional building.  But, the more I thought about it, the more saddened I became that people really believe that usability is a waste of time and money.

I tweeted and Facebooked about the defacing of our display, and I received tons of support from my online social network.  But, that is to be expected because a large number of my online social network are professionals in the web design/UX/IxD/IA/usability fields, so they already get it.  It’s a lot like complaining to other women about being a victim of sexism.

I answered the coward by posting real-life examples of positive ROI of usability:

Since then, I’ve come across some other items that reinforce the fact that, in the words of Rodney Dangerfield, usability gets no respect.

On 7/1, Dilbert did a pretty good job of summing up what it’s like to have the higher ups not understand and respect it:

And, just today, usability guru Jakob Nielsen published an EXCELLENT Alertbox titled “Building Respect for Usability Expertise“!

So, why isn’t the field of usability respected by many?  I think part of it has to do with the fact that humans have fragile egos.  As a usability consultant, I frequently have to tell programmers and managers that the website or system on which they’ve just put in many hours of hard work isn’t usable.  That’s not something they want to hear.  Some (thankfully not all) of those managers and programmers respond to this constructive criticism by rationalizing that usability is a “waste of time” and “waste of money” because it’s easier than facing the fact that what they designed isn’t perfect.

Now, that’s my personal opinion.  Jon Meads has a much better explanation, that he succinctly described in his paper “Laid-off usability engineer, or why we don’t get no respect“:

Software engineering got no respect in the early 1970s. Companies were incorporating minicomputers into their systems. Software was a necessary evil, but what was needed was usually simple to program. Anyone could be a “software engineer” even if the code he produced was structurally isomorphic to a common Italian dinner. Few software managers would insist on having systematic development processes. It added cost, and software had only to be good enough.

Usability engineering is now in a similar situation. Systematic process isn’t needed, according to management. Nor are professional knowledge and experience—that would add cost. Designing the user interface according to guidelines is sufficient, they claim.

Jakob Nielsen used the term “user advocate” to describe usability practitioners.  And, a very apt term it is.  We are advocating for more usable systems for all users.

However, we must also be usability advocates.  Both Nielsen and Meads suggest that to build respect for usability, we practitioners need to preach the benefits of usability.

I hope I’m doing my part with this blog. 🙂

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Jenny:

    Good stuff! I just read Nielsen’s Alertbox article as well. It really helps to put it in perspective. It actually causes me to smirk a little when I think about the fact that we (ux folks) should be able to bust through this wall with relative ease. If we would just use our professional skills and look at those who are adversarial and realize that they are our “users”. I also found two other great articles on Nielsen’s site that are about three years old. They talked about the corporate usability maturity time frame. One of the articles was the last link in his latest Alertbox. Definitely worth the effort to read, study and digest.

    http://www.useit.com/alertbox/maturity.html
    http://www.useit.com/alertbox/process_maturity.html

    Reply

  2. Posted by uxarchitecture on July 6, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    I recognise this syndrome 😉 UX can be seen by as an unwelcome cost, a constraint on creativity and a crimp on architectural purity.

    I don’t have a silver bullet but I’ve had good outcomes from spending time with technical colleagues, sharing war stories, finding shared goals and lending out my battered copy of the Polar Bear book. As ever, the best remedy for prejudice is meaningful collaboration.

    Reply

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