Monday, June 25, 2007

Maturity or Bureaucracy?--

In his latest Alert Box, Jacob Nielsen talks about the pros and cons of developers doing their own usability testing. For a while, now, Nielsen has had a maturity model that basically states the more mature an organization is about usability, the more independent the usability function is within that organization. Therefore, developers doing their own testing is an indication of low maturity.

I disagree. One of the most mature organizations I ever worked at from a usability perspective was CheckFree Corporation. For one, the concept of ease-of-use was embedded in their corporate mission statement and they had their own usability lab. The lab was run, however, by designers in the UX department. These folks were part of the Development organization and their main deliverable was not test reports; rather it was the wireframes from which the development team coded the product. A salesman for an external lab once asked me how I sold my usability value within the company. I told him I didn't, the only reason I did usability testing was that I wanted the data to see if my designs would work before the marketplace provided that feedback. My company valued my wireframes; I valued the data that informed those wireframes.

Still, there persists this popular belief that usability has really made it when it is an independent department in a company. To me that's like measuring the maturity of an engineering company by whether or not it has an independent department for doing the math. It doesn't make sense for engineers not to do their own math, nor does it necessarily make sense for designers not to do their own usability testing. To say it is not in their basic skill set merely sets up the question, "Why the hell not?"

About 25 years ago I was managing a training department when my company was making the transition from having a department secretary who typed our video scripts to having the instructional designers use word processors. There was almost a mutiny. Today, we see word processors as cognitive tools, things writers use to help compose and organize their thinking--not merely as output devices.

Usability testing should be the same. It shouldn't be something we send over to the usability pool to have done by "those people." It should be a routine task in the course of doing design.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Call Me Tina--
Apologies to Holly Harkness for the pun on her blog title. I was chatting it up over wine with my mentor and friend Carol Barnum last night at an alumni social and happened to mention that after my varied career in a number of aspects of user-centered design (usability, training, performance support, UX design) I was happy to be back in the core field of technical writing and user assistance in particular. Carol seemed surprised at that, and given all of the buzz over the last couple of years about how we are so much more than technical writers and how we are moving on to sexier roles, I guess I am somewhat of an anomaly. I was making it in the big city and chose to move back to the farm. We talked a little bit about why.

Putting on the Sneakers
At the heart of it, I suppose, is that I like to write and I am trained to write. Information design and writing are my core skills. So I am glad to be back in my sweet spot. As a UX designer, I was always behind the professional power curve of the likes of, say, a Luke Wroblewski, or in usability trying to keep up with such luminaries as Jared and Jacob--not to mention Carol. Technical writing might not be the biggest pond, but it is one in which I know how to fish pretty well, and there is comfort and reward in that.

The less obvious but maybe more compelling reason is somewhat counter-intuitive: In spite of all of the obituaries on technical writing, it has the greatest job security of all of the fields related to user-centered design. In spite of its being often maligned, Help and other product documentation are must-haves, check-off points in the the product bill of material. Companies don't want to spend a lot on it, but no product manager is going to say, "Let's not offer Help with this application." Companies whose products lack usability can still believe they have it. Not true of documentation. If you don't have it, you don't have it.

The down-side, of course is that companies don't want it to cost a lot, so documentation departments get downsized a lot or doc gets off-shored. For one, I think the off-shoring of customer-facing documentation is a short-lived experiment that shows many signs of failing or at least stabilizing due to supply-demand equilibrium.

Well, what about cutbacks and layoffs? It reminds of the story about the two guys running from the bear. One stops to put on his running shoes (sneakers if you are from the South and older than 50), and his friend says, "Those won't make you faster than the bear." The guy counters, "I don't have to be faster than the bear, I just have to be faster than you."

The point is (yes, please, Mike, what is the point?) although good writers get laid off, they don't get driven out of the business. Keep actively pursuing excellence through education and professional development and you will stay ahead of those who don't. Those are the ones the bear gets.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Dressing Like a Grownup--
Al Hood posted pictures from the STC conference recently on his president's blog. There was a picture of me "on Mike's one day to dress like an adult." I actually had on a tie and sportscoat because I was a keynote panelist for the opening ceremony.

Well, I'm dressed kind of like a grownup again today, no tie, but an Izod golf shirt, khaki slacks, sports coat, and leather loafers. I'm going to the STC meeting tonight.

Normally I wear shorts, t-shirt, and sandals to work. What's interesting about that is that I work for IBM. When we (ISS) got acquired by IBM, we asked if our dress code would be affected. Their reply was interesting:

Thomas Watson, IBM's founder, established the white shirt, blue tie, blue slacks look because he felt that "IBM people should look like our customers," and in those days, IT folks and accountants looked like that. Well today, our customers wear shorts, t-shirts, and sandals; so I'm right in step with founder Watson's philosophy.

It makes me wonder, though, as a technical communicator, how else have my readers changed over the years, and what archaic misconceptions might I be dragging around with me? Is the user in my user-centered approach to designing documentation still around, or did he retire years ago? Is he now wearing sandals and t-shirts while I'm writing for wing-tips and ties?

If users shift from being task-oriented, for example, to being concept oriented, how would we know? In fact, I suspect they have. A lot of our conventional technical communication wisdom predates intuitive user interface design, dashboards, and such. We still document GUIs as if most of the world still wonders how radio buttons work.

At my last job, which dealt with online banking, one of our sponsors commented that the Internet and email were becoming the technology of "our customers' parents; the new customers want to bank by Blackberry and cell phone."

The whole persona of the user who is intimidated by technology and befuddled by arcane interactivity--in short the user of my user-centered world--is probably going away (gone away?). To paraphrase Pogo, "We have met the user and he is us," is the downfall of all designers. We design and write for ourselves in the belief that our users are like us. Or we write to someone as they were twenty years ago when we first started studying them.

What if they grew up?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

I'm just too old for some of the new design trends, and I'm starting to mutter at my PC sounding like my Aunt Hattie (bless her heart). I'm back on my soap box about how affordances are going out of vogue with interaction designers in favor of pliancy. One more time in English:

Affordance is the quality an object to look actionable by the nature of its appearance. A graphic of a button with the word Submit on it has a lot of affordance. The convention of underlining a link and putting it in color is so ubiquitous that it has become an affordance.

Pliancy is when an actionable object changes appearance when you mouse over it.

I was on Boxes and Arrows (a premier site on design), and I wanted to read the article "Comics: Not just for laughs!" in the snapshot above. I kept clicking on the author's name, and I kept getting a bio of the author. Finally I moved my mouse incidentally over the name of the article and voila! it turned red and was underlined.
Why does the most important action a user would want to take (open the article) not have an affordance while the links to the author's bio and comments on the article have them?
This is like so Web 2.0 where the user is expected to explore the page in order to discover its functionality as if it were a PlayStation game. I'm feeling ancient.

I know, don't talk, Mike, with your mouth full of Metamucil.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Holly's Back--
For those who missed Holly Harkness's transition from her President's blog, her new blog is:
Just got back from a week at the beach playing with the grandbaby and mastering boat drinks made in a blender--IOW, feeling pretty calm and mellow.

There are a couple of reviews of this year's STC conference on UXMatters .

I wrote this one: It's pretty positive, but I do imply a certain industry guru is standing in elephant poop based on a comment he made in his blog.

This one takes the conference to task, but did have nice things to say about my presentation:

All in all, minor quiblings aside, all views seem to point to exciting possibilities for our profession and how it is converging with other user-centered disciplines. We are writers, hear us roar, kind of stuff.