Usability Design Engineers are Sought for Software The Buzz


Usability design engineers make a myriad of consumer products easier to use. And in today's technical age, they're in great demand.

"When a person interacts with a functional object -- anything from opening a box of cereal, to playing a video game, to driving a car, to ordering merchandise over the web, they're encountering usability," says Barbee Teasley. She is an interface design expert.

The term "interface design expert" is commonly used for those who specialize in websites and software products.

There is a wide range of companies that employ usability design engineers. "These companies range from software houses to telecommunications, aerospace, insurance, finance and electronics. They are also employed by companies that make electronic devices such as cellphones...and games," says Teasley.

She says that when a device or software product is being designed, it's the usability engineer who makes sure it will be as usable as possible. And there's definitely a growing need for them.

"More and more companies and organizations are coming to realize that safety, profitability and consumer satisfaction are influenced by usability. Consumers are becoming more demanding, too. They want technology to work for them and make their lives better -- not confuse and frustrate them," says Teasley.

Saul Greenberg is a computer science professor. He says that what might be fun to program rarely matches what users need and how they think. That's where usability engineers, or what he calls interface professionals, are put to use.

"Everyone has experienced software that is awkward and frustrating to use. Most of these were developed without the involvement of interface professionals," says Greenberg.

"You will certainly find interface designers at most large companies: Intel, Microsoft and so on. Increasingly, mid- and small-sized companies are also hiring interface designers, for they now realize that consumers are becoming increasingly more selective about the software they want to buy," Greenberg says.

Alfred Coppola is the chief usability architect at a company that has branches in Canada and the U.S. He says never before has there been such a need for usability design engineers.

"The broad discipline of usability has become very relevant to consumer websites recently due to the rapid success and deployment of the Internet," he says.

"It's only recently, as more and more people from a greater variety of backgrounds and training are getting on to personal computers, that more and more companies involved with software development at any level are starting to recognize the importance of usability design," says Jenni Merrifield. She is a user interaction designer.

There is an increasing need for formal education and training in order to enter this field. "Most usability engineers have a master's degree or PhD in the field or in related fields such as cognitive psychology, computer science, anthropology, industrial engineering, ergonomics, sociology or industrial design," says Teasley.

"The usability engineer has to understand how people interact naturally with technology; what they like and dislike; what they need to do certain tasks that the product or system is designed to support; when, where and why they are likely to get stuck -- and do their best to prevent this," says Gitte Lindgaard. Lindgaard is a professor of user-centered design.

She says usability engineers are HCI (human-computer interaction) specialists who come from a variety of backgrounds. These include psychology, computer science, information technology, linguistics, design and architecture.

Teasley says people interested in this field should also have a passion for making things easier for people to do. "When someone is struggling with a computer, for example, [a good usability engineer's] first thought is not that the person is stupid. Instead, their first thought is someone designed that interface wrong."

"It's also a good idea to have a developed sense for design, which includes an appreciation for graphic design, and layout design for communication and publishing," says Merrifield.

She says it's important to be creative, logical, empathetic and have technical know-how.

"So long as the personal computer continues to spread among the populations, the need for usability design engineers and their ilk will continue to grow," says Merrifield.

Links

Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (ACM SIGCHI)
Varied information for those interested in the field of human-computer interaction

Usability Professionals' Association
Provides network opportunities for usability professionals

Usability First: Website Design
This site provides resources for anyone interested in working in website usability