Usability in the Wild

The point of this blog isn't to make people feel bad, to insult anyone, or to imply that i'm the best usability person out there. No, the point is far more humble. First, it's to give me a place to vent. I see so many things out there that hurt me, and i need somewhere to let it out. Second, and more noble, i hope to help people fix the quick and dirty usability issues that crop up in the world. And third, hey, why not try to impress people, right?

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Name: lkt
Location: Sunnyvale, California, United States

Monday, April 2, 2007

Why i want to be a usability engineer/analyst/related job title

One of the companies to which i applied asked me to write a letter explaining my interest in the usability field, and in that company specifically. The following is the first part of the letter.


One of my earliest childhood memories is watching my mother dial the telephone, then place the handset in the sockets of a 300-baud modem attached to a monochrome terminal. She typed her e-mail messages very slowly using this setup, as if she outpaced the transfer rate she risked the remote computer terminating the connection, and there was no way to recover data lost with the link. She continued using the new technology despite the myriad hardships because of the benefits it provided.

Now, it is usually the limits of human perception and reaction that constrain our interaction with technology. 300-baud modems have given way to gigabit wireless connections, and laptop computers with 3 Mhz processors have replaced monochrome terminals. The tremendous speed of technological innovation has far outstripped the slower pace of investigation into how humans actually perceive and use technology, yielding a world full of hopelessly complex technology and a population ill suited to benefit from it.

The broken promises of our technological revolutions can’t be fixed with denser processors and faster upload rates; unusable technology, no matter how advanced, is useless. If usability experts had more opportunities to influence emerging technologies, and modify existing technologies, maybe some of the dreams of the technological age will finally come to pass. Perhaps computers will make our lives easier instead of more complex, and our workdays more productive instead of more frustrating.

It’s not just the high tech realm of computers and the Internet that has gotten more complex. One need only compare the engine compartment of a 1960s car with a modern one to see the difference: the dirty, greasy engine laid bare in an older car compared with the sleek, streamlined casing in modern vehicles that keeps your hands clean while you check the oil but hides all of the mechanical components. While changes in automotive technology produce more efficient and reliable vehicles, they also increase the complexity to the point where few people can repair their own vehicle even if they had the time and interest. In addition, dashboards that once featured a speedometer, odometer, gas gauge, and other mandatory dials are now cluttered with symbols and signals. Drivers have more insight than ever before into the workings of their vehicle, but much of it seems pointless. I have no idea why the airbag light illuminates for the first few seconds after I start my car, and I recently paid a fair sum of money for a technician to turn off the ‘check engine’ light, which was on despite my engine’s perfect health.

The incomprehensible notifications on my car’s dashboard don’t stop me from driving, and the clumsy user interfaces of various applications and websites don’t stop me from using my computer, but they do saddle me with the knowledge that I’m only reaping a fraction of the possible benefits. Millions of people all over the world are only achieving a fraction of their potential productivity or creativity because of the constraints of their technology. If I could help design or redesign software or devices to mitigate this wasted energy, I would truly feel that I’d helped people and earned my keep in the world.


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