Thursday, January 04, 2007

Deja-vu all over again

Happy New Year to all.

I came across a couple of articles recently that touched on a theme I experienced in previous professional life --
  • In Sale must end: should discount methods be cleared off HCI's shelves? (2002), Cockton & Woolrich assert that discount usability methods (heuristic evaluation, cognitive walkthrough, etc.) produce results that are so error-prone as to be unreliable and of little value. Consequently, they run the risk of undercutting the validity of traditional full testing and the damaging the usability field as a whole.

  • In the Nov 14 '06 edition of Brain Sparks, Jared Spool asserts that the execution of the most recent World Usability Day draws attention to the wrong aspects of the usability profession (from a business perspective), and that it could wind up doing the field as much harm as good.
If I read both articles correctly (and my apologies to the authors if I haven't), the concern centers on the viability of the usability practitioner within the design process and the prestige of the profession within the business enterprise.

For the first 10 or so years of my professional life, I was an in-house corporate video professional. Back then (circa 1990), the buzz was that the use of video was going to explode within the communications departments of corporate America -- perhaps not to the point of full-fledged TV studios in every headquarters, but at minimum a group of professionals taking advantage of the "democratization" that the medium was experiencing.

At the same time, a number of influential people in the field worried about the possible downsides: If more and more companies had the ability to create their own programs, where did that leave the seasoned "professionals" of the day? Would select instances of a more visible and expanded role within the business be worth the risk of more and more examples of sub-standard quality -- a "dumbing-down" that would ultimately cause more harm than good?

As an active member of the predominant trade group of the day, I was very friendly with video pros on both ends of the spectrum -- heads of entire video departments in large-scale businesses, as well as "one-person shops" who were trying to produce enough product to justify their jobs. Equal amounts of fantastic work and absolute crap were produced on both ends of the spectrum. And the video revolution kept on going -- accessibility to equipment, resources and distribution expanded to the point where now you don't need any formal education or professional experience to become a video "star."

In the end, of course, the key was the ability to provide, and prove, value to the business. If the business wasn't getting adequate value for the effort, its use of video was scaled back or eliminated altogether. When I think back on most of the projects I was responsible for in those early days, I honestly wonder what my employers were thinking when they decided to jump on the video bandwagon. On the other hand, for those who were able to derive tangible value from the effort, it didn't matter what was going on in the video world at large.

I can't help but think that HCI/usability is at the same point in its development and acceptance. It's not so much of a crossroads, where the field will take one direction or another. Rather, it could be seen as a widening of the same single road forward. Providing value keeps us near the center line, where moving forward is easiest, and allows the road to accommodate more travellers. Inevitably, some who join the journey will cling to the shoulder, using means, methods and approaches that are risky. Some of those will fall by the wayside, while others will wind up providing even more momentum for moving forward.

To take this automotive analogy one final nauseating step further, my guess is that business is beginning to see enough tangible benefit to what we're doing that use of discount methods and uncertainties over self-promotion are really very minor bumps in the road. As with any facet of business, the measure of value that HCI/usability provides will be the determinant of its fate.

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