Did Usability Design Jump The Shark?

In the last couple of months I have been working on smaller projects and training myself to keep my skills all up to date. And in the meanwhile I also have been looking for bigger opportunities since that the last company I received  a majority of my income from went the way of the Titanic. As a Interaction Designer by education and trade, it was that what I was attracted to the most.

When I studied Interaction Design at the Utrecht school of the Arts in 1993-1997, we were already told that the world would not really understand the focus of our profession. The Utrecht school of the Arts was the very first school in the world focusing on interactive systems and its interface and behavior designs. We were in the second year ever being there, making it only a handful of Interaction Designers in the world when we came out of school.

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The very famous unusable teapot. Sounds obvious, no? Well, better believe it, most IT companies design just this in their productions.

I have build my career from it, and with the knowledge how to design, develop and how to manage it has been my bread and butter for the last 20 years. But now with the time here to get myself into another company, I have been faced by a dark and ugly truth; the world STILL doesn’t understand what Usability (or UX) design really is. And I have been at interviews where I had to restrain myself from grabbing someone by the shoulders and shake him out of it, when that someone who has no clue about the world told me how my job actually works. It is no wonder why with every company now hiring UX specialists still make unusable productions. It is because with hiring someone who claims to be an UX specialist a company thinks that they are in the clear if it is about usability.

So, let me write this posting to really make things clearer, also if you tend to be on the lookout for a UX specialist in your company, that you do not pay a lot of money for something that anyone can do:

A Usability Designer is not a Wire-Framer
Anybody can make a wire-frame. It is the easiest form of design since you don’t have to have any skills for it. But you cannot wire-frame anything if you don’t have a vision. You need to know WHAT you are wire-framing, and why.

A Wire-Frame is not an end-product of an Usability Designer
Worse, a wire-frame is only the layout of the elements of the system. But, usability design is about psychology, understanding of your audience, how they talk, how they work, how they understand things and how they learn. It is about applying color, shapes, movement, animation, audio and visual or contextual feedback.

A Usability Designer MUST be also a Graphic Designer
Again, usability is not about placement. It is about the whole interface between your user and your system. And your interface is the screen between the user and your system. It may be the keyboard, or touch, or even voice activated. That whole experience on that screen comes from the Usability or Interaction Designer.
But a Usability Designer must design. The use of color, space, visual feedback, it is all what comes from an Usability Designer. Not only the notion of where things go.

A Usability Designer works with the Art Director or Creative Director
If the Usability Designer is not the Art Director, he/she should work closely with them. The Art Director provides his/her vision to the Usability Designer before a design is created. Together they will merge in the usability systems in this creative concept. And after that, the Art Director will provide the designers from your creative team with the concept who will then work it to a finished product.
Of course, in smaller companies, a good Usability Designer is trained to do all these roles for themselves, and in this scenario you should not only test a Usability Designer on his UX skills, but also on his graphical skills.

It is all about the user
Keep in mind, that if you hire a Usability Designer, it is like the necessary medicine to make your production healthy. You can have the most wonderful production in what it can do, but if your customers cannot use it, or are unable to learn it, or are even getting frustrated with it, you will be the one losing. A Usability Designer is the one who first asks you about your audience, before even looking at anything else. He/she needs to know first and foremost about the people who will be using your system. What age, sex, experience level, what kind of input devices they use, how well they use them, their understanding of language and computer skills etc. etc.
Only after that will he/she be putting their attention to your system. And if your system is already existing, be prepared for bad news, because even the slightest rebuild might be even a pricey one.  That is why it is always easier to hire a Usability Designer in the creative phase of your productions.
After everything is done, built, and created into a prototype, your Usability Designer or Specialist will guide you into the user testing. And the work is only done when the users indeed are able to reach the milestones that were set in the beginning. Bigger companies will do this using a usability lab, but a smaller company can use this in beta testing or simple small one-on-one usability sessions with users.

In the end, there are a lot of really good usability designers out there, and companies that understand the value of a good usable design. It doesn’t have to be amazing, it has to be good. Some designs will become beautiful, other might not even need that flair. But at least, the targeted user should be able to work with it.

Is it worth the money to have a good usability designer on your team? Of course, I will say that it is necessary. But to be honest, in some scenarios, it might not be the first thing on your mind. Most companies bring in a usability designer when the feedback from users has shown that they did something wrong that has to be fixed. And usually, that is where the money comes in. Usability design is not necessary to make something work, but it is necessary to make something work well. If you build a website, you might not need one if it is for something small, or if you use established templates. But if you build something from scratch, you will be glad you had a Usability Designer on your team.

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