Conference Review: UPA 2007: Part I

August 20, 2007
Organization 4 stars
Content 3 stars
Presenters 4 stars
Proceedings 3 stars
Venue 4 stars
Hospitality 5 stars
Community 5 stars

The Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) held its UPA 2007 conference at the Hilton Hotel in Austin, Texas, on June 11–15, 2007. This conference has a lot to offer, with a blend of

  • the inspirational—keynotes and other invited speakers
  • the didactic—tutorials, presentations, and peer-reviewed papers
  • the participatory—workshops, idea markets, and special interest groups (SIGs)
  • the social—cocktail receptions, networking breaks, lunches, and evening fun

This year’s theme focused on Patterns and how they serve as “blueprints for usability.” Conference co-chair, Carol Smith (shown in Figure 1), articulated the pertinence of this theme. “As usability professionals, our ability to observe users and to discover their patterns of interaction is integral to our work. By defining these patterns, we can then leverage that knowledge to create usable interfaces that are familiar and useful to our users.”

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Figure 1—Conference chairs, Carol Smith and Allain Robillard-Bastien
Carol Smith and Allain Robillard-Bastien

Even on the heels of the 25th anniversary SIGCHI conference, which attracted a large number of North American UX professionals, this year’s UPA conference reached a record high of 741 attendees. This makes an exciting statement about the growth that has taken place in our field and industry’s increasing recognition of usability professionals as strategic business partners in the product and service development lifecycles. Also, a conference focusing on patterns that garners this much interest seems to indicate that we are maturing as practitioners. This renewed interest shows we are seeking to learn from our successes, leverage our mistakes, and develop more efficient means of performing our work, with the hope that patterns will help.

I attended UPA 2007 with the hope of learning more about the relationship between design and patterns. Unfortunately, the designer’s perspective was not well represented at this conference. Given the history of the organization and its focus on usability testing, this was really no surprise, but one hoped for the best. The CHI 2007 conference had the same problem this year. If two of the largest and longest-standing UX conferences are not meeting the needs of designers, is it time for the design community to organize a new conference for themselves?

Despite this gap in the conference’s content, I learned something of even greater importance during the UPA conference this year. UX practitioners within every niche of the field are beginning to re-evaluate the working relationships within UX teams—between team members with different specialties—as well as with our external work partners—the members of multidisciplinary product teams. The next one or two years are going to be critical to the field of usability, as we attempt to redefine our roles and establish common definitions and processes in the face of increasing diversification. Creating awareness and beginning the dialogue solves half the problem. Because of the conversations and formal sessions that took place during the conference, what I took away from UPA 2007 was a sense of hope and anticipation for the future.


Overall, the conference was fairly well organized. The registration process was smooth and simple. Within seconds of mentioning your name, the registration booth staff provided a tote bag, water bottle, and a personalized packet, containing a welcome letter and registration receipt, the conference program, a conference badge, proceedings CD, and meal/drink tickets, plus information regarding any pre-registered workshops and tutorials. The registration booth (shown in Figure 2) and nearby message board served as the central information hub for the conference, providing a convenient place for attendees to learn about conference happenings, receive personal messages, and learn of any session additions or changes.

Figure 2—UPA 2007 registration booth
UPA 2007 registration booth

Overall, the conference planning committee, the hospitality booth staff, and the crew of poncho-clad conference volunteers (shown in Figure 3) made sure everything went on without a hitch. Having served in some of these roles in former years, I know they worked very hard during the conference and remain the unsung heroes. As an attendee with no conference-related obligations this year, I can say that everything looked great from the outside looking in.

Figure 3—Conference volunteers in their ponchos
Conference volunteers

Content & Presenters

The first two days of the conference, Monday and Tuesday, were devoted to special sessions like tutorials, interactive workshops, and on Tuesday, the Experienced Practitioner program. Because of other commitments, I was unable to attend any of those sessions. On Wednesday, the conference officially began with an opening plenary. The three days of the conference were filled with sessions belonging to the following categories:

  • invited speakers
  • experienced practitioners
  • methods and skills
  • strategy and organization
  • accessibility and internationalization
  • consulting and testing
  • design—Web, product, mobile, multimodal
  • workshop highlights

As is traditionally the case with UPA, the conference served the usability testing community and Web-focused practitioners quite well. But, in response to our expanding global economy, this year’s conference also brought renewed focus on international issues, including recruiting international users, testing in newly tapped markets, and working in geographically distributed teams. In addition, I saw an improvement in the conference offerings for more experienced practitioners. Sessions extended beyond the discussion of advanced methodologies and cursory examination of usability institutionalization to slightly meatier issues regarding pricing models, metrics, and driving deep organizational change.

Finding this type of depth and variety in the session options was wonderful. But I was a bit surprised to discover that only a small percentage of the sessions were actually dedicated to the topic of patterns. Unlike at last year’s conference, where the organizers wove the Storytelling theme throughout every aspect of the event—from the host city, keynote addresses, conference sessions, and entertainment—this conference’s exploration of patterns seemed to be confined to just a few invited speakers and presentation sessions. Given the large body of research in the use of patterns for engineering, software development. and UX design, I expected there would have been more sessions relating to this topic. I am not sure whether this reflects a limited number of submissions on the topic or is an indication that the research in this field does not yet map well to practice. In any case, it would have been nice to see more on this topic during the conference.

As is often the case at conferences, there was too much to see and too little time. Since I couldn’t clone myself several times to cover all the sessions, I decided to focus my attention during the conference and, subsequently, I’ve focused my reviews on the more inspirational and business-relevant topics. At times, when more than one session during the same time slot piqued my interest, I bounced around a bit to capture as much knowledge as possible or swapped notes with someone who attended a different session. Here is a summary of what I learned, with the addition of some session notes I received from my colleague, Michelle Scavella.

Monday: Tutorial: Listening and Telling: The Practice of Storytelling in Modern Times

Facilitators: Kevin Brooks and Laura Packer

Since I’d been unable to attend the tutorials and workshops, when I arrived on site Tuesday afternoon, I talked to several presenters, facilitators, and participants about them. They praised one particular session highly: Kevin Brooks and Laura Packer’s tutorial “Listening and Telling: The Practice of Storytelling in Modern Times.” So I did a little research into what took place during their tutorial. Kevin Brooks and Laura Packer are two very interesting facilitators. Kevin is a storyteller and researcher at Motorola, with a background in communications, computer science, and film production as well as a Ph.D. in Media Arts and Sciences. He was the closing keynote speaker at UPA 2006. Laura—also a storyteller—has an amazing talent for spoken-word performance. She’d provided the entertainment at last year’s gala event at UPA.

Using their experience crafting and sharing stories, they facilitated an interactive tutorial that conveyed the power of storytelling and “storylistening” in human relationships—both in one’s personal life and in the workplace. “While the session was technically called a tutorial,” Kevin explained, “we designed it as a long workshop where the participants actually worked! So, much of the session had to do with the dynamics of their working together in different partnerships.”

As usability professionals, stories are inherent in all that we do. We observe, document, and share users’ stories; we design and deliver product stories. Learning about the nature of stories, their role in human life, and how to leverage stories in our communication styles is, therefore, invaluable knowledge to have. However, “many people mistakenly believe that storytelling is an activity for someone else—children, academics, or professional artists—but not for themselves,” said Kevin. Thus, at the start of the session, Kevin and Laura established that the act of sharing and receiving stories is inherent to all humans—to convey knowledge, serve as a tool of persuasion, offer entertainment, and help build individual and community relationships. Good listening, in turn, empowers the speaker, educates the audience, and enables us to understand one another better, thereby deepening our relationships.

Throughout the morning, Kevin and Laura led participants through a series of activities to familiarize themselves with the skills of telling stories, listening, and giving appreciation for storytelling. Some of the pointers they provided for giving appreciation for stories include the following:

  • Determine and honestly express what was good or what you liked about what the speaker said.
  • Be specific about what you heard.
  • Identify what affected you positively.
  • Identify how what the speaker said affected you.
  • Since, in our society, we often don’t receive the appreciation we need and deserve, a speaker might behave strangely when receiving appreciation—through laughter, denial, deflection, or other inappropriate emotional responses. All of this is normal and often a natural part of the process.
  • Remember, listening is just one among many tools. Your internal critic, good sense, experience, and professional knowledge are all good tools. Appreciative listening complements these other tools.

Kevin explained, “Because we live in a competitive culture, especially in industry, helping attendees become comfortable with these activities was critical. In typical business settings, unfortunately, most of what you do is interrupt or try to one-up one another.” Accordingly, many of the morning exercises taught participants to “shut up, relax, and realize you don’t have to contribute to the conversation. You’re in a privileged position of just being there.” Kevin admits that some people might think “it sounds a little Zen,” but this approach laid a good foundation for the second half of the day. In the afternoon, attendees built upon their earlier experiential knowledge and examined the more technical aspects of storytelling, including how to identify and create structures, patterns, motifs, and contexts for stories. By the end of the day, participants had gained a much deeper understanding of the relationships between story, the storyteller, and the listener, and more importantly, they learned how to apply this knowledge in their daily lives.


For more information about storytelling, Kevin and Laura recommend the following resources:

Birch, Carol L., and Melissa A. Heckler, eds. Who Says? Essays on Pivotal Issues in Contemporary Storytelling. Little Rock, AR: August House, 1996.

Bradbury, Ray. Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays On Creativity. Santa Barbara: Joshua Odell Editions, Capra Press, 1989.

Brooks, Kevin. Story—Storytelling—Business—Research. Retrieved July 30, 2007. A nice collection of links to storytelling and business references.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: Pantheon Books, 1949.

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones. Boston: Shambhala, 1986.

LaMott, Ann. Bird by Bird. New York: Doubleday Books, 1994.

Lipman, Doug. Improving Your Storytelling: Beyond the Basics for All Who Tell Stories in Work or Play. Little Rock, AR: August House, 1999.

The Storytelling Coach: How to Listen, Praise, and Bring Out People’s Best. Little Rock, AR: August House, 1995.

Livo, Norma J., and Sandra A. Rietz. Storytelling: Process & Practice. Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited, Inc., 1986.

Maguire, Jack. The Power of Personal Storytelling. New York: Tarcher, 1998.

Mellon, Nancy. Storytelling & the Art of Imagination. Shaftesbury, UK: Element Books, 1992.

National Storytelling Network. Storytelling in Organizations. Retrieved July 30, 2007.

Pearson, Carol S. The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By, 2nd Ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1989.

Simmons, Annette. The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion Through the Art of Storytelling. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2001.

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 1992.

Wednesday: Opening Plenary Session & Keynote Address: A Sketch of Usability in the Broader Content of Design

Presenter: Bill Buxton

The opening plenary session began with a welcome from the conference chairs and members of the UPA board and planning committee. With this being the most highly attended UPA conference in at least five years, there was a bit of excitement in the air during the opening plenary. The UPA granted several awards during this plenary session. The UPA Usability Service Award went to Natalia Minibayeva and Dave Mitropoulos-Rundus, the Michigan Chapter received the UPA Chapters Award, and Whitney Quesenbery received the Presidents Award.

After the awards presentation, Bill Buxton, from Microsoft Research, gave the opening keynote. When Bill began his talk, which was entitled “A Sketch of Usability in the Broader Context of Design,” he stated that he would not answer the question “What is design?” because it is “one of those black holes that suck the life out of you” kinds of conversations. Instead, he examined the role of sketching in design. While Bill acknowledged that “sketching is not design,” he admitted that he’s “never seen design where there is not sketching.”

Sketching is the mechanism by which you, as the designer, work through the design process. It is also the means through which you communicate design ideas to others. For instance, if Bill asked you to draw your phone, everyone would know how to do that—even with limited drawing skills. But then, if he said, “Draw your phone’s interface,” the page would remain blank. Finally, if he asked you to draw the experience of using the phone, you could easily begin to express and articulate the concept visually. Reflecting on the notebooks of Mariano Taccola, an artist and engineer during the Italian Renaissance, we can understand that “sketching came about when science and technology became too complex to work it out in your own head.”

Within the industrial design discipline, there is a strong sense of what is the appropriate style of representation at each phase of the design process. If you present something that is visually complete to your coworkers, they will believe you’ve finished your design process, and your design is ready for implementation. The visual language suggests a finality that is not real. So, to avoid sending the wrong message, designers intentionally leave holes and ambiguities in a design’s visual representation. As Figure 4 shows, Bill shared example sketches from Michael Sagan—Trek Bicycles lead designer on Lance Armstrong’s racing bikes—showing how his visual representations evolved as the design progressed.

Figure 4—Michael Sagan’s sketches of Lance Armstrong’s bike
Michael Sagan’s sketches of Lance Armstrong’s bike

“In industrial design, there’s a strong sense of what is the appropriate style of representation. In our field, we don’t have this sense,” said Bill. To describe user experiences, we often use state-transition diagrams. However, in such representations, “all the resolution is in the states and not in the transitions.” Yet, in reality, the character, emotion, and feel of a user experience are about how you got there.

In the design field right now, we are transitioning from a materialist perspective on design to an experiential one. Bill stated this more strongly in what he calls his personal mantra, “Ultimately, we are deluding ourselves if we think that the products that we design are the things that we sell, rather than the individual, social, and cultural experiences that they engender, and the value and impact that they have. Design that ignores this is not worthy of the name.” Clearly, the need to understand how to better articulate experiences is great. One of Bill’s goals during this keynote address was to offer a meta-description of traditional sketches that we, as usability professionals, could apply to sketches of user experiences.

Some of the traditional qualities of sketches include the following:

  • quick and timely
  • inexpensive and disposable
  • plentiful
  • clear vocabulary—You know it’s a sketch.
  • distinct gesture
  • minimal detail—No higher resolution than that required to communicate the intended purpose.
  • appropriate degree of refinement
  • suggest and explore rather than confirm
  • ambiguous

Sketching in user interface design is analogous to traditional sketching and, therefore, shares some of the same qualities. However, such sketches must also capture transitions, dynamics, feel, and phrasing. Sketches are not prototypes. Although both are instantiations of a design concept, they serve different purposes. The relationships between the two are as follows:

Sketch   Prototype

















During his presentation, Bill offered a few other important ideas for us to consider:

  • With the status quo, usability testing generally occurs after the ideation and exploration phases. Typically, at this point in the process, a team can test only one design, so we end up focusing on getting the “design right” instead of getting the “right design.”
  • Bringing usability activities earlier in the process lets you have a greater impact on the quality of the design at multiple stages along the way.
  • Sketching is not only a tool for designers. It can be useful for test subjects as well. You can ask subjects to sketch their ideal solution. When sketching, users—who are typically overly positive in their feedback—open up and provide more critical feedback, as well as offering insights into their needs and preferences that did not come out during discussions.
  • Treat ideas like commodities. As soon as you think ideas are precious, you start protecting them and stop producing new ones. If you come in with an idea that’s your baby, when someone critiques it, you’ll feel like it’s a personal attack. But if you always produce multiple design alternatives, you’ll develop the ability to learn from your mistakes and move on to generating new ideas. When there are multiple alternatives available, you have two opportunities for creativity: in the design options themselves and in the heuristics you use to choose the final solution. Also, when there are multiple design options, users feel more comfortable critiquing the designs.


For more information about sketching and prototyping, Bill recommends the following:

Buxton, Bill. Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann, 2007.

Ericson, Eric, Johan Pihl, and Carl Reese. Design for Impact: Fifty Years of Airline Safety Cards. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003.

Laseau, Paul. Graphic Thinking for Architects and Designers. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley Publishing, 1980.

Muller, Michael L. “Pictive: An Exploration in Participatory Design,” in Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems: Reaching Through Technology. Paper presented at CHI 1991, New Orleans, LA, USA, April 27–May 2, 1991. New York: ACM Press, 1991.

Pugh, Stuart. Total Design: Integrated Methods for Successful Product Engineering. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1990.

Rettig, Marc. “Prototyping for Tiny Fingers.” Communications of the ACM, Vol. 37, Issue 4 (April 1994).

Snyder, Carolyn. Paper Prototyping. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann, 2003.

Wednesday: Looking into the Crystal Ball: The Future of Usability

Panelists: William Albert, Bill Gribbons, Daniel Szuc, Randolph Bias, Robert Schumacher, and Mary Beth Rettger

Six UX leaders—from a variety of UX specialties, business sectors, locales, and schools of thought—discussed their current assessments of the UX field and proposed their visions for our future as practitioners. Each had ten minutes to expound upon their ideas, then there was a 30-minute open discussion with the audience, shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5—Panelists discussing the future of usability

Future Directions

Bill Albert, from Fidelity Investments, served as the panel moderator, as well as one of the futurists. Bill articulated the importance of understanding the future direction of usability as it offers insights for organizational growth, individual career planning, and the overall development of the usability community. However, he also admits our predictions of the future are speculation—informed by our individual perspectives within the UX field. Bill’s own crystal ball suggested:

  • Usability practitioners will be part of a bigger picture. We must evolve beyond traditional usability evaluation to become drivers of innovation by examining the broader user experience—joy, frustration, stress, awareness, expectations, engagement, and so on.
  • Our roles will become even less well-defined. The overlap with marketing, design, information architecture, and business will continue to grow. This is a double-edged sword: More opportunities for impact will exist, but also more turf wars. In the face of this increasing lack of clarity, we must articulate and maintain high standards or we risk losing our credibility. The more enlightened organizations will look to user experience to drive innovation and business strategy.
  • The need to justify usability to our business partners will fade, because our current state of featuritis will eventually cause society to reach a breaking point and ultimately drive market demand for simpler, more usable products. As such, usability will become a necessity. And those who ignore usability will face significant financial risks, diminished market shares, and possibly, litigation.
  • UX professionals will pay greater attention to select populations—particularly those in emerging markets like India, China, and the rest of the world, as well as older adults, people with disabilities, and new users of technology.
  • Our changing world will impact what we work on and how we work. Examples include increased globalization, ubiquitous computing, information security, global warming, new technologies, privacy laws, and baby boomer retirement in the U.S.
  • As practitioners, we must prepare for the future by continuing to develop our understanding of the underlying cognitive mechanisms of user behavior and perception. To do so, many of us must receive more cross-disciplinary training in areas like quantitative analysis and academic backgrounds in cognitive psychology, information science, human-computer interaction, design, and business.

The Increasing Importance of Usability

Randolph Bias is an associate professor in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin. He explored six aspects of contemporary computing that will raise the importance of usability, as follows:

  • The continuing expansion of the Internet has led to an increase in the size and variety of the user population.
  • The increasing number of new Web applications and experiences means existing users might become novices again.
  • Web development tools have expanded the pool of developers.
  • Ubiquitous computing encourages “migratory transactions.”
  • Ubiquitous computing means designers might not be able to anticipate on what device users will view their designs, making visual design and information architecture difficult to optimize.
  • The “let’s get something out there and get feedback from our users” approach does not work in the Web environment. As the number of Web-enabled applications increases, the need to design usability into the product increases.

Understanding these impending changes, Randolph believes the future holds the following:

  • Usability will become another essential tool for all digital professionals. Thus, there is a need for more usability education in the university curricula across a variety of disciplines, not just within UX-related programs.
  • There will be better integration of automated data-collection tools and behavioral methods.
  • Lawsuits will motivate improved usability.
  • We will have better cost-justification methods and metrics.

Opportunities and Essential Skills for Usability Professionals

Bill Gribbons is Director of the Human Factors Program at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts. He also acknowledged that the marketplace is changing, as he illustrated in the slide shown in Figure 6. Usability is no longer one profession or one industry. The focus is shifting toward broader user experience.

Figure 6—Bill Gribbons’ slide showing the changing marketplace
Changing marketplace

However, this brings good news to practitioners. Career opportunities are continuing to increase and diversify, but at a more realistic pace than in the dot-com era. And, at the moment—unlike for software development and other disciplines—offshoring of usability is limited. Bill also identified a set of skills usability professionals need today and as we move forward:

  • field research methods
  • knowledge of cognitive psychology, human-computer interaction (HCI), and human factors
  • an understanding of consumer behavior
  • qualitative and quantitative research methods, including survey design, ethnography, statistics, and research planning
  • business skills such as project management, business process management (BPM), negotiation, managing teams, Six Sigma, and brand management

Challenges for Usability Professionals

Certain changes in the business environment might begin to pose a threat to usability testing:

  • automation in the development process
  • process improvements
  • offshoring of development and some usability testing

When considering the relationship between UX professionals and their work partners, Bill posed the question the two previous speakers had hinted at: Who will control the user experience in the future? Figure 7 shows his slide on this topic. Business analysts, engineers, marketers, and HCI/usability professionals all have some input into the user experience. It remains to be seen who will ultimately be responsible for the holistic user experience and how we will integrate various perspectives into products.

Figure 7—Bill Gribbons’ take on who will control UX
Who will control UX?

Themes for the Future of the Discipline of Usability

Mary Beth Rettger is the Director of Usability and Development Training at The MathWorks in Natick, Massachusetts. Her recent experiences at events like GEL2007, H2.0: New Minds, New Bodies, New Identities, and the MIT Media Lab Sponsor Day have inspired her vision of the future. After spending time with smart, forward-thinking people and reflecting on the notion of “hacking the human,” Mary Beth has identified six themes we should consider when thinking about our future as a discipline.

Theme 1: The Power of Story

UPA 2006 focused thematically on storytelling. Since that conference, Mary Beth has attended several events that have solidified the importance of stories for her. In fact, instead of looking at storytelling as the theme for a conference, she has seen the notion of conference itself become a story, with increasingly meaningful discourse flowing between presenters and attendees during and between sessions. As practitioners, we can leverage the power of story in our own work.

Theme 2: Physical Loss as Opportunity

Mary Beth encouraged us to rethink physical disabilities. We often see them as disadvantages and marginalize evaluating the needs of disabled users to accessibility studies. However, with the great leaps that have taken place in scientific research and technology in recent years, the story has changed. Amputees who compete in athletic races now find task-optimized prosthetics such as cheetah legs have advantages over the limbs they were born with. This should lead us to reconsider the way we view physical loss.

Theme 3: Look to Children

There is a lot that we can learn from children and their adoption and use of technologies. One example Mary Beth explored was Scratch, the Web-based programming site for kids, which offers them rudimentary visual programming components that they can use to design, build, and share new applications. Such toys, or tools, are educating and empowering children, and when they grow older, they will be very technology savvy and have a very different set of usability needs from today’s current adult population. We need to understand what’s happening to the youth to prepare for the future.

Theme 4: Social Computing

Yes, in some sense, we have lost control of the product user experience and, in some cases, its associated marketing. So, we should embrace this as an opportunity. Mary Beth shared an example from her own company. MATLAB® users are documenting the tool, its features, and how to use them to achieve specific tasks and posting videos on YouTube to share their knowledge with other users. Instead of ignoring this phenomenon, companies should leverage and build upon their relationships with users in this context.

Theme 5: User Experience for the Last Billion People

The last billion people, or the population in poor and emerging markets—also referred to as the “base of the pyramid”—are becoming a critical demographic. Traditionally, companies have ignored such users and their needs. There is great opportunity—both socially and financially—in addressing their needs.

Theme 6: Everything on the Web

Companies are pushing more and more functionality to the Web. As this trend continues, the volume and distributed nature of information will add increased complexity. Good search functionality is not just the concern of search engine developers, but is now becoming everyone’s business. We need to begin to understand and design for search implications in our current and future Web-based applications.

Defining the Profession of Usability

Bob Schumacher is Managing Director at User Centric. He began his position statement by examining our history as a field of practice. In the past, most usability practitioners had received a Masters degree or Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology or Industrial Engineering from one of the handful of schools having a program—or at least some classes—in Human Factors. Trained primarily in research methods, these usability practitioners placed little focus on design or aesthetics, so they were called engineers. With this narrow focus, or definition, there was a core set of skills and an agreed-upon body of knowledge for usability engineers.

Then, the “winds of change blew in.” A technology explosion led to advancements in personal computing, the Internet, and mobile devices, resulting in increased complexity, as well as increased user frustration—thereby creating many new opportunities for usability practice. The need for usability-minded individuals on development teams has increased, and many people with limited training and experience have now become “usability experts,” thereby watering down the field of usability.

If we stay on the current path, usability practitioners will continue to diversify. They will possess a “strange brew” of skills, including visual design, computer science, business, product design, anthropology, psychology, and engineering, with limited focus on research methods or human performance. While diversity gives us breadth of experience and enables us to see the bigger picture, this diversity will also lead to our having less shared knowledge and skills. Without an operational definition for usability, anyone can call himself or herself an expert, negatively impacting the overall quality of professionals in our industry and, consequently, the level of respect we receive.

Bob encouraged us to consider medicine, architecture, and other mature technical professions. They don’t struggle with this problem of over-diversification at the conclusion of their training. He left us with the following calls to action:

  • Make our job titles, fields, skill sets mean something.
  • Re-emphasize the rigorous exploration of human performance.
  • Renew our focus on research methods.
  • Create a certification process, which will ensure common knowledge and skills.
  • Increase the number of university programs focusing on usability, but make sure these programs stop watering down the skill sets.
  • Demand true scholarship and respect the science behind what we do.

Watching Trends in the Field of Usability

Daniel Szuc is Principal Usability Consultant with Apogee Usability Asia in Hong Kong. He began his quest to find out what’s ahead by doing some research. He examined our history, as well as the current buzz in the field. And, ultimately, he realized that the best way to approach this question about the future of usability was to “ignore fads; watch trends,” as his slide in Figure 8 shows.

Figure 8—Daniel Szuc on product management
Daniel Szuc

By examining trends in product design and changes in a variety of markets, reflecting on his own experiences as a consultant, exploring industry readings, interviewing leaders in the field, and watching children at play, he identified ten trends that UX practitioners should track—in no particular order:

  1. Get out of the lab. Technology is everywhere. Go meet users where they are, understand their contexts, and learn about their impacts on design. We do not do this enough.
  2. Play a game. Wii™, PlayStation®3, and Xbox can teach you a lot about user interface opportunities and rich, new interactions.
  3. Become a change agent. Oftentimes, a gulf exists between Product Management, Engineering, and User Experience. It is important for a liaison who understands the design process, management expectations, and organizational cultures to bridge the gap between these disciplines.
  4. Find a way to work faster. Explore iterative and agile design and testing methods. Optimize your processes to enable better collaboration and faster workflows.
  5. Don’t fear the commoditization of usability testing. While we might not like to hear it, more and more people from other disciplines are beginning to conduct usability tests, particularly with the increasing maturity and acceptance of usability methods, as well as advancements in testing tools. Instead of resisting this change, embrace it. Develop hybrid approaches that will let you outsource the more straightforward usability tasks and progress along the value chain by bringing your user-centered expertise to other parts of the process.
  6. Usability has already been sold. There’s a growing understanding of the commercial benefits of usability and accessibility, which has led to an increase in the demand for UX practitioners. We are approaching a scenario where there’s too much demand and too little supply. Now, it’s time to move from selling usability to our work partners to demonstrating its added value to decision makers.
  7. Move beyond usability toward holistic user experience. User experience spans channels—products, TV, Web, mobile, phone, and retail—and offers meaningful convergence of functionality that provides clear business value. Let’s avoid the jargon—IxD, IA, UX, UCD, HCI, HF, ID, and so on. Do our customers and other stakeholders really care?
  8. Look to Asia. The usability/UX design community is growing in China, India, the Philippines, and other locales. They get product design inside and out. As Stefanie Olsen noted in her CNET article “The Human Factor in Gadget, Web Design,” “U.S. engineers need a broader training than simply programming and engineering. They increasingly need to have an understanding of working with multicultural teams and being able to understand the social components of the products … We believe those types of people will add the most value in the coming decades.”
  9. Look for opportunities to facilitate and improve communication within and across teams, as well as with clients. The BusinessWeek article entitled “Creativity That Goes Deep explains, “In a design shop, the style of work is much more collaborative. Even though some hierarchy within teams likely exists, projects are typically assigned to teams rather than to individuals. A design team is mandated to come up with a design solution together—not individually. And the team is expected to interact with clients throughout the process by bringing them into the design collaboration.”
  10. Consider Universal Usability. As Whitney Quesenbery pointed out in her UXmatters article “More Alike Than We Think,” we really are more alike than we think. So, Daniel encouraged us to recognize similar behavior patterns across our user populations, minimize design complexity, and avoid creating specialized versions of products.

In addition to these ten trends, Daniel suggested a watch list for more trends on the horizon, including

  • green computing
  • speech-enabled interfaces
  • increased mobility and context-aware devices
  • interplay between usability and security
  • redefined roles for usability testers or designers—or both
  • the movement of usability from a closer role, in which practitioners identify issues, to an opener role, in which practitioners drive innovation. In other words, transitioning from critic to creator.
  • increased collaboration
  • transitioning from siloed organizations to organizations that focus on holistic user experiences


Here are some references and resource materials that Daniel used to develop his forecast for the future of usability:

Canny, John. “The Future of Human-Computer Interaction: Is an HCI Revolution Just Around the Corner? ACM Queue, Vol. 4, no. 6, July/August 2006. Retrieved July 31, 2007.

E-consultancy.UK Usability & Accessibility Market Worth ?90m in 2004, to Surge Beyond ?115m in 2005.” Retrieved July 31, 2007.

Lash, Jeff. “Ignore Fads; Watch Trends.” How To Be A Good Product Manager, February 7, 2007. Retrieved July 31, 2007.

Lund, Arnie. “Post-Modern Usability.”PDF Journal of Usability Studies (JUS), Vol. 2, Issue 1, November 2006, pp1–6.

Martin, Roger L. “Creativity That Goes Deep.” BusinessWeek, August 3, 2005. Retrieved July 31, 2007.

Olsen, Stefanie. “The Human Factor in Gadget, Web Design.” CNET, February 12, 2007. Retrieved July 31, 2007.

Quesenbery, Whitney. “More Alike Than We Think.” UXmatters, March 20, 2006. Retrieved July 31, 2007.

Sampson, Fred. “Old Dogs, New Tricks.” The UPA Voice, February 2007. Retrieved July 31, 2007.

Sherman, Paul J. “Connecting Cultures, Changing Organizations: The User Experience Practitioner As Change Agent.” UXmatters, January 20, 2007. Retrieved July 31, 2007.

Wednesday: Beyond Screen Readers: A Field Study of Visually Impaired Users

Presenters: Yun Zhou and Caroline Beacham

Yun Zhou and Caroline Beacham from Wachovia discussed usability implications for visually impaired users—beyond just screen readers. After giving an overview of accessibility at Wachovia, Yun and Caroline offered insights into why this community should receive more attention from UX practitioners. There are 10 million visually impaired people in the U.S. alone—1.5 million of which are regular computer users. With the aging of baby boomers, this number is increasing.

When considering this market segment, it is necessary to account for the following:

  • According to the American Federation for the Blind, 46% of visually impaired people of working age are employed. By 2010, 51% of the labor force will be over the age of 40 and 37% of the total population will be over the age of 45.
  • The needs of people in the visually impaired market segment vary widely. Visual impairments from diverse causes including birth defects, degenerative disease such as macular degeneration, complications from diabetes, cataracts, glaucoma, and natural, age-related degeneration affect this population.
  • No one solution meets the needs of this entire community, because each of these disorders affects the visual field differently.

Having examined current Web design practices, the presenters noted an interesting trend: Web sites are incorporating font-size controls. Three examples cited were GMAC Bank, CNN, and Queen’s University. Wachovia developed technology that lets them offer users an optional viewing mode that enables modifications to content, layout, contrast, and magnification. Since this solution takes a relatively new approach, the team decided to conduct a research study that would both deepen their understanding of the visually impaired community and help them to evaluate the solution.

After describing the structure of their research study, Yun and Caroline summarized their findings about visually impaired users:

  • Most test participants could not drive and were homebound
  • The Internet offers such users independence, freedom, and access they cannot achieve in the real world. Therefore, they are frequent Internet users who expect a lot.
  • Visually impaired users cherish whatever of their sight remains.
  • Most such users need very large magnification, which means, on a 15" or 17" screen, they can see only a few words at a time.
  • Many visually impaired people have installed magnification software on their computers. Otherwise, they would not be able to see well enough to open their Web browser and gain access to the Internet.
  • These users often lean very close to the screen in order to read content. Focusing on one word or image at a time causes them to lose both context and the holistic experience.
  • These users transition from an online to an offline experience to finish processing the information that is available to them on the Web. For example, they print out documents to read them on a magnification device.

Therefore, the research team concluded that their solution would work only for users who do not already use software to enhance their vision. In addition to finding a way to meet the needs of these visually impaired users, Yun and Caroline identified the following Web site design guidelines:

  • Optimize the position of critical content. The upper-left area of a page is best for the most critical information.
  • Avoid pop-ups and multiple browser windows. These are cumbersome for visually impaired users to use.
  • Avoid horizontal scrolling. Since visually impaired users focus on such a small area of the screen, horizontal scrolling can cause them to lose their place on a page easily.
  • Avoid labels that align horizontally with controls. Again, users can lose context. It’s hard for users to know what a button or control is for if they cannot associate it with its label.
  • Minimize the number of scattered, inline links. Inline links are harder to locate than links that are grouped together.
  • Support search. For these users, searching is an easier navigation method than browsing. Make the search box easy to find and search results very easy to parse—similar to Google search results.
  • Small, iconic images are better than large graphics. When a page is magnified greatly, users can easily lose context.
  • Provide visual cues or markers to help orient users. Examples include blinking insertion points, company logos, animated images, and so on.
  • Make sure there is good contrast between text and background colors. Avoid complex background imagery.
  • Follow Web conventions. Visually impaired users rely on memory and expect sites to use Web conventions and consistent patterns. Unfamiliar designs can confuse them.
  • Avoid distractions and prevent errors. Use both error-avoidance and error-recovery techniques.
  • Support keyboard shortcuts for commands. Provide other alternatives to mouse-driven interactions.
  • Offer settings that let users customize a Web site as much as possible. Let users customize a Web site’s navigation, layout, magnification, contrast, and use of audio, so they can adjust them to accommodate their own impairments.

Yun and Caroline reminded us that “Good design is good for everyone.” So, when designing your next Web site, remember to account for this demographic, even if doing so requires modifications. Remember, “what looks like a mediocre experience to us is incredible to them, because it helps them preserve their sight, and they can do it on their own.” Their final recommendations to us included the following:

  • Accommodate limitations.
  • Be aware of contradictions.
  • Enable or enhance user control.
  • Assess risk for all audiences.
  • Do not design for exceptions. 

Read more

Conference Review: UPA 2007: Part II

Strategic Design Manager for Productivity Products at Honeywell

Seattle, Washington, USA

Joi L. RobertsDuring the past 13 years, Joi has worked in a variety of roles within the telecommunications industry, ranging from requirements gathering to software development/validation to user interface design—voice, telephony, and Web—to user-centered process development and institutionalization. Currently, as the Design Ambassador for the Motorola Consumer Experience Design (CXD) team, Joi is responsible for driving strategic initiatives internally and externally around design education, design culture, talent growth and development, and industry contribution. And, in her spare time, Joi is quite active in the UX design community—often organizing or presenting at local and international industry events and conferences. Joi firmly believes that, in order for the UX community to make a real difference in the world, industry and academia must work together to develop design leadership. In her current role and through her industry participation, she seeks to spread this message.  Read More

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