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Thursday, 14 June, 2007

Where from here...

How and where do I progress in my career as a usability professional?

I am sure this question pops-up in every usability practitioner's mind, especially in India.

I have noticed that as people move from being a new entrant in the field of usability to have spent a few years in it, a certain disillusionment sets in. People start having doubts with regard to what they are learning, and whether they are making fruitful use of their education and talent. Very soon, restlessness sets in and people hop jobs rewarded by the short term increase in salary and a change in environment.

From the organization's point of view, its difficult to get people with the ready combination of talent and ability in usability. After spending a lot of time, effort and money in training people, just when these people are ready to be on the job, they move on.

Over a period of time, experienced usability professionals, in their prime, move onto management and related fields, leaving a vacuum at the top. Not only does quality of work suffer, but the profession as a whole suffers, since the inexperienced ones don't get mentorship.

I have often wondered what causes this and the answer i think lies in the way our profession is structured. Ideally, this is a profession where a range of skills, both in breadth and depth matters. And then the added ability to draw upon experience and exposure to apply those skills in a business environment.

Given the above, if we look at a similar profession, for example in a law firm, a new entrant enters as a "junior", apprentices under experienced people, takes up individual responsibility as an "associate" and finally moves on to become a "partner". During this progression, which might roughly take some 15 to 20 years, a person becomes an expert, possibly in a particular field of law - and with this expertise comes prestige and money. At each point in time, the lawyer knows the next step forward and this helps him hone his skills and ability to perform in his profession. Alternatives to the profession in terms of working for a corporate do exist, but the benchmarks are all set in terms of expertise. Similar is the progression for a doctor.

However, for usability, we lack this graded progression. At no point in time is a usability person clear about how much expertise he has gained. This lack of understanding probably is a result of the peculiar nature of our profession. While lawyers have to stand upto the coded law of the land and doctors have to succeed in the cure, the success of the usability person cannot be measured as objectively. It is mostly subject to client expectations and a host of other factors and hence deliverables come in all sizes and shapes. A deliverable that works for a particular scenario, is unacceptable in another.

Then there is the peculiar scenario of each and every person from related fields wanting to jump into the high-demand opportunity of the job scenario of usability. To practice law you need a degree in law. To practice medicine you need a degree as well. But to practice usability you don't need any. Because the demand is high, people get hired with no formal degree at all - and those getting hired don't want to invest in a degree. Its like the huge gold rush - mint it as long as it lasts. The problem is - its not going to last long unless you have invested in it.

Given the peculiarities then, what and how can these practitioners know their way?

The answer lies in adopting some kind of a model that recognizes expertise, formal or informal. One way might be to accept that this profession calls for life-long learning and experience and only as one progresses can one perfect the use of tools, develop better skills and become a master in its application. This might be wishful thinking, but i wonder if we can adopt the ranking model that martial arts like karate or judo use. What we will need is some kind of standardization in terms of defining what would constitute a progression in terms of learning, as is the case with these martial arts.


Neha said...

I agree with you...what are we heading for..what next...where next, hounds me quite often...30 years hence will I be satisfied doing what I am doing...would i look back and say that I've had a satisfying life and I did all that I wanted to...are designers meant to get into Usability...does it not make them lose vision of all their dreams...i dreamt of creating buildings...feeling forms...seeing colours...touching textures...aah!!! i think you touched the painful nerve..

saumitri said...

yes Neha, i guess we all share similar sentiments on this...which is why we as designers should contribute and make this discipline more worthwhile...read my post on innovation...

Sonali said...

You really got the pain point. This journey is neverending. And at no point you can point to your achievements. Because those are no more acheivements if you see them from another perspective. Infact you realize what you missed in it ... and there is no end to it.

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