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By Clifford Anderson
Cliff Anderson is a Senior Usability Engineer at Wachovia, the fourth largest bank in the US. He has been doing usability work for almost 20 years.
Carolyn Snyder is into paper. Her book Paper Prototyping: The Fast and Easy Way to Design and Refine User Interfaces is considered the first and last word on the subject. She has been doing paper prototyping for almost 15 years, still does a third of her usability tests with paper, and teaches regularly on the topic. There is, however, a lot more to Carolyn than just paper prototyping.
Carolyn started out on the technical side, earning a BS in Computer Science and working as a software developer for ten years. Such a background gives her an appreciation for the more technical people that usability practitioners typically work with. “Engineers always have to work within constraints,” she points out. “I have empathy for that.”
After years of writing code, though, Carolyn found her interest waning. Thinking that her only other opportunity was to move into management, she got her MBA from the University of Chicago.
At the time, usability was not an option: “We’re talking mid-80s here, so the field of usability as we know it now didn’t exist.” Like most companies in that era, the building controls company where she worked was technology-driven and had never heard of user-centered design: “We would sit in meetings and argue endlessly about what the user wanted to do. And we were making it all up.”
Carolyn’s first exposure to usability was reading articles on discount usability methods by Jakob Nielsen. She was impressed: “It sounded really practical. It sounded useful.” Armed with some basic knowledge, she convinced management to let her start a human factors “group” at her company. “Of course, I was the only one in it,” she laughs.
Her first usability test involved an installation process that was very cumbersome, forcing most people to call tech support. She worked with a tech writer and developer to redo it, then got an instructor to share some of his class time so that Carolyn could do a comparative test with real customers. “The new version took about a third of the time, and no one had to call tech support,” she states proudly. “Given that these users were our own field technicians, we knew their labor cost, and we estimated that the return on investment was about ten to one. That got management’s attention.”
At this point, Carolyn’s budding interest in usability intersected with the budding usability community in a unique way. It all started when Carolyn, who was living in the Chicago area, decided to take a motorcycle trip out West. On the way, she thought she might drop by the first UPA conference, held in Orem, Utah in 1992. After talking with some of the other attendees and giving them rides around town on her bike, she was surprised to get a call from Jared Spool at 7:30 the next morning, offering her a job.
Carolyn was, in fact, Jared’s first full-time employee. She believes he was attracted to her “partly by what I didn’t know. I wasn’t one of those human factors people. I had the practical perspective. I think he figured, if I had the right attitude, he could teach me the skills.”
Carolyn herself feels the same way about people getting into the field today: “People can be successful from a variety of backgrounds. It’s as much about perspective as it is about any particular skill.”
Working at Jared’s company, User Interface Engineering (or UIE), was an “unparalleled learning experience.” “Because I was the first full-time employee,” she explains, “I was basically Jared’s shadow, at least for the first few months. He’s a brilliant man, probably the smartest person I’ve ever gotten to know well.”
At UIE, Carolyn enjoyed doing usability testing for a variety of clients. When the company’s focus began to shift from hands-on testing toward courses and self-sponsored research, Carolyn started thinking about going out on her own. “I had to leave UIE to keep doing the work I enjoyed doing the most,” she says regretfully. She became an independent consultant in 1999.
She’s happy with her decision. “What I like about consulting is the freedom,” she states. “I like the flexibility, I like the variety of projects. Now, of course, the downside is that I sometimes have three clients who want something at the same time. Sometimes, the flexibility is more of an illusion.”
“It’s also hard to get hired to do something that you’re not already good at,” she notes. In particular, she finds that “people who know that I’ve written the paper prototyping book think that’s all I do.”
Carolyn had long wanted to write a book. “It just took me ten years to choose the topic,” she jokes. As for the subject, “It was something I knew quite well, and had taught, and there was very little written about it. It was a niche – here’s the book that I can write!”
Carolyn’s other publishing credits include Website Usability, done with Jared and other UIE colleagues, and eCommerce User Experience, with Jakob Nielsen, Rolf Molich, and Susan Farrell. In fact, Carolyn really enjoys writing. “It’s a creative process for me. Finding the right words to express something is inherently satisfying to me in some way.”
Carolyn always returns, however, to her love of hands-on work in the lab. “It’s still what I primarily do, though I would like to get into some other areas such as user requirements. But there still seems to be a lot of demand for usability testing, and I’ve certainly been busy for however these many years.”
Recent work has included home visits to watch people install DSL, software for nurses, a web application for college instructors, and websites for public broadcasting. Though the topics vary, many of the underlying usability issues are the same.
But there is always more to learn. Carolyn sums things up well: “The first time I do a usability test, and I don’t learn something new, I’m going to quit the profession.” “And,” she pauses, “I’m not worried yet.”
Carolyn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
140 N. Bloomingdale Road
Bloomingdale, IL 60108-1017
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