June 2007 Contents
Thumbnail: Susan Dray
By Cliff 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.
Susan Dray was one of the first women in the field of usability. Since then, she's started her own company, published and spoken extensively, done important work with a number of professional organizations, and carved a niche for herself in field work and international usability. Through it all, though, her philosophy has remained the same: "If the user can't use it, it doesn't work." ©
"I was back at Honeywell, in 1979, and I was just getting started - which proves how old I am," jokes Susan. "We did some user testing (before it was called that, of course), and I remember somebody saying, 'if only they could read better, if only they were smarter' - basically saying, 'it's not our fault, it's the user's fault.' And I shot back at them 'If the user can't use it, it doesn't work.'" © Since then, Susan "started saying that all the time," put in on the tschotkes she gave out, and even went so far as to copyright it.
Susan came to Honeywell from academia, with a PhD in physiological psychology from UCLA. "I didn't want to stay in academia, and I was looking for a place to go and I sort of stumbled onto a place in Man-Machine Sciences - not the best name in the world," she laughs. "Computers were just starting to move out of the back office and into the front office, so it was the very beginning of the whole HCI discipline really. Man-Machine Sciences was in the forefront of it."
Some of her first work involved military systems, and included documentation as well as UI. From there, she moved on to office ergonomics and "socio-technical systems," where she took care of the "human side" of implementing technology.
From Honeywell, she moved to American Express, where she founded and headed up the Human Factors department. Once again, she was in charge of HCI, but also ergonomics, training, and documentation. She also started the company's first usability lab, "one of the first outside of the computer industry." One of her best memories there was when she presented to American Express's board, putting the CEO and another member of the board through a usability test with a VCR. "These are two men whose combined IQs are around 800," she points out, then adds drolly, "It took them about 12 minutes. That was fun."
On Her Own
Susan was now ready to move out on her own. Fourteen years later, it seems like it was a good move. "I love the opportunity to work with lots of different clients at lots of different stages of projects," she enthuses. She especially likes working "with usability people, helping them to find a way through whatever the challenge is, helping them become the hero."
There are drawbacks to owning your own business, however: "I wish I could say what I like is the flexibility and the freedom, but unfortunately when you're a consultant, you have the illusion of freedom. I like to say you trade the illusion of security for the illusion of freedom."
One of those drawbacks, though, is not the fact that she works with her husband, David Siegel, a leading light in his own right. "I love being able to work with my husband, who's my best friend," she gushes. "That's great 99% of the time," she goes on, "which is pretty darn good."
One thing having her own company has allowed her to focus on is her interest in field work. "I think that basically comes from being curious and nosy," she notes.
Another influence was work she did at Honeywell onboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitiz. "It was so different than what I thought it was going to be like," she reveals. "I could not have anticipated that. It had huge impacts. I knew this sense of the context was really important, and I had to figure it out."
Her typical environment is not so exotic however. "When you go to somebody's home," she notes, "you see an incredible richness that you lose when you're in the lab. You start seeing who's actually going to do the task. Is it them, is it their kid, is their kid going to help them? What do they have lying around? How old is their computer? Do they look at all kind of websites and have a different model in mind? You find out all kinds of things like that that you would never find in a lab."
At the same time, she cautions, "That's not to say that you can't get really good information from a lab. You just have to be very careful about when you do field usability versus lab work. There's a balance there. Hopefully, you'll start your process by doing some field work."
She also believes that you "don't have to be formal about your field work. It doesn't have to be that way. There's an awful lot to learn just from deep hanging out with people."
Another thing her company has focused on is international work. She has been to 24 countries, including most of Europe and the Far East, as well as Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. She hopes to add Kenya and Malaysia very soon. "It is one of the most exciting, interesting things to go into a home in India or Russia or China," she enthuses, "and see life that is so differently lived, and yet that is so similarly lived. It's just amazing. I just love it. It blows my mind every time."
Susan has also been very active over the years in publishing, speaking, and professional societies. "We have written a fair amount," she allows (she actually has over 100 publishing credits). "One of the things I always wished I had when I was starting a project was somebody else to tell me what had worked and what hadn't worked. So one of the things that David and I have tried to do is to help give back some of the information we've learned so other people won't stub their toe in the same places." That impulse has led her to serve as an editor at Interactions and Behaviour and Information Technology, and currently as Director of Publications for UPA.
Susan sees her speaking engagements and professional society work in much the same way. She has given over 80 presentations and addresses, and has held important posts at HFES (where she was one of the first people to be certified), IEA, and the ACM, as well as UPA.
Her impulse to help others is also behind what she calls her "cocktail party speech" (explaining what it is she actually does to people outside the field): "I help companies design products for us normal people." No doubt, it's also the impetus behind her blurting out, as a new hire and the first woman in a company full of men, that "If the user can't use it, it doesn't work!" ©
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