Thumbnail: Thyra Rauch
Cliff Anderson is a Senior Usability Engineer at Wachovia, the fourth largest bank in the US. He has been doing usability work for over 20 years
"Serendipity's a wonderful thing," says Thyra Rauch. "Opportunities happen. You just need to be open to them."
Indeed, Thyra's long career in usability has had more than its share of serendipity. From getting into the field, to starting a 20-year career with IBM, to getting involved with UPA, serendipity has played a large - and very positive - role.
According to Thyra, her getting into usability in the first place was "a complete accident." "When I first started my career," she remembers, "I had originally thought I was going to become a university professor."
In fact, she had diligently followed a path to NC State, where she was working on a PhD in experimental psychology. There, her advisor recommended Thyra think about an internship, citing a dearth of tenure-track positions in the near future.
"I looked around and several of my colleagues from the university were getting intern jobs at IBM," she recalls, "So, I thought, why not? I'll give it a try. Well, the first thing they had me do was run a usability test."
"And I've been with IBM ever since," she laughs. "It really wasn't planned. I planned to be doing something else."
"IBM is actually a very, very good place to work," she notes. "They've treated me very well. They actually do a pretty good job of asking you what you want to achieve. I said you need to support my writing habit - I'd love to do a book one day."
Though Thyra "still hasn't done the book yet," she has published "tons of articles" - as well as getting 12 patents. She also feels she's "gotten to achieve a lot of the things that I would have done had I been in the university."
Actually, she feels that she's "probably gotten a lot more." "When you work for a corporation, you get to find out what really goes on in the real world. You get to meet the people that use these products we talk about trying to make easy to use."
"There's something very satisfying about doing something that matters to someone right now," she emphasizes. "Watching their face, listening to them say, 'Wow, this is really going to make my life easier.' That's what makes my day. I get energized from working with real customers."
Thyra explains another benefit of working for Big Blue: "One of the nice things about working with large companies is that you make it what you want. You don't have to work on the same product, you don't have to work on the same team. I've done everything that a usability person could possibly want to do, starting from running usability tests, to doing ethnographic research." She has also done design work, requirements gathering, marketing collateral, user assistance, and even "a little coding."
Thyra's background reflects that multi-disciplinary approach. She actually started out as an art major, was a "studio potter for awhile" and has "twelve years of concert piano training."
"I don't have a preferred style," she confides. "I do tend to be both very left and very right brain. I have strong mathematical and analytical skills, but have a lot of that artsy, design bent too."
"It's really nice to be able to use all parts," she explains. "I love being one of the people who thinks about the big picture. To me, that's the really interesting part, having the whole puzzle to solve."
"I have a very hard time putting a job title on myself," she admits. "But I don't think it really matters. What really matters is whether you're doing everything you possibly can to make that user experience better."
At the same time, though, Thyra really does admit to a favorite: "I definitely like the user research part. If we get that right, everything else we do flows from that."
Though IBM has benefited greatly from Thyra's time there, her energy and enthusiasm were probably too much for just one organization to contain. In addition to UPA, she has been involved with the STC and SIGCHI, and has also taken her message about user experience to Europe and Asia.
Not surprisingly, her involvement with the UPA came about "almost as an accident." She was one of the attendees at the original SIGCHI birds-of-a-feather meeting where UPA was hatched.
After UPA got off the ground, Thyra "started volunteering to do things." She "started small," reviewing papers. From there, she did committee work, including chairing the conference committee for two years. She then "was elected to the board, became treasurer, and worked my way to president."
Thyra is as strong a believer in volunteering as she is in serendipity. "I think one of the best ways to learn and to meet people is simply to volunteer your time," she explains. "You end up gaining so much more than you give. You learn new techniques, new tips, and you meet people. And these people become your friends, your colleagues, your mentors. It just becomes a wonderful experience. And the best way to do that is to simply dig in and volunteer to help with anything."
Her efforts at UPA were capped this year with her receiving the President's Award. Interestingly, the award came as a "complete surprise." "I didn't know it was coming until literally five minutes before I got it," she laughs. "I really, truly was speechless. I mumbled something about it wasn't me, but all the wonderful people I've been involved with all these years."
Thyra's off-the-cuff remark actually reflects another of her strongly held beliefs. "I don't do things by myself really," she reflects. "I don't have to be the one at the front waving the flag. But I can facilitate and enable people to work well together. I can bring people together. In the end, it doesn't matter if I get credited; it's that it gets done."
"I'm very successful with development teams in particular," she notes. "I get a lot more results like that rather than pushing and shoving."
"I find that works with usability people as well," Thyra reflects. "Everybody needs to be heard. We tend to be a very opinionated profession and very critical. A lot of times that comes through with the way we interact with each other. We need to have a way to make sure everyone feels heard and feels valued."
One of Thyra's wishes is to "bring all our various sister organizations together more." "We have more to share than we have differences," she points out. "We shouldn't be competing; we should be advancing our profession. The users surely don't care."
Thyra also believes in expanding the reach of the UPA, in "making UPA a truly international organization." 2007 was a particularly busy year for Thyra in that regard, with keynote addresses at conferences in China and Germany. In 2008, she has been busy setting up the first UPA Europe conference, in Turin, in December.
Thyra has been impressed by the "all the energy and excitement, and the enormous growth" she's seen abroad, particularly in China. "A lot of new people will be looking at our discipline with fresh eyes, and I think that's helpful. I think that's very exciting."
Asked to predict the future of usability, Thyra admits, "I honestly don't know. To me, that's one of the exciting things. I really don't know. We're going to have to be open to a lot of possibilities."
At the same time, though, Thyra sounds a reassuring note: "As much as things change, they also stay the same. The basics of what we do are still fundamentally the same. You have to understand your users and what their goals are and design around that. And if you don't do those things, you've failed."
Reflecting her own sunny personality, Thyra see the future of the profession as "very bright." She points to "the numbers of people around the world who are involved in our profession" and also to the number of "real people who use products," concluding that "what we do as a profession becomes more and more important."
On a more personal note, Thyra wonders what her "next project will be." Reflecting on her recent stint as a guest faculty member at Ball State, she points out that "one of my future life goals is going to be going back to being a university professor. That would bring it full circle for me."
"The right things happen at the right time," she points out. "You just need to jump up and take advantage of them."
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