Building Blocks to a Body of Knowledge for UCD
By Whitney Quesenbery, Julie Nowicki, Elizabeth Rosenzweig, and Nigel Bevan
For the past 9 months the Usability Professionals' Association participated in a project to investigate the feasibility of certifying usability or user-centered design (UCD) professionals. This work included several intensive workshops, presentations at conferences, and the collection of feedback from the usability community through meetings and a survey.
Based on the feedback from members, the responses to the survey, and an assessment of the current environment, the UPA has decided that it is premature to lead an effort to develop a certification program at this time, and issued a statement with this decision at the annual conference in Orlando.
However, we are not turning our back on the underlying work of the certification project. It was clear that although a certification program may not be the answer at this time, there is an outstanding question about how to advance the profession and help members - and other usability practitioners - gain credibility and legitimacy. This work exposed a strong consensus on related initiatives that would provide immediate value for the profession. Among these is developing a body of knowledge that could be used as the basis for a professional development plan, curriculum, and self-assessment tools. The UPA is planning to move these initiatives forward.
Creating a Body of Knowledge
In several discussions, the idea of a body of knowledge gained strong support. Other organizations, such as the Project Management Institute, have assembled similar works that can serve as examples of successful projects.
Such a body of knowledge is a centerpiece out of which various useful activities can develop. A certification is one possible outcome, but not the first one that needs to be developed.
At a workshop held during the conference, five immediate activities and one planning project were defined. Volunteer leaders were identified for each activity, and we've begun building project teams. The five initial activities were all selected to have immediate value, and to be work that could be completed within 1 year.
In addition, a team will begin the work of planning and defining the body of knowledge. We will gather a diverse team that represents different countries, industries, and approaches. This long-term planning is critical to ensure that we can create not just immediate deliverables, but also prepare for the larger project of creating the body of knowledge itself.
The Five Initial Projects
1. Create a pamphlet to lay the groundwork for a body of knowledge. This document will build on the UPA poster (depicting a UCD process), and some of the existing documents that were used or developed by the certification working group. These include ISO standards for human-centered design. The goal is a document in clear language with an attractive design. Leaders: Caroline Jarrett and Nigel Bevan
2. Create an annotated bibliography for getting started in UCD. This list of reading will be integrated with the pamphlet to help those just learning about the field find the best reading material. Leader: Chauncey Wilson
3. Catalog current courses and degree programs in usability, UCD, HCI, IA, or related fields. This work is in preparation for developing guidelines for a UCD curriculum. Such a curriculum could be useful for both academic program design and for self-assessment and professional development. Leader: Julie Nowicki
4. Define roles for practicing UCD, and start work on creating sample job descriptions. This work will lead to additional professional development activities. Leader: Whitney Quesenbery
5. Create a Code of Conduct for people practicing UCD. Leader: Chauncey Wilson
The high level of support for these activities - in the form of volunteers - was a strong validation of the need for these immediate deliverables. Anyone who is interested in working on any of these projects should either contact the project leaders directly, or get in touch with Mary Beth Rettger (firstname.lastname@example.org), the UPA Membership Director and volunteer coordinator.
A History of the Project
The project was kicked off in Salt Lake City last November when a group of people from many organizations, countries, and associations met for 3 days. That meeting ended with a sense of enthusiasm for creating a certification program based on the international standard for a human-centered design process, ISO 13407. A detailed report of the meeting was published in the magazine Interactions in the January-February 2002 issue ("Certifying Usability Professionals" by Donald Day, pages 7-9).
A working group was formed to continue exploring certification feasibility. UPA representation in the group was coordinated by Julie Nowicki, the UPA Director of Professional Development. The group planned activities to survey professionals to determine the level of support for certification and to understand the benefits and drawbacks seen by stakeholders. The group also planned to work toward formation of a non-profit consortium to support certification.
Over the following months, meetings were held at several conferences and local meetings, including a session at the STC Annual Conference in Nashville. An opinion expressed at that meeting was that the term "usability" was too narrow for the broad range of skills and concerns described in ISO 13407. Although the group could not decide on a "best" term, user-centered design (UCD) was one of those suggested.
In addition to gathering valuable input from practitioners via the survey, the working group's efforts also included developing an initial set of possible competencies, based on ISO13407. This work was led by Nigel Bevan and Jonathan Earthy of the UK. This work produced documentation that will be useful for foundational body of knowledge efforts, including a skills framework. It also pointed out some of the challenges inherent in defining competencies and interpreting ISO standards for this purpose.
All of the work on this project is made public at www.upcertification.org , including meeting reports, drafts of working documents, and personal contributions to the discussion.
On April 18, the UPA launched a survey to collect feedback on attitudes. Members of UPA, the STC Usability SIG, and from several other popular usability lists were invited to participate. The survey ran until May 31 and collected 975 responses. Although this survey was not a random sample, the sheer size and number of written comments lends weight to the responses. The final results were analyzed by a number of interested practitioners and statisticians.
An interesting trend was that those entering the field - without a degree or many years of experience - were generally more interested in seeking certification than those already established in the field. According to the survey, 77% of people new to the field would seek certification; only 39% of the most experienced would do so. This suggested that there may be a receptive audience for certification in people entering the field or adding certification to their professional skills.
A Portrait of a Community
Caroline Jarrett and Whitney Quesenbery decided that the qualitative responses were the most important aspect of the survey data. They decided to report on the themes and issues in those comments. The focus of their analysis was to look for patterns in the responses that might provide insight into correlation between expressed attitudes and the demographics of the respondents, the perceived barriers or other hurdles that a certification program must overcome, and insights into what makes this issue so contentious within the usability community.
What they found was a lot of strongly held opinions. Many people who responded to the survey used it as an opportunity to write carefully worded comments on what issues they felt were the most important in the field today. The first attempt at coding was based on organizing the comments into themes by their opinion (pro or con) about certification. However, it became apparent that the key themes included comments on a full spectrum of opinions about certification. Instead of a ballot on certification itself, they began to see the qualitative data as a portrait of the issues and concerns in the usability community.
The themes included:
The value of certification to the profession, in gaining credibility and legitimacy, and the danger of premature codification
The possible value in defining core skills, with a lot of concern that the field might be too broad and undefined at this time.
The relative value of education and experience in training and establishing professional credentials
Whether certification would help those entering the field, or simply become a barrier to those who are interested in usability
The value to customers of usability services and to those who hire professionals
The value in self-promotion, as a "badge" of status.
There were also many comments on the certification process and the value of the project itself. There was, not surprisingly, a lot of diversity of opinion on what a certification should consist of and how it should be assessed.
The complete report, along with all the other work of the certification core team, is available online at www.upcertification.org.
What happens next with certification?
At this time, the UPA believes that its efforts and resources are best put toward creating the body of knowledge described above. However, there is a good deal of interest in certification internationally, especially in the UK and Japan. It's possible that more immediate efforts toward certification may continue in these countries.
Resources (both time and money) were not available in a timely fashion to form a non-profit consortium for certification from the 2001-2002 working group's efforts (as launched in Salt Lake City). However, the UPA position states that the organization is willing to consider participation in (but not leading of) a certification effort by a non-profit organization should such an effort become feasible in the future.
In the mean time, UPA has made a commitment to launching the building block activities immediately. We hope that many of you will join in this work.
Elizabeth Rosenzweig is UPA President; Julie Nowicki is UPA Director of Professional Development; Whitney Quesenbery and Nigel Bevan are UPA Directors of Strategic Outreach.