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Resources: UPA 2004 Idea Markets

Who is best suited to do Usability? Consultant – Employee – Contractor

Activator: Ron Sova, Sova Consulting Group


I have worked as a consultant, employee, and contractor doing usability work. In each role, I worked with people in the two other roles, and I noticed differences in the kinds of projects, the reactions of project teams to each role, and the different expectations of the companies for whom they performed the projects.

Based on my experience in each role, I devised the following questions to explore the differences and similarities among the different roles in hopes that insights resulting from the discussion might help us to work more effectively in our current roles.

The questions posed to the participants included the following:

  1. Who is best suited to do usability? Consultant, Contractor, employee, or other?
  2. In which areas of usability does each of these professionals excel? For example, is any one of the roles better suited for information-gathering, UI design, evaluation, etc?
  3. What differentiates one usability-professional role from another? Background, process, training, perception of others, or something else?

High-Level Discussion Summary

To my surprise, attendees generally agreed that each of the three usability-professional roles brings more specific, rather than overlapping, value to a project/company. Specifically:

  • The employee’s overall knowledge of the history and interrelation of company projects makes him or her a good project team leader and promotes good interaction with stakeholders and other groups within the company.
  • situations and/or to bring in specialized talent that the company needs.
  • The consultant offers objectivity because s/he has no history with the company and, therefore, can work well on external facing sites. The consultant is also well positioned to introduce the value of usability to companies without established usability practices.

Deviation from Expected Direction

  1. I had expected to hear of overlap between the three roles. However, attendees' general consensus was that the three roles fit together to form a whole rather than overlap each other.
  2. I had also expected there to be more defense of turf; that is, for the employee, the contractor, and the consultant all to make the case that they do it all.
  3. Finally, I had hoped that the discussion would explore the differences in the roles and whether the differences are beneficial or detrimental. Are there ways to raise the skill levels of the people in one role to the average skill level of the people in the other roles?


The three usability-professional roles work together to form a solid usability front. The three roles complement each other in knowledge (political, technical, and usability-specific ), accessibility (availability for meetings and deliverables updates), and workload. The different professional roles exist because of the need for all three roles' special expertise, rather than because of basic differences such as company perceptions, training or education.

Specific Discussion Points

  • Employee
    • Used as point person
    • Understands company politics
    • Familiar with company history -> so is better for intranet
    • Better for design, since the design incorporates knowledge of the company and the political savvy to build a team and get things done within the company.
    • Privacy issues
    • Security issues
    • Employee output easier to move to development process.
    • Core employee is part of the process.
    • Field research – helps if it is an employee because:
      • knows more about the industry
      • better aggregation with the next step
      • knows history of product
  • Contractor
    • Overflow
    • Bring in specialized skill
    • Over time become pseudo employees
    • Bring in other non-usability specific talents (web design for example) to enhance the group.
    • Companies have job descriptions that may not include usability professional, so easier to bring one in from outside
  • Consultants
    • Better for usability testing because more objective and this function is separate from the rest of the process so can be modularized.
    • Bring specific skills to the company
    • Companies have job descriptions that may not include usability professional, so easier to bring one in from outside
    • Small org bring in usability professional to help educate, introduce company to usability, and create job descriptions It is good to start with consultant if company not usability conscience.
    • Use external for validation on a redesign
    • Usability firms deliver the best product in the time allotted, rather than the best product.
    • Outside may see something that an internal missed.
    • Field research should use consultant:
      • Look for everything (because don’t have intuitive knowledge)
      • More mobile (not daily activities) – better focus
      • More objective
    • Consultant – no supervision (agreed upon goals)
    • Consultant brought for overflow, if funding available to kick start a project.
    • Change outfacing side – fresh outlook

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