So what do you do?

Originally posted: 18 Jan 2009. Note: since writing this being a User Experience person now has new challenges as it often gets confused with User Interface design. More on this elsewhere.

It’s an innocent question but one that I have to constantly try and find better ways to answer. Often the conversation will go something like this…

Nice polite person, “So what do you do?”

Me, “I work on Web Sites”

NPP “You work in IT?”

Me, “No I work on planning out the site, on how it works for the user”

NPP “So you’re a web designer?”

Me, “Well I work with web designers and a technical team. I’m more like an architect, I say how it should be structured and draw up the blue prints but other build it and do the visual design.”

The conversation then moves on to who I work for, questions about their web site or any other web related topic including ‘how can I get my site into Google’. I’ve don’t mind having this conversation as it’s the same for many lesser known professions and it’s good that it often leads to a general conversation about how the nice polite person users the web, a bit of casual user research. The issue I have is that this conversation also happens within the business I work for except the U word comes up usualy in this form…

Nice Professional Person “So you do Usability”

Me “That’s part of what I do.”

I then have to go on to explain the difference between User Experience and Usability. This is more difficult because there are those who believe they understand what my job is because they’ve read a book by Jacob Nielsen. These are the conversations I don’t enjoy that much as I find much of what is called Usability is based upon a very academic view of how people use computers.

I’ll cover Usability in more depth in a future post but, for now, briefly I want to say why I feel it’s can’t be isolated and is better replaced by either User Experience or User Research. Usability gives the false impression that there is a very rigid scientific method to determining how usable the site is and that it is possible to create a hard and fast set or rules to solve most issues. A Usability Expert will of course know these rules and uses them to sway opinion. For this reason many like usability – they like the idea that there is a solid set of rules that will make their site better – except these rules arn’t quite as solid as they could be. Instead Usability is often more about User Research – that is finding out what users do and why and, in my view, often mistakes are made when these findings are then followed by recommendations. The research is vital and useful (although some methods are more useful than others – again I’d like to talk about this some other time).

Clients often want these recommendations – they want experts who can offer quick and insightful solutions based upon research. After all they often know they have problems and really, they want someone to come in and fix it. The problem with this is that knowing the problems from the users perspective is only one part of the whole process. User experience is about finding solutions to issues that can be uncovered through user research that no only match the user needs but also the business needs. These solutions need go through a series of steps to reach the best solution, a proper solid design process.

For this reason I always try and downplay usability, not because it’s not part of the mix, but because it can give the false impression that solutions come directly from user research. If they do they can ignore the context of the project because, to be honest, the most common answer to any user experience question is ‘it depends’. We have to be flexible to the project we’re working on and provide the right solution. One size does not fit all. Exactly what I do on any project is really down to the nature of that project and over the years User Professional folks (titles vary greatly) tend to build up a tool kit of methods of solving any problem and, unless they work on the same kind of project constantly, we will do different things on different projects.

So the real answer I maybe should give to the nice polite person is ‘It depends’.

See Also:

10 bits of advice for UK UX Contractors

More UX Stew Posts