by Dick Miller, Hewlett-Packard
Reprinted from Usability Interface, Vol 6, No. 3, January 2000
I’m sure most readers are familiar with Rodney Dangerfield’s trademark comedy hook, “I don’t get no respect!” which he follows with a series of humorous examples. Those who want to make the transition from technical writer to usability specialist may find themselves in a similar predicament, but the tales they tell are not quite so funny, especially to them.
I didn’t consciously decide to transition from technical communication to usability specialist. I’ve always had an interest in making learning and performing as efficient, effective, and enjoyable as possible, and the move was a natural outgrowth of what I was doing in the technical communication world. Let me share with you some knowledge I gained while going through the transition process.
Be the Best Technical Writer You Can Be
Credibility is the basis for respect. If you don’t have credibility as a professional with your suppliers, your customers, and the members of your organization, they’ll probably have difficulty giving you credibility in another role. Volumes have been written on this subject; I won’t go into any further detail here. However, I see it as a necessary precondition before making the transition we’re discussing.
Discuss with your supervisor your vision of how you can add value to the organization’s work by providing this new service. Get it written into your development plan. Allocate time and money for development opportunities such as conferences and workshops, and be prepared to share what you’ve learned with your peers. In my own case, I can think of two key events: the STC 1996 conference in Seattle, where I first became aware of and active in the Usability SIG; and my participation in and invitation to join the Advisory Council for a well-known professional Internet discussion group.
I’ve learned that, especially in the high-tech world, it’s important to hone the edges of one’s tools. I suggest becoming active in professional societies such as the STC Usability SIG, the Usability Professionals Association, ACM’s SIGCHI, and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. Participate in discussions via email lists and local meetings of professional society chapters.
Learn About Your Customers’ Needs
support the engineers who create custom business applications for use at our plant site. Those engineers are my customers, and the people who work at this site are their customers. I investigated until I found what I could do that my customers would find beneficial, mostly because it would serve their own customers better. Once I had that information, I was on my way.
Provide Unexpected Added Value
When I have to document a new application, the developers provide me with a developmental pre-release version of the software so I can get needed screen shots for illustrations in the User Guide. While I’m doing that, I provide information to the software project leader about functionality, bugs, and usability considerations that I notice. This gives them an opportunity to make significant improvements in the product before any customers see it, and while the cost of doing so is relatively low.
Move from Credibility to Visibility
As you become more known for your usability contributions, try to get software project leaders to invite your participation on the team in early stages of the design process. From this vantage point, you can make suggestions about the design related to usability. Because of this early participation, your reputation as “the usability person” begins to spread through the grapevine.
I’ve also found that maintaining a web page of resources on usability including seminars, workshops, conferences, and references has paid off by increasing the awareness of the people I work with that I have something to offer.
Show Them the Benefits
Nothing succeeds like success. By getting involved early in various projects, you have the opportunity to add value to the project. When you can point to the positive results of your usability efforts, it’s more likely that you’ll be invited to participate in other situations.
You’ve Arrived, Sort of
When you hear a customer say, “I remember that usability test you did with users of the XYZ system last year, and how it improved the quality and cut the deliverable schedule for the software. I’ve got a project that’s not quite the same, but I think you might be able to help,” you know that your hard work has paid off. But don’t quit now. Keep on finding ways to add value to projects and to let your peers know about it. You’ll be rewarded by interesting work and, if there’s any justice in the world, appropriate compensation for the value you’ve added and the initiative you’ve shown.