by David Dick
Tharon Howard teaches in the Master of Arts in Professional Communication at Clemson University. When Tharon is not mentoring students, he manages an online usability community called UTEST.
At this year’s STC Conference, Tharon received the Usability SIG Achievement Award in recognition of his generous service in creating, maintaining and guiding the community. I had the privilege to speak with Tharon to learn more about the architect of the online usability community.
David: How did you become involved with managing a listserve?
Tharon: It all began in 1988 when I was a graduate student at Purdue University. I created PURTOPOI, an acronym of Purdue and topoi (topoi means “place” in classical rhetoric). PURTOPOI was a place where scholars and people who study rhetoric could get together and talk about issues important to them. All went well until an individual began slandering the work of other subscribers. This is where I learned the importance of moderating the topic and tone of the posts in order to protect the subscriber community.
David: Why did you create UTEST?
Tharon: UTEST was started to meet a practical need-to provide an environment for usability testing professionals to freely share knowledge and experience.
It started with faculty from Clemson, Clarkson, and Purdue, and Mark Simpson (who was then working for Microsoft). All of us were conducting usability research and having problems running our respective labs.
Way back then, the literature didn’t address the kinds of problems that we were having: things like informed consent agreements, subject recruiting, etc. We shared our problems and exchanged ideas via e-mail. We thought how much easier it would be would be if we had a listserve. That’s when I decided to create UTEST.
David: How fast did it catch on?
Tharon: Slowly. In 1993, membership to UTEST was 25. Because of all the problems that I had had with PURTOPOI, we agreed that UTEST would be a private list, limited to people in the usability community whom we knew.
Because we wanted to talk about our jobs and, because our research was often proprietary, we wanted to have clear restrictions on what we could discuss and how the information could be used, while still allowing us to share the information we needed to do our jobs effectively.
One day, Ginny Redish visited Clemson University and saw the usability testing taking place. She became aware of UTEST, asked to join, and asked if it would be possible to open membership to others. How could I refuse Ginny? The rest is history. Today, UTEST has over 1,400 subscribers.
David: What is your role?
Tharon: Mostly, I am the system janitor-other times, the cyber-cop. I enforce professionalism and respect for others’ points of view.
David: Have you ever had a situation where you had to intervene?
Tharon: Yes, on numerous occasions. One memorable situation occurred several years ago when somebody criticized material published in a book about interface design. The author, who was also a subscriber, responded, and a flame war ensued. I intervened. Unfortunately, the author took my intervention personally and asked to be removed from the list. These incidents happen and damage professional relationships. Thankfully, the Advisory Council helps me to resolve such conflicts.
David: How does the Advisory Council contribute to UTEST?
Tharon: The Council makes my job a lot easier. Whenever a question of policy occurs, the Council drafts a response and sends it to the subscriber.
David: Can anybody join UTEST?
Tharon: Actually, UTEST is a closed list. Many people think that membership to a professional society automatically entitles them to join UTEST-it doesn’t.
David: What makes UTEST unique?
Tharon: It’s a community of informed people working together to solve problems. UTEST isn’t about just collecting facts; it’s about the process of solving professional problems. That focus on process is one of the reasons why UTEST is not archived. It’s not a library, a repository, or a database; it’s a dynamic, evolving community.
David: What you recommend to someone who wants to learn about usability?
Tharon: I don’t have all the answers. I’m constantly learning new skills by performing usability tests and doing the research. But I do think that an essential aspect of usability is making people comfortable and willing to listen to how to improve the product. Learning how to communicate effectively with product developers, marketers, and managers, without making them feel threatened, is important to being successful in this field.
David: What would you not recommend to people involved with usability?
Tharon: I’d recommend that people not bring discredit to the profession by damaging the good work of others in the usability community. We get savaged enough by outsiders; we don’t need to rip each other apart.
David: How do you feel about your selection for the achievement award?
Tharon: I was unaware of how valuable UTEST is to individuals and the lessons they have learned from it. I am very grateful to learn how UTEST has become a part of people’s lives and professional identities. For them, UTEST provides emotional support and satisfaction. The outpouring of gratitude is embarrassing in a way. I received hundreds of e-mail messages. It’s a great feeling learning that my efforts have touched so many. It’s emotional. Thank you.