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Rebranding Usability Creates Confusion and Hiring Unskilled UX/UCD Staff


Companies hiring usability employees are not hiring skilled workers trained in all the skills necessary to perform the job properly. In fact, the industry itself has fractured into pieces.

Office building
The role of UX has many parts, requiring a wide set of skills.

Some companies have taken advantage of this fracturing and segmenting of skills by rebranding the work and selling it as if it is something brand new, when it is not. Unless management level employees know the difference between practical skills, methodologies and the long list of skills and knowledge necessary for usability and user centered design, they end up hiring someone with one tiny area of experience such as the ability to create mockups in Photoshop.

The role that usability plays in any software application or web site affects both the front end and back end.  An expert in UX should be able to get into the code because this is where the actual instructions for layout and delivery on all types of computer devices is written.  Photoshop is not where this occurs.

Another area lacking in UX hires is knowledge of how search engines index web pages.  While the job of rank and indexing typically falls to the SEO on staff, unless there is cohesiveness between usability, mobile, accessibility, information architecture and persuasive design, the entire project may not meet its requirements. When hiring a usability employee for revenue generating projects, their design portfolio should provide proof their work was search engine friendly, meets mobile requirements for search engines, is easy to share and user friendly.

The latest trends when hiring UX help are frustrating for the people with the skills and expertise who are overlooked to cut costs. The increasingly narrow view of what UX is and the role it plays is not sustainable in a computer dependent environment that changes quickly and frequently.

There is a reason why WordPress is updating its software with ARIA and if your company has no idea what that is, it’s already behind.  The movement to make software usable for all people, no matter what physical limitation they may have is gaining momentum.  Consider the aging population. How they use software and websites matters when you consider that they are spending more time and money online.  Advertisers are slow to figure out that an ad on Facebook seen by a retiree had better lead to a webpage designed for older brains and slowing motor skills, not to mention arthritis in hands and changes in eyesight.

Special needs people are now coding thanks to ATAG 2.0.  Does your company develop software used by anyone depending on assistive software to help them, and are your UX people trained in WGAG 2.0?

Information architecture is the foundation of all client facing applications and web pages and yet it is unlikely your UX employee is trained in IA.  As someone who reorganized two famous online directories, I can attest to how complicated the work is and how vital it is for user centered design and SEO.  IA in software is critical for findability, sorting, understanding sense of place and wayfinding, especially in enterprise applications developed for verticals like education, financial and travel.  Without a precise IA, abandonment rates are sky high.  All UI designs should include IA mapping backed by user personas, mental models and keyword research.

Cell phone at cafe
Understanding environments and user experience is important to design and testing.

Which leads me to some other skills necessary when seeking an experienced UX person for your staff.  Not only are user personas and mental models required skills, so is research.  I belong to several industry organizations that provide me with case studies, papers, academic research and data on how people use computers, search engines, purchase, and think.  When I need to, I can get data on how engineers, doctors or teachers use software or seek information.  This information is not free for me to obtain, but I feel it is important for me to have to perform my work and meet my clients’ expectations.  When interviewing new UX hires, ask for the professional organizations they belong to because they will need access to the data to build what you want.

Re-branding UX

Finally, UX is not a term that needs to be re-labeled and re-branded, and yet this is exactly what some companies are doing.  User Experience is just that.  Sure, many of us dislike the term “user”.  It’s been a point of contention since the 1990’s.  Calling it people usability (PX) doesn’t identify the type of people, nor does it sound any different than referring to end users as visitors, clients, customers, or guests.  Worse, to me, is not identifying who the target users are, exactly and what their preferences are, habits, devices, and environments.  This should be done during the requirements gathering stage.

Rebranding UX by breaking it down into narrowly defined areas like SX for student experience design, or FX for financial experience design is dangerous to newcomers to usability.  This is what user personas and mental models are for.  This is where neuroscience research comes in as it relates to your customers.  This is where user testing is added to the testing methodologies already in place.

UI and UX are not the same.  There are countless user interface designers who have no training in usability, user centered design, human factors and accessibility.  Nor do they code in Bootstrap, ARIA, Php, JavaScript, HTML5 and CSS3.  They are not trained to test software and their idea of usability testing is limited to Jakob Nielson’s 10 heuristics from 1995 intended for interaction design.

Summary: Jakob Nielsen’s 10 general principles for interaction design. They are called “heuristics” because they are broad rules of thumb and not specific usability guidelines.

Usability, if you care to check its history, has a long tradition for being misunderstood, debated, analyzed and chopped to pieces.  Changing its name or using a new term for UX is an old tactic that only contributes to an already complicated profession.  Companies have tried to separate their services by calling them something else, often with the word “conversions” or “persuasion” as part of the terminology or brand.  The marketing aspect of UX is yet another segment and quite valid.  It may not be as vital for software application development, especially proprietary enterprise level packages, but even there lies the risk of abandonment if the app is difficult to understand and use.  If software customers are not recommending your products, what pieces are missing?

No matter what it’s called, in the end it is simply usability.  It’s a profession that requires years and years of training in related fields to make it into the grand contribution it is intended to be.  We have all experienced poorly built software and online applications.  This is because companies are not hiring trained usability people.  They are hiring user interface designers.

It is wise to hire both.