Usability for Developers

If there’s one thing that’s caught my attention in the past six months, it’s an increase in the variety of web roles incorporating usability. I’ve noticed this across a number of areas: job posts, industry events, online discussions and personal tagging on social networking sites such as Web Connections. SitePoint has even released a Usability Kit and launched this blog. I find it interesting because it signifies a shift in the importance the web community appears to be placing on usability within the development process.

Do a quick job search (go on, I’m giving you an excuse!) and you’ll find it’s quite common to see Front End Developer, Information Architect (IA), Producer and Visual Designer roles all requiring knowledge of usability to some extent. I’m using the term ‘usability’ generically here, to incorporate user testing, user experience and interaction design, but in essence, what I’m talking about is working with a user-centred approach to site development.

But what about me?
I’m Lisa Herrod, a Senior Usability Consultant at Access Testing. I’ve been working on the web for the past 8 years in various roles including: design, development, accessibility, usability and even (in a universe far from here) a teacher of standards focused ‘web stuff’. While I’m a usability person for sure, I’m really interested in seeing a holistic approach to web development, incorporating usability and web standards all the way. So this shift I’ve observed towards incorporating usability across a wide variety of web roles is really very interesting.

A tale of two cities
To my mind there’s two main ways of looking at Web Usability: old school vs. new school.

Traditional Human Computer Interaction (HCI) is what I consider the ‘old school’ approach. It stems from pre-web days where usability specialists evaluated desk-top applications, and technical considerations (such as cross browser compatibility and Javascript support) were less likely to impact the user. This remains a perfectly valid method if you want to conduct a high level evaluation of a website, but it doesn’t afford a great depth of analysis these days.

The ‘new school’ approach, as I’ll call it, calls for Usability Specialists to have a greater technical knowledge of the web. Structure, content, presentation (CSS) and behavioural layers all affect the accessibility and user experience of a site. Knowledge of how the web works allows usability practitioners to work more closely with designers and developers to produce a better, more usable product overall.

What I’m talking about here is the need for a focus on usability within web teams from the beginning of a project, right across all roles. Clearly employers are looking for designers and developers with usability skills. We’re also seeing more Experience Architects emerging – i.e. usability practitioners with technical skills. So, it is happening out there. Dev teams at Fairfax, News and Westpac are doing great stuff working this way and no doubt there are many others too…

How about you…?

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  • http://www.sitepoint.com Simon Mackie

    Welcome aboard, Lisa!

  • http://www.sitepoint.com Matthew Magain

    Good to have you on board Lisa!

    It’s interesting to hear your comment about the two streams of usability – it seems to happen in a lot of fields where the academics and theorists get out of touch with the more practical folks who are actually in the trenches doing the hard yards.

  • http://boyohazard.net Octal

    A great addition to the Sitepoint blogs; well met Lisa.

  • Skyblaze

    I’ve just ordered the usability kit and i hope it will teach me useful things in term of usability…..then this blog ;)

  • http://www.brothercake.com/ brothercake

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the crossover between usability and accessibility – to what extent they’re the same/different thing, or in what situations a practioner of one should or shouldn’t be concerned with the other.

  • Andy King

    Lisa,

    One large part of usability in website design is have a
    strong information scent for users to find your info.
    In some recent research Dennis Galletta and his colleagues
    found that there is a three-way interaction between website
    delay, site breadth, and familiarity with terminology for
    user outcomes. I’ve summarized the article and interviewed
    the author at:

    http://www.websiteoptimization.com/speed/tweak/scent/

    - andy

  • nycGuy

    Your statement and SitePoint’s timing couldn’t be more perfect. I am in NYC currently looking for a new position and tentatively have an offer. Looking at the market here for the past 3 weeks there are a great deal of UI related jobs with all sorts of titles, from User Interface Designer, to Interaction Designer, to Experience Designer, even Sr. Web Designer. It seems they are looking for people are have experience with not only the analytical skills, but the technical and design skills as well. From what I understand it is a very hard combo to find, but highly desirable.

    That being said, this is perfect timing. I look forward to reading what you have to say, welcome!

  • Lisa Herrod

    Hey James, I think there’s a great deal of crossover between usability and accessibility.

    Clearly they’re two different fields and I don’t think that a practitioner of one necessarily knows much about the other. However, accessible sites are always going to be more usable for a significant proportion of all users. For example, large text or resizable text may improve accessibility and usability for vision impaired users as well as older users. That’s just a really basic example though.

    I do think accessibility is quite a specialised area that requires specific knowledge, and a well experienced usability practitioner won’t necessarily know anything about it.