CUA of the Month – December, 2010

Art Zippel
"Stakeholders are concerned that if we get users involved, they're going to mess up the process. 'Why would I give up some of my control to an end user who doesn't understand the bigger picture?' My role in that kind of a situation is to explain that we don't have users making those decisions... Usability is about gathering information to make an informed decision. If I can clarify that, a lot of times the hesitancy of the stakeholders is lessened and I get more willingness to work together."
 
Art Zippel
Visual Interaction Designer
Art Zippel UI & X

Enthusastic About User-Centered Design

by Sheldon Kreger

Usability is an important factor in countless industries. Art Zippel is an independent consultant who can attest to the variety of situations in which usability is a top priority.

Because Art has been designing websites since 1995, he has seen tremendous change as the field has matured. Originally a student of graphic design, the necessity of usability expertise became clear early on. "It's scary to have a graphic designer in charge of what ends up becoming usability issues with really no training. In my design classes, it was all about complimentary colors, fonts, and that kind of stuff."

The field of web design has changed not only technically, but it has become increasingly necessary for firms to maintain top-notch websites. Regardless if users are going online to shop, to get information, or to interact with a business some other way – every situation is going to be different, and interaction important. Users will have different expectations for how a website should work.

"The last 8 years I've been involved in usability has really exposed me to a lot of methodologies that I can use to really know if something is working – getting user interviews up front, stakeholder interviews, putting it altogether."

After assisting with a variety of research projects for the National Fibromyalgia Association, the company downsized and Art found opportunities consulting independently. He recently helped re-design an online student portal for a large university, where students can register for classes, check their financial aid packages, see their grades, and so on. Now, Art is working with a team to re-design an intranet for a large firm.

"Mechanically, it has to be sound. It has to work. It has to be intuitive so the user knows how to interact with it. The other thing – which I was really thrilled to hear talked about so much in the HFI courses I took – is the user's mental model. They're not walking into the interaction with your website with a blank mind. They're walking in with presuppositions of how it should work based on things they've used in the past."

One interesting change of late is the demand for usability expertise coming from medium sized firms rather than only large firms. Many companies are looking to standardize how information is collected, analyzed, and handled. Because of the huge variety of tasks accomplished through web interfaces, having processes that are efficient and effective is becoming increasingly important.

"The large firms, I feel like they've been into usability forever. Now it seems to be filtering down to the medium sized companies. It's important that it's a viable option with genuine return on their investment."

Art has all too often come into situations where users were leaving websites due to confusion or feelings that their privacy had been violated. He recalls one instance where a site's homepage had buttons to "Sign up," "Register," "Become a Member," and "Login." Worse yet, once the user actually found the option they were looking for, they were immediately asked for personal information regarding their income level. Mistakes like these can have a huge impact on attrition rates, even for smaller firms.

"What good does it do to spend all this money on SEO if you're bringing your clients into a negative experience that lowers the value of your brand? That's not going the right way."

Art explains how it is important to remember that value and trust go hand-in-hand. If an individual feels as though they are being greatly rewarded by interacting with your site, then they are more likely to provide the information needed to accomplish the task at hand.

"Trust and value have to be established. If somebody doesn't see a lot of value in jumping through the hoops, they'll take other options if they can. That's when they go to somebody else's website."

Because usability expertise is utilized within so many contexts, Art faces the challenges of new situations all the time. Being hired as a consultant means that Art finds himself working with new people who may not immediately understand what kind of insight he can provide. They might even be afraid that orienting a project around the end-user could be problematic.

"Stakeholders are concerned that if we get users involved, they're going to mess up the process. 'Why would I give up some of my control to an end user who doesn't understand the bigger picture?' My role in that kind of a situation is to explain that we don't have users making those decisions... Usability is about gathering information to make an informed decision. If I can clarify that, a lot of times the hesitancy of the stakeholders is lessened and I get more willingness to work together."

Despite these difficulties, Art is capable of showing that he is there to help make the design process easier, not harder. Many times, problems can be avoided when decisions about design are made early in a project.

"My goal is to get better information to my clients upfront as far as the user – so that it's easier for them to develop a more effective product. That's a win-win situation. Every developer wants to pull their hair out when you get two or four weeks down a certain lane as far as developing, and then find out that's not what users want."

Providing such insight can save a lot of time and money, and is part of what makes the knowledge of a CUA so valuable. But, don't just take his word for it. Art says that, "becoming a CUA has been absolutely crazy – the positive effect and difference it has made for me. I have recruiters that contact me now because of my certification. The last five or six job interviews I've received have been because of the CUA. I've probably had a 500 to 600 percent increase of recruiters seeking me out because they see that I'm certified."

CUA of the Month

Each month we highlight the successes and achievements of a different member of our CUA community. If you are a Certified Usability Analyst and would like to be considered for CUA of the Month recognition, please send a brief professional bio to hfi@humanfactors.com

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