CUA of the Month – January, 2008

Brenda Turner
"From banks to libraries to hospitals, everyone deals with information," says Brenda. "The more we're overwhelmed with information as a society, the more we're going to need people with usability degrees like this."
 
Brenda Turner, Ph.D., CUA
Department of Computer Sciences
Faulkner University

Putting Usability on the Front Shelf: Former librarian develops informatics major at Faulkner University

by Christine Schrum

When 1900s British politician Herbert Samuel said, "A library is thought in cold storage," he probably meant it as a compliment. But from the perspective of systems usability, most libraries were in the Ice Age up until just a few years ago.

Today those glaciers are melting, and former librarian Brenda Turner is not only watching with interest – she's holding a blowtorch of her own. Now an anchor professor at Faulkner University's Department of Computer Sciences in Montgomery, AL, Brenda has introduced a B.S. in Informatics, a new usability major that is now one of the school's fastest-growing degree programs.

"We've gone from 0 to 25 full-time majors in just two years," says Brenda. "It's really flourishing. This has quickly become one of the most popular degrees on campus."

A privately owned liberal arts institution, Faulkner is one of just under 25 US schools currently offering a complete degree program in usability. Faulkner's full roster includes several bachelor's degrees, five master's degrees and an ABA-accredited Juris doctor degree. The Informatics degree is one of three available within the Department of Computer Sciences.

Faulkner's Informatics major explores the relationships between data, systems and people – as they apply not just to libraries, but to medical facilities, corporations, the military and countless other organizations that rely on efficient and effective data-management systems to function.

In class, students investigate the policies and procedures that optimize the organization, flow and storage of information in the 21st Century. They study information behavior and organization and learn hands-on skills in design and evaluation, web page usability and research methods and strategies – all of which will make them invaluable assets to nearly any business or industry.

"We've got a lot of people here who can graduate with this degree and work in just about any place they want to," says Brenda. "We've already had several companies contact us for graduates."

With her library sciences-related background and propensities, Brenda is perhaps the ideal candidate to teach usability.

"Librarians are notoriously people who are organized and want to streamline things," she says with a laugh. "If something takes twice as long to do, that's frustrating for me. I have to find a way around it."

Working in purchasing and acquisition at Davis Library at Rio Grande University in the mid '80s, Brenda found plenty to be frustrated about.

"Back then, we were using an Apple 2-E, and floppy drives were all there were," she recalls. "Everything was DOS-based and menu-driven – you had to remember all the menus and learn them. There was absolutely no user interface."

After completing a Masters in Library Sciences at Indiana University and then working at Purdue's Stern Library, Brenda became Director of Libraries at Faulkner University in 1993. By then, usability was catching on, and Brenda played a key role in converting the library's data from card catalog to systems.

"It was a good-sized job," she laughs. "We had about 80,000 volumes! Fortunately, most of that data was in a machine-readable format."

Brenda went on to pursue and obtain a Ph. D. in Library and Information Studies through Florida State University. Immediately after graduating in December 2004, she presented a new Informatics degree plan and curriculum to the Faulkner University board. It was approved, and she's been teaching ever since.

"I really enjoy teaching the concepts to future usability specialists and seeing them 'get it'," says Brenda. "When students understand the importance of the field and how they may contribute to the 'ease of use' for potential customers throughout their career, it's very satisfying."

Never one to let dust gather around her, Brenda was searching the Internet for usability networking opportunities earlier this year when she came across HFI's CUA training.

"The usability training and certification tracks HFI offered looked interesting," she said. "I felt they would round out the knowledge I received during my academic studies – dovetail the theory with the application, so to speak."

Her hunch was confirmed when she took HFI's fast-track CUA training program in Seattle this August.

"When I went for the Ph. D., there was more of a theoretical information slant," she says. "While we talked about usability and information behavior and policy, there really wasn't the application of knowledge that I got when I attended the CUA training. That was a huge help!"

Brenda says the training also provided her with valuable peer networking. She has since become a member of both the Usability Professionals Association and the Association for Computing Machinery. The training has also proven a boon at Faulkner's annual accreditation reviews.

As a teacher of usability, Brenda says the most important wisdom she hopes to impart is that there's never just one way to approach a problem.

"Different audiences, different tasks, and different environments make every situation unique," she says. "The trick is not finding the only way – it's working with them to find the best way.

Sounds like Brenda just turned the heat up a few notches higher.

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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