CUA of the Month – May, 2015

Kendra Keogh
“Combining usability with software engineering helps me see how my work impacts the user.”
 
Kendra Keogh

Software Engineer
Viasat

Bridging the UX/Development Gap

by Jim Garrett

The UX professional community doesn’t include too many developers. However, our current CUA of the Month, Kendra Keogh, is making inroads to to bridging the gap between UX specialists and developers.

Kendra works at Viasat, a satellite and network communication company in the San Diego area. As a software engineer for seven years, she took the CUA training and introduced in her company a more formalized approach to user interfaces and user experience. Leading a cultural change to make usability a greater consideration throughout the development process, she is now regarded as the company expert on UI/UX.

What inspired you to learn UX as a developer?

I have always wanted my development to be closer to the user.  I really need for my work to make an impact and to be meaningful. The closer I can get to the people who use it, the more satisfying it is for me. I actually feel like I am doing something that matters to a person, rather than just working with technology. I was looking for ways to further my education in usability and user interface design. Someone recommended HFI courses and my company was supportive, so I took the training and really enjoyed it.

It has helped me in my work with developers and in my own software development because I have an established method and practiced techniques for gaining insight into what the user wants.  UX taught me not to assume I know what the user wants, and not to settle for just guessing. I try to bring that perspective to other developers.

Have you been able to influence any of the development from your user research?

Definitely.  I have been able to offer feedback on UIs developed by several different groups at our company and they took the feedback and applied it. One group I got to help out with was building a test automation interface. Often I have a hard time getting access to user groups, but for this product the users were a test group at our company, so I got to sit down with them to see how they used it.  I learned about their work flow, what features were most important and most frequently used, and what their work space really looked like.

I took that back to the development team and identified some of the areas that they could improve. I know they plan to incorporate some of the changes in future releases. And not only did they receive things that they could work on, but they began to see that they can talk to the users and get feedback from them.  They found out they didn’t need to sit in their labs and develop it themselves.   It was a good mental shift for them.

Are there some common misconceptions or mistakes you see developers have, now that you have the UX background?

One of my HFI instructors said, “Engineers are concerned with the possibilities and as a designer you are concerned with the probabilities.” I see this play out all the time. I’ll be discussing a new feature with other developers, and  the first suggestion is generally to give all possible options to the user and let them figure it out.  I have to continually fight and say, “No, let’s figure out how the user wants to use this and then design it that way.  Maybe we can give them other options additionally, but let’s make a primary way for it to match what the user wants to do.” 

 Also, I think engineers, and even our testers, use these tools very differently than the actual users do. It’s easy to fall into designing it in a way that works for us rather than figuring out how it is going to be used by the user.  Designing it for the user and figuring out how the user is going to use it, are probably the two biggest challenges working with developers.

It is a really different mindset, isn’t it?

It is interesting. Figuring out what the user wants and not giving them all the possibilities, but giving them all the probabilities makes our job as a developer so much easier. We spend a ton of time on features that don’t end up getting used, either because the user doesn’t need it or can’t figure out how to use it. It would help us do less work if we did not waste our time on stuff that wasn’t used or that was done wrong or could have been done better.  If we take the time up front to figure this out, it is going to make our life a lot easier further down the road. This is my mission to implement this mindset.

Can you tell me some of the things that you are working on, or what kind of programs you have out there for your users that you would be involved with?

We do a lot of network management tools.  A lot of our products are tools for network administrators to allow them to configure equipment, or manage a network. We have a network operations center where they run and manage our commercial Internet. That is a pretty complex interface that requires good data visualization as well as providing an operator the ability to identify and respond quickly to activity on the network.

Where does UX enter into that?

One of the specific challenges the company is currently addressing is standardization and branding of all our interfaces.  We have all these network management interfaces for our different products and they all look completely different.  Our marketing team is really pushing to standardize and be better about branding.  Also, people who use our products, every time they use a different product, they have to completely learn the interface and, in general, not a whole lot of attention has been paid to the user experience, or even the usability side of the interface, but they’re actively working to address that now.

Was there anything in particular that stood out for you in the CUA training that you were able to apply to your work?

Pretty much every course that I took, as I was taking it, I would go back to my hotel  and review  my notes on the things that I wanted to do on my program when I got home.  The interface design class was really good and especially the user center analysis and the usability testing classes. That was brand new for me and my boss was super supportive of bringing usability onto our program.

After taking the courses, I was given the opportunity to interview some users and, come up with write-up user scenarios for our users.  I did that within the first couple of months of coming back. It was really good for me to have an understanding of how they use our tools. Now in terms of developing, I am thinking about that and trying to match the tool to how they are going to use it.  That was huge.  My program is pretty small, and it’s been a great opportunity to practice what I’m learning on a small scale before working with bigger programs.

Is your job now, as a developer with a different mindset, more satisfying?

It is. The first product that I have worked on since getting the CUA certification we are releasing in June. I am really excited to see how that goes. I am interested to see after we release it if and how much they come back to us, and, say “This isn’t right” or “We need this.”  Hopefully those changes are minor. This release that I am working on right now is a complete re-do of the last version of this software so I am hoping that we got it right and won’t have to do over again.

Does it make your job more interesting now,  to have this approach with the usability combined with development?

I am really able to understand how what I am doing directly impacts the user, or is directly applicable to what they are doing. It gives me some context and I can see and understand how every feature I am putting in will give me a good idea of how it is going to be used. It definitely brings some context and perspective to what I do.

I really enjoy the unique position I’m in, bridging the gap between developers and the UX community.  I think my technical background is really helpful in talking with our user groups because they are often highly technical as well and I can speak their language.  At the same time, I work hard to bring usability practices and considerations into our development labs.  It’s a good day when I hear engineers discussing how to design a feature and someone asks, “What would the user want?”

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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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