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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Career in Usability



Leela Chaturvedi was trying to play the nursery rhymes CD that she had bought for her two-year old son. To her dismay, she soon realised that she had to play each rhyme individually, as there was no 'auto run' feature. She had to keep clicking the "Next" button after every song. It also took her some time to figure out where the menu (or home page) was. This CD presented a bad case of usability.


"Usability is about making a product or system efficient, easier and satisfying to use," says Shashank Deshpande, chief of technical staff,Human Factors International, a leading usability consulting firm, "From appliances that we use in our homes to software systems that are used in corporate sectors,understanding human capabilities is extremely important for a positive user experience." Usability derives its knowledge base from various disciplines such as ergonomics, psychology and industrial design.

According to Jayanth Ananthakrishnan, user experience manager of a Hyderabad-based multinational,"Usability at its core is the property or attribute of being easy to use- be it a product or a service. For the user it means the ability to successfully, comfortably and confidently learn or complete a task."

Anirudha Joshi,associate professor, IDC, IIT Mumbai, puts it rightly when he says the usability of a product differs from person to person. He says that a product should be useful, useable and desirable.
It's important.

"Usability makes people more productive and enables them to work the way 'they work' rather than the ‘way machines or software work'. It makes life easier", says Ripul Kumar, head, Research and Usability Consulting, Kern Communications, Hyderabad.

Bad usability can make a product unpopular, even if it has several other strengths. For example, a website should be easy to use: all the information should be 'visible' and easy to understand; easy navigation and a legible font is a must. When people are not satisfied with any of these requirements,they tend to skip the website.

"We have strengths and weaknesses. We also have preferences and dislikes. When products are designed keeping in mind our strengths and preferences, the products becomes more usable and hence more acceptable," exp l a i n s K r i s h n a k u m a r Shankarnarayan, user experience manager.


"Internationally, usability experts are students of cognitive psychology.In India, students from a design background also move into this job," says Joshi. With a high demand for usability experts, organisations are now looking for formal qualifications in prospects such as psychology, industrial design and visual communication.

"Unfortunately, the curricula of such disciplines do not adequately deal with subjects close to usability such as cognitive science, experimental psychology and human computer interface (HCI).There needs to be a strong emphasis on user-focus (reading/listening, interviewing/surveying skills) and a solid knowledge of user interfaces and standards. Most important, a usability professional should be creative and possess the ability to relate seemingly unrelated things," affirms Ananthakrishnan.

Shankarnarayan considers a formal education in human-computer interaction, product design, software and user interface design as essential for a usability expert. He advises usability enthusiasts to attend knowledge forums such as Usability Professional Association and Human Factors Educational Society (HFES). Besides formal training or education,being sensitive to user needs is extremely important for usability professionals.


The services of usability experts are mainly availed by IT companies, multimedia firms, portals, manufacturing companies (such as consumer goods makers), and automobile units."It is definitely a good time to get into the usability field in India. It takes several years of professional experience to become a top-notch expert. Five years from now, more companies will have their own usability groups and will need usability managers," predicts Ananthakrishnan.

"A decade ago there were only 100 odd people in this field. Today India has more than 1,000 usability experts and this number is growing at a healthy rate of 20% to 30% every year," says Deshpande. According to the HCI (Human Computer Interaction) Professionals Salary Survey 2006- India, conducted by the UPA Hyderabad Chapter,India now has a mature group of HCI practitioners,with a professional experience of five to 12 years.

Sunil Sharma
Dil Se Desi Group

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