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Past Articles:
- Clicks-and-Mortar Integration: How to Succeed This Time (December 2009)

Establishing a Dedicated Interaction Design/Usability Team
By Scott Larson & Matte Scheinker

January 2010
printable version

Are you a Web manager at a small company that wants to make sure your Web site is meeting your customers' needs? Do you work at a company where there is a new focus on customer experience? Are you tasked with recruiting and developing a dedicated interaction design or usability team to help ensure your company's success? If you answered yes to any of these questions, this article will provide guidance on what to look for and what questions to ask in creating a dedicated interaction design/usability team, so you can get on with the business of running your company.

(For those of you looking for an interaction design or usability job, you can use the resources and advice in this article in reverse to find a company that needs you)

What is an interaction design/usability team?
More and more companies, both small and large, are realizing that spending the time and money to develop a Web site requires resources dedicated to ensuring the site is usable for their target audiences. No one wants to repeat the public failures of companies like boo.com, spending serious time and money to develop a Web site that few people could use.

The reality is that your customers (or users) are not willing to learn how to use your site, they just want to start using it, now. An interaction design/usability team focuses on making sure that customers can use your site the way they want. They are the individuals who must test your site with real users (or at least representative potential users), who must help guide the features and functions you offer and who must have the responsibility and authority to help your company succeed. If you want to learn more about the specific skills and techniques of an interaction designer/usability specialist, we suggest you check out Usable Web.

How do you find the right people?
The first place to look for qualified people is within your own company. There may be someone in your company who would be a good starting point for creating a dedicated team. Perhaps there is someone in your customer service department who has a good knowledge of your customers and of simple front-end technologies (HTML, DHTML and CSS are probably the most critical). Or maybe you have a programmer or product manager with a real strength for discerning customer objectives and goals.

If you are lucky to have someone like this in your company, you have an excellent place to start your team, just make sure they get some real exposure to the field before you entrust them completely with your customer experience.

If you're not that lucky, you'll have to advertise your job opening. Attracting unqualified applicants to your open position is a waste of your time. Quality is the goal, not quantity. Some of the best places to find qualified applicants are on niche job listing boards that specialize in interaction/usability jobs. Some examples are:

  • The Human-Computer Interaction Resource Network - This organization has a job board on which you can post your openings for free.
  • The Usability Professionals Association - Posting on this job board is not free ($100), but it gets a lot of qualified traffic.
  • The Human Factors and Ergonomic Society - The membership of the society is broader, encompassing industrial designers and ergonomics specialist, but you can still find qualified leads here.
  • Internet Technical Group - This free site only has listings that classify as both Human Factors and Internet positions.
  • CHI-JOBS Mailing List - To send out your listing to potential candidates via email, send an email to listserv@acm.org with the message: subscribe CHI-JOBS YourFirstName YourLastName. Once you are subscribed you will be given instructions on how to post to this mailing list.

Outside of these niche services, there are some standout sites among the more general job sites. Dice.com is a great place to list your job opening. This site has risen to the top of the overpopulated area of IT job boards. Among the mega-sites we would recommend monster.com. Posting on monster is like tossing out a huge net to catch all the applicants you might miss with the specialized job sites previously mentioned. This option might be particularly useful if you want to get a quick sense of what kind of talent is available (but be ready to sift a bit).

Reading the resumes
Getting the resumes is half the battle. Separating the qualified candidates from those whose idea of good customer experience is adding a ten minute introduction animation to your site is the next challenge.

Education - One of the toughest things about reading resumes for interaction designers and usability professionals is that there are a number of educational backgrounds that fit well. It is not necessary to limit your pool of candidates to simply those with a specialized degree in human-computer interaction, human-factors, or computer sciences. Look for candidates whose formal education includes a respect for and the proven ability to understanding and applying both academic and commercial research.

Experience - Without a specific educational background as a prerequisite, you will need to spend more time evaluating a candidate's experience. Keep an open mind, as good candidates can have experience in fields as diverse as programming, graphic design, journalism, advertising or psychology. The key is that they have a clear focus on understanding and designing for the customer. It is also important that they are current with the thought-leaders in the industry (and if they don't know who they are, they are not qualified).

Skills - A good interaction designer or usability specialist needs to work across several groups in most companies. In order to be successful, a person should possess excellent skills in the areas of technology, communication and research.

Technology - The right person does not need to be able to program in ten different languages and run your database. In fact, such a strong programming background can sometimes be a detriment. Instead, look for someone who understands and is not afraid of complicated back-end technologies. Your interaction or usability team will need to advocate for the users and must be able to communicate with your programmers and IT staff. It is important, however, that candidates are fluent in front-end technologies and languages, including HTML, DHTML, JavaScript, CSS and browsers at the minimum. Understanding these languages and technologies is critical to the work they will do in every stage of development, from conceptualization to prototyping to testing final products to ensure they work as they were designed.

Communication - Candidates also don't have to be graphic design experts. They should be able to communicate ideas visually and have a working knowledge of a graphics program such as Adobe's Photoshop or Macromedia's Fireworks and/or an HTML WYSIWYG editor such as Macromedia's Dreamweaver so that they can design prototypes. They should also be able to create clear diagrams or a Web site's navigation scheme and structure (look for experience with Visio or a similar program). Oral and written communication skills are extremely important for candidates, as these people will become the voice of your customers. They will need to communicate customer needs with diverse groups in your company, including programmers, QA testers, marketers and other customer-facing groups. They will also need to produce written documentation to record information gathered through usability research.

Research - Finally, candidates should be experienced in performing a number of different types of research to monitor the success of your site and guide it's development. Some of the different types of research include usability testing, log-file analysis, site evaluations and contextual research. Candidates should at least be familiar with all of the types, but firsthand experience with these techniques is always preferred. To learn more about these methods, visit Usable Web's usability methods page.

Work Examples - The candidate should be able to provide some URLs you can view to see examples of projects they've worked on. Don't let a massive amount of URLs fool you into assuming someone knows what he or she is doing. One person may have had an extensive positive impact on one Web site over a long period of time, whereas another may have worked on many small projects. Looking at a Web site to assess their skills is only useful if you know what parts they worked on.

Beyond the resume: What to ask in the interview
In addition to the normal questions about work environment, strongest skills and other Interviewing for Dummies material, there are some specific things you can ask to see if a candidate knows what he or she is talking about. In addition to our list of interview questions, read Jakob Nielsen's take on interviewing usability professionals.

What do you think about Nielsen? Tog? Norman? Tufte? Cooper?
It's not as important what they think about these thought-leaders, rather that that think anything at all. If they don't know who any of these people are, you should tell them to go do some reading.
 
What site(s) do you think are well designed?
If they answer with gushing descriptions about sites where they purchased something, that don't seem to relate to the actual design of the site, press the question to find out what it is about the design of that site that they like.
 
What do you like about our site?
Candidates should be able to get past the basic complements and really talk about positive features deep within your site. If you get the sense that they don't have a mental model of how your site works, they did not do their homework.
 
What do you dislike about our site?
Again, candidates should be able to offer some basic criticism that you could act on immediately (not the "lower your prices" or other similarly lame ideas). No Web site is perfect and a person without any criticism isn't going to come up with the ideas you need to improve your customer experience.

Final Decisions
In the end there is no exact science to making hiring decisions for any position. If you hire someone who has the desire to expand their knowledge of your customers and the ability to put the customers' needs first, then you will probably have a good start for your dedicated interaction design/usability team.

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