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Usability Researcher

Usability Researcher

Education and Training: Varies—see profile

Salary: Varies—see profile

Employment Outlook: Very good

Definition and Nature of the Work

Usability researchers study the interaction between people and electronic media products such as computer programs to determine ways to make those products easier to use and more helpful for the user. This involves evaluating the product's interface—the way a user communicates with the electronic media—to see if it is clear and can be easily understood. It also includes evaluating whether a particular product serves the needs of its users.

Before an electronic application or program is created, the usability researcher talks with potential users to determine what their needs are and what they expect from the product. For existing products, the usability researcher may meet with company personnel as well as customers to evaluate ways in which the product should be updated or changed. In either case, sketches of the interface are then created to explore different graphic presentations. The usability researcher also develops storyboards to show the different navigation paths through the program. These sketches and storyboards are presented to a development team that consists of software engineers, designers, programmers, and perhaps marketing and sales consultants.

After consulting with the usability researcher, the development team may create a prototype, a kind of rough draft of the final product with only one or two working features. The usability researcher then observes people trying out the prototype. Data are gathered on how quickly users master the functions of the product and how they interact with it. The researcher notes any difficulties the testers experience and records their criticisms and feedback. Based on this information, the researcher consults with the development team on how to improve the product. A revised version of the product is then developed, and the usability researcher does more testing on the new version.

Education and Training Requirements

Usability researchers come from a variety of backgrounds that provide training in graphic or industrial design, psychology, human factors engineering, or computer science. Often the usability researcher has a degree or experience in a psychology- or design-related field and is self-trained in computer skills or acquires them on the job.

Hands-on experience with creating and evaluating prototypes of electronic media or computer applications is helpful. Experience or an educational background in research and testing, statistics, and data analysis is crucial. Usability researchers should also have strong interviewing and observational skills and the ability to communicate easily and effectively both verbally and in writing.

Getting the Job

Since many firms do not have formal positions for usability researchers, people who do this job often come from other positions within a company.

Among likely starting points are employees working as computer programmers, graphic designers, or industrial psychologists. Someone who works extensively with electronic media and is adept at identifying the needs of the firm's customers might create a position as a usability researcher. Companies are rapidly learning the importance of user-friendly design in electronic products. Potential employers include software developers, industrial design firms, and research laboratories.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Like other positions in the computer industry, the current demand for usability researchers is growing and should continue to expand through 2014.

Working Conditions

Usability researchers who are employed by a firm typically work in a modern office, where they perform individual research and interact with development team members. Usability researchers who work as consultants may perform much of their work from a home office. However, they will often commute to the client's work site for meetings. Both salaried workers and consultants also conduct much of their research under controlled conditions in laboratory settings.

Where to Go for More Information

Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction
One Astor Plaza, 1515 Broadway, 17th Fl.
New York, NY 10036-5701
(212) 869-7440
http://www.acm.org/sigchi/

Human Factors and Ergonomics Society
1124 Montana Ave., Ste. B
Santa Monica, CA 90403-1617
(310) 394-1811
http://www.hfes.org/

Usability Professionals' Association
140 N. Bloomington Rd.
Bloomington, IN 60108-1017
(630) 980-4997
http://www.upassoc.org/

Earnings and Benefits

The median entry-level salary for a usability researcher is $50,000 per year. According to the latest information available from the Usability Professionals' Association in 2006, the average salary for an experienced usability researcher was $70,094 per year. Consultants charge hourly fees that vary according to their experience and the range of tasks being performed.

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