At long last, after many months of — well, let’s just call it “research” — Carrie, your intrepid guide to all things weird in the world of work, has resurfaced at “My Cool Job” to bring you an interview with Usability Tester and Web Designer Trent Faust.
I’ve known Trent since the 1980s, when David Lee Roth was the frontman for Van Halen, ATM cards and cellphones were new and exciting (and only us geeks had them), and our mothers all dressed us funny.
These days, Trent not only dresses himself, but in addition to his freelance work is a co-founder of the St. Pete Skeptics Society, which meets regularly in St. Petersburg, Florida to discuss claims of the paranormal, cutting edge science, and many other topics of interest to anyone with a skeptical view on things and a soft spot for pub grub. If you’d like to learn more, are in the area and would like to join a discussion, or simply wish to discover what ‘skeptics’ actually talk about, click on over to the Society’s website and find out!
Of course, none of the above is telling you much about what a “Usability Tester” actually does (and I’ve been wanting to find out myself, which is usually why I ask someone interesting like Trent to tell me all about his Cool Job)….so let’s all find out together, shall we?
1) When people ask you “what do you do?” how do you describe your job?
This reminds me of when I would get the stereotypical “what’s your major” question in college. I got tired of trying to explain “astrophysics” to people at parties or the chick cutting my hair, so I started just answering “English” to bring an end to that line of questioning.
It’s sometimes similar with my current occupation. Most of what I do is usability testing and troubleshooting for websites, though I also still do some web design as well. But most people have no idea what usability testing is (I’m looking at you Microsoft), and it’s often just easier to say that I do web design. I do have a background of several years in web design, and that allows me to take the results of usability tests and make specific recommendations to a client on how to address any issues that came up during testing. Figuring how to deliver this information diplomatically is key; sometimes people on the client side have strongly vested interests in the current design.
Creating a usability test for a site involves setting up a group of tasks that a user will be asked to perform on a website. These tasks need to be typical of what actual users of the site are using the site for, or typical of what the site’s owners want the site to be used for. As the tester, your role is to observe; not to interact with the test subject at all; or worst of all to guide or offer suggestions to the test subject. If you influence the subjects, your testing won’t be very useful; the site will continue to have usability problems; and word will get around that your work is crap.
Some professional test facilities have equipment to videotape the test session and to track exactly where on the monitor a user is looking at every moment during the test; I just record the test subjects’ choices on paper mockups of the webpages while encouraging them to think out loud about what they’re doing. Testing with a few as half a dozen subjects can readily reveal a site’s most glaring stumbling blocks.
2) What are the things about your job that you love?
The best thing about working freelance is the freedom. I choose when I work, and for whom I work. I lay out the terms of the contract, and if those aren’t amenable to the client, I can walk away. Of course you have to be flexible to keep a steady flow of work coming in, but I can draw the lines of what is acceptable to me in a deal.
Usability testing for websites is most effective when it’s done at a user’s computer in their own office or home, so that’s the sort of testing I do whenever practical. It’s one of the best parts of the job, getting to work with people for about an hour in their own space and getting to know a little about them. In contrast to web design, a successful usability tester has to have good people skills while at the same time being able to remain detached during the test.
While there’s a degree of artistic creativity in good web design, the easiest designs to use are generally very clean and simple, like Wikipedia or Google. When a graphic designer runs amok, or a client wants a website that “looks cool” rather than focuses on being functional for the user, you get something like Disney.
3) What are the things about your job that you hate?
One of the downsides of working freelance is the lack of a steady level of work. It often seems to be feast or famine. Some weeks may be very slow, or even have no work at all. Other weeks will be packed, with multiple clients pressing to meet deadlines. If you don’t have the discipline to prioritize and keep clients updated in a timely fashion as to where their project stands, you won’t have to worry about working for very long.
Fortunately, one of the easiest ways to keep clients updated is via Twitter. Simply create a group just for you and your client(s) on a particular job, and you’re all set to microblog status updates to them. It’s much less time consuming and far more efficient than attempting to keep a client dialog going via lengthy emails.
Another business aspect of the job is contracts. You need to be clear in negotiating a job so that both parties are very clear on what is going to be done and in what timeframe. One of the most ubiquitous problems that designers (and to a lesser degree, usability testers) run into is “scope creep.” It starts with a client asking you to just add one little task, and rapidly snowballs into far more work than you agreed to. Without anything in writing or commensurate payment having been agreed upon, this is a trap you want dearly to avoid. Fortunately, there are good standard contracts available on the Web for free download. I don’t work without them.
4) What education, training, vocation or just plain luck would someone have to have in order to get a job like yours?
Web design is really still very much a learn-by-doing business. While there are a plethora of books and courses now available, the quality varies widely. For me it started in my advisor’s office in college. One day in 1995 I discovered that there was an option in the Netscape browser to “view source code.” It wasn’t difficult to figure most of it out on my own back then.
Now the technology has evolved so much that no one person has a complete grasp of all of the tools that are in play on the web. Just maintaining a working knowledge requires a designer to pay attention to the new technologies. Even if they can’t be well versed in all of them, a designer needs to at least know what they are and what they do. Just drop by your friendly neighborhood bookstore once a month and thumb through the web design mags. This way, when a client asks about them you don’t look like an idiot.
If you can swing the cash, I strongly recommend going to at least one usability conference. Jakob Nielsen and Jared Spool are the top folks in the field; their conferences are top-notch. These are also terrific places to network and to talk shop, and coincidentally, to meet cool people.
A couple of important tips for designers:
Test your designs in as many browsers as you can get your hands on.
Most of them (including the outdated versions) are free downloads, so there’s no good excuse not to do this. It’ll save you the headache of having to redesign later because your client’s mom never upgraded from some ancient rev of Internet Explorer and your design looks like crap, or worse, simply doesn’t work, on her computer.
Learn how to write code.
Graphic interface page-design programs, like Dreamweaver, write decent code for you most of the time. But when they don’t, if you don’t know anything about the code itself you won’t know how to fix any problems that crop up. Not knowing code also limits your creativity to the capabilities of the software you’re using to write your code for you.
5) What is the funniest story you can think of that involves your professional training or your job?
Well it’s hard to go wrong with a good, old-fashioned, one-toothed hooker story. Unfortunately I don’t have one, so this will have to do.
This was early on in my career, and it was a lesson for me in the need to be tactful.
I was working on constructing a usability test for a website that was an information repository for a program in a Federal science agency. The test was requested by managers in that program, but not by the people who had produced the website.
Already on tricky ground.
There was a huge repository of information here; ranging all the way from raw field data to educational videos. But the way it was organized was abysmal. It all made sense to the designers of course; they built the thing and they knew where everything was. But to anyone else, the organization of the information made no sense. This is exactly the sort of issue that usability testing is supposed to address.
Unfortunately, any task I could create for a usability test was very nearly moot – it would fail immediately, followed by minutes of a test subject struggling pointlessly in mounting frustration. While a well-constructed usability test places no time limit on a test subject completing a particular task, research has shown that in most cases if they can’t get there in the first five minutes, they aren’t going to get there at all.
Watching a test subject wrestle with banging their head against the wall, while a necessary part of the job, isn’t particularly useful to anyone if you already *know* that’s what’s going to happen and why it will happen.
So, boneheadedly, in a conference call with the site designers, I bluntly pointed this out. And there was a single example that clearly summed things up. The site had a tab on the homepage labeled “Data.” And indeed, there were mountains of digital data on the site. But here’s the kicker – the way the site was organized, it was impossible to get to the data through the tab labeled “Data.”
I pointed this out – in overly direct language, and in an exasperated tone.
”You have a ‘Data’ tab, from which you cannot actually get to any data!”
As a professional, I strongly recommend avoiding such ill-considered choices of word or tone. Things tend not to go well after that.