Thursday, July 5, 2007

Certification - worth it?

Okay, so I've been urged to write about this since it took some time and effort to get me to this stage. Last month, June 13th to be more exact, I took the Human factors International Certified Usability Analyst exam. It was indeed a "doosy" since there was a lot of material to be covered in just 2.5 hours. 100 questions in total and it's an open-book exam and I had to choose the best answer - of course, there's only one answer each question.

I failed the first one 3 months before that, only because I barely studied. The minute I discovered I was only three questions off from passing, I vowed to shoot higher - 80%. So over the course of three months, nearly every day, I studied by creating an index I could use to search through during the exam. This was my way of studying - and it worked.

Now, I'm a certified anal-ist, that is, anal-ise about details meaning to be extremely thorough before a decision can be made as to what is best for certain interfaces. Of course, I don't anal-ise all the time as some designs are more apparent than others. But now I think differently.

I was doing laundry the other day and found out I almost put the dial to the wrong setting. The indicator wasn't marked completely to enable accurately setting the dial. Think of the catastrophic proportions that could have happened! Okay, so it's not life-threatening, but it could have been a pain.

So now, I'm constantly thinking about ways to improve user experience when things go awry. The second example, having to go get gas yesterday at a Mobil station instead of my usual Sunoco. First off, to cancel a transaction took over 1 minute - or it felt like that. Then I had to re-enter the information. After finishing pumping the gas, I selected to have the receipt print out - getting it out itself was a chore. I had to flip a cover up just to get at it, then it wouldn't come out entirely so it got ripped. Compare this with the experience of the Sunoco station - clear markings, no need to cancel a transaction and if you do, it doesn't take over one minute, receipt is taken out without obstacles - clearly it was a better machine.

Third example - yesterday I was also teaching my wife to drive a stick-shift. How does that happen with a beginner when she couldn't even "know" what gear she was is without having to stall it a couple of times before knowing she did all the correct things aside from shifting to the correct 1st gear? So really, it doesn't because there's no indicator, no affordance for the user to discern between the correct and the incorrect without having to put some strain on the drivetrain - it's a good thing the gearbox was built by the same company as Porsche's trannies or it might have been toast. So in the end, it discouraged her to continue - until the next time.

Fourth example - reading about someone having to modify their steering wheel to one that had aluminum sections on the top and bottom. So, what if the car has been in the sun and the wheel has been exposed for a certain time in the summer? Doesn't it burn the driver's hands? Of course, there's still other thicker leather parts. What if the driver forgets? According to the person doing this modification, he said Porsche didn't want to make the wheel too thick that the driver didn't get enough "steering response". So I asked, how about just putting less power steering into the system? A Lotus doesn't have power steering and is very responsive, and my car, a 2002 SVT Focus have less power steering than the later models - I've tried this and the later models felt like I was driving a boat! So in this case, reducing the system input could have improved the user experience.

So do I think being certified is worth it? Yes, up to a certain point. I just have to control my thoughts as now, I might be more critical than ever. The good thing is that it's about systems and not people.


William Tully said...

"Human factors International Certified Usability Analyst" - I had no idea such a thing even existed... But hey, congratulations Ben!

I would have to agree with you on each point, except the stick-shift one, that the usability is quite poor, yet, so what? The challenge is that these issues are discovered well after the products have gone to market. Sure, they might do away with the stupid little trap door on the gas pump in the 10th generation of that particular pump, but in the mean time, it will drive us nuts. (heck from a design/mfg side it is just a bad idea - more parts, and more parts that can fail)

Don't get me wrong, I am all for the improvement of user experience and have seen places where it could be simply done, yet the frustrating part is that it is too late for most things we use every day.

How do you deal with the frustration, how can you influence a better user experience early, and how do you know which battle to fight?

GO4GR8 said...

As a user, I would simply not buy it. Vote with your money. Unless of course you buy it and you know there will be improvements along the way, then facilitate that improvement with your money.

Because of some bad experiences even if they were just one-time, I wouldn't head back unless I really needed their service or they have something I want. This goes for gas stations, stores, movie theatres, products, you get the idea.

Anonymous said...

Hi there, first of all, congrats on passing the exam.

I'm a UI designer myself, and have been thinking of taking the exam. Since the courses are quite expensive, I have to opt for studying by myself. It looks to me that you didn't take the courses either and passed the exam anyway. You mentioned making an index. Would you elaborate a little more on that? Also what books did you bring to the exam? And any other tips you could share would be great and highly appreciated.

Zoe Lee

GO4GR8 said...

Hi Zoe,

I apologize for not replying to your comment sooner.
The exam in HFI is actually based on the material learned in their courses. I would actually recommend going to their courses unless of course, you have much experience to not do so. But then again, if you have a lot of experience, you wouldn't need the certification course.
I probably said this before: The HFI Certification is one way you can get a large amount of fundamentals very quickly. It won't make you a super designer (or analyst) - it will give you the foundation to become one.