Usability is not a verb

I started my career in what is now called UX, but switched within a year for a management role on the same project. Why? I realized that usability is not a verb. For all the data and advice I gave my smart team, I was dependent on them to make decisions. I realized my effectiveness would improve dramatically by taking a leadership role on the development team, rather than an advisory one.

Around 1995 the UX/usability field shifted and usability specialists became usability engineers. The idea was to both get a verb in the name, and to express that usability could be engineered if you followed the right method. It was successful and the field grew fast.

But the problem is this: usability is still not a verb – it’s an attribute of a well made thing. Sticking the word engineer in my job title did not change my training nor give me new skills. It might have helped get me hired, but at best usability engineers are expert advisers. They’re not executives, directors of product development, or even engineers in any practical sense of the word. It’s true that researching, report writing, and analyzing are verbs, but they’re not as potent as designing, programming or building. And more to my point, if that’s the core activity of their job, why isn’t that the primary verb in their title?

The real question

Who has the most control over how well a thing is made? That’s really what all of us want: well made things. The answer to the question is always either:

A) People who do the making, or
B) People in charge of the makers.

For all their progress, most usability/design folks are still neither A nor B. Instead most are

C) people who try to convince A or B to make things in a certain way.

No matter how talented you are, if you are a C, your talents will often be watered down by A and B. If you want more power, there’s only a limited amount A and B will be able to grant, no matter how much they need and respect you.

For years there’s been more toying with names and acronyms instead of actions. We now have User experience, Usability engineering, Information Architects, Interaction Designers, and on it goes. The name changes have meaning to insiders, but most of the people in the tech world care only about the actions we take, not what our business cards say.

How to get what you want

If you have a specialized skill and want more good things to be made using it, one of two things has to happen:

  1. Persuasion, political acumen and advocacy must be core, not secondary, skills. I’ve yet to see a usability/design group at any major corporation make these primary hiring criteria. Can you win an argument with an engineer? With the director of marketing? Can you spot the decision maker in a meeting and earn their trust? In most of the world, a kick-ass advocate with mediocre research skills would do twice as much good over someone with the opposite skill set. Stop going to usability conferences or reading design blogs for a year: instead of learning a new HCI method, study advocacy, persuasion and team politics. The power you get from your existing skills will double.
  2. Move from expert/adviser roles to general management. Many former engineers and testers went to night school, got an MBA, and moved into management roles – I bet some of you work for them. They transcended their specialty to take on a larger role in the making of things. It’s the general managers that make progress, by enabling budget, headcount and political capital for UX folks. If you don’t see anyone doing this for you, then stop waiting around – go pave the way yourself. If you have true love for making great things it’s the only way it’s likely to happen in your world. With someone like you in a general management role, the usability/design person you work with will be empowered to do great things.

I advise people who want change to stay with the good verbs. Find the people who are doing and moving, or are able to persuade others to do so. The talkers, the report writers, the complainers, the finger pointers, those are the people to avoid: they’ll be doing those things forever. It’s people comfortable with the positive verbs, doing, asking, learning, risking, reaching, who make change, if it’s going to happen at all, possible.

Anyone who understands design or usability understands problem solving, and should be able to apply those methods to their own situations. The above attitude, or something like it, should be a natural path of thought for anyone who wants more influence and power. As Don Norman once advised (applicable to any kind of expert):

“Designers uniformly complain that they are ignored, that they are called in too late, that people complain that when they make suggestions because it costs too much money or slows down the product. It seems that designers are not applying their own methods to their own problems – that when you find a problem, you need to step back to see what the root causes are. If for years, designers are complaining that they are ignored, well, maybe there’s a reason why. “


14 Responses to “Usability is not a verb”

  1. Scott

    As best I can tell (it’s in French), this response over at Quality street asks why I didn’t consider a 3rd option: agile development.

    The problem is the same – assuming agile has the benefits described, who decides whether to use agile development or not? It’s not the usability engineer or designer. So to benefit from agile they are still C, someone who has to influence someone else to make a decision.

    If they are going to make agile, or any change, happen, they either need skills of persuasion (1), or more power (2), the two recommendations I made above.

  2. Richard Morton

    Forgive my lack of understanding but why would anyone think that “usability” is a verb. It is clearly an adjective.

    Usability and Accessibility are really just aspects of good design anyway. So for me titles such as “web designer”, “web tester”, “web auditor” imply usability and accessibility (well I can dream, can’t I).

    Just to throw in one of my unrelated bugbears, “leverage” is definitely NOT a verb. A Company that claims to leverage xxxyyy is a non-starter in my book. The could either say they lever xxxyyy or they have leverage.

  3. Scott

    Richard: Maybe I’m nuts and no one thinks it’s a verb, but I know all too many usability and design experts who expect that their expertise should somehow, all on it’s own, change the world, without involving verbs like persuade, convince, sell, lead and change.

    Usability (and design/IA/etc), as the role is constructed in many places, is a consulting discipline, but rarely are the usability experts trained, or even interested in, how to be an effective evangelist and advocate.

  4. Donna Maurer

    Yay to you. I’ve been saying the same for such a long time. When people ask me if I ‘do usability’ I tell them ‘no, I design good stuff’.

    Richard: *plenty* of folks use it as a verb. There are whole mailing lists of folks who ‘do usability’ whatever they think that means ;)

    I have a different slant on how to achieve what you need:
    – make informed decisions
    – understand the consequences of decisions
    – communicate the decisions to those who actually get to make them

    You’ve talked about the third, but I have seen too little of the first two – designers who don’t know what they have done and why they have done it will never be able to do the persuading necessary to achieve…

  5. jc-Qualitystreet

    In English this time …

    Scott, I agree with you, persuasion and political acumen are important skills we absolutely need to develop (for all the reasons you describe)… but in addition, Agile development offers new and interesting perspectives for interaction designers and usability specialists; this is why I said the “third option”.

    The AGILE TEAM is “the people who do the making” AND is “the people who try to convince others”, so an interaction designer for example, as a member of this team, belongs at the same time to your A and C categories.
    Other benefit: user feedback is permanent, essential … and who is the first and the most appropriate person to receive the voice of the user ?

    For sure this is a quick win, at a project level.

    “Who decides to use agile development ?” …
    OK but according to me this another debate (next step ?); the good thing is that agile development becomes more and more popular ….

    Note: “Ergonome” : only one word and the french name often used in France for the guy in charge of interaction design, usability, user experience stuff in IT projects.

    And “Ergonome Agile”, because we need to expand our skills (to requirements and testing for example), adjust our techniques (mainly timing and granularity) and adapt our tools and deliverable, to be more efficient, provide value and satisfaction in Agile contexts and be expected and well perceived by agile teams.

  6. Scott

    JC: Thanks for being multi-lingual. The only other language I speak is, well, nothing :)

    I like the term ergonome – but it can be hard to find people who have a good balance of both skills, at least in the states. The degree programs at universities heavily emphasize usability or design.

  7. Scott


    We agree – one reason for what you see, at least in the US, is that many design programs still have an artistic, intuitive model for how they teach students what design is. In fact many people major in design as a compromise: they wanted to be artists, but they also want to make a living.

    The result is that many programs over emphasize the individual in the process and So many excellent designers graduate, enter the workforce, but are entirely unprepared for having to explain their decisions, convince others of their value, or the necessity of teaching non-designers how to appreciate what they do.

    On the usability side, HCI programs often fold out of psycy programs, or attract folks with psychology backgrounds – and they aren’t rewarded for understanding the creative process, instead their focus is analysis. This explains the verb issues: many psych researchers don’t see the difference between writing a report that identifies design flaws, and the skills required to build a design that would do better in the same analysis.

    I admit I’m stereotyping design and usability education, there are exceptions.

  8. Steve Buell

    Usability and Accessibility are not verbs, they are “features” which and be added after all the real work of design and coding are finished.
    At least the has been my experience.
    Being in a Subject Matter Expert (SME) or a Usability/Accessibility specialist is very limiting.
    You are most often consulted after a problem has been reported or a complaint has been lodged.
    If you are not in a management roll at a high level, your sphere of influence is severely limited.
    Developing business case acumen is key to forwarding any usability/accessibility agenda.

  9. uidesigner

    thanks Scott – hopefully, you have done a great service to many designers by writing those thoughts down. I am one of those designers who are dying to figure out on how to become a leader – Like Henry Mintzberg said leadership is willingness to lead than anything else – I can trust you as you have done what you have written here. It is also important to note that, people want to operate at many levels though they all have an identical skill. There are usability people who cannot really lead therefore they preach and there usability people like me who cannot just stop at making a suggestion but actually want to rally around people and get the stuff done (GSD – like Christine Comaford-Lynch says). For those kind of people your article reassures that they are in the right direction. Many Thanks!



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