What Does a Usability Specialist Do?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

A usability specialist works in the development phase of a new product to determine if it is easy and enjoyable to use. These consultants can use a variety of tools in their work, from controlled studies with test subjects to detailed analysis of inventions based on an existing understanding of usability and functionality. Some work for consulting firms and may provide services for a number of companies. Others are employed full time in a product usability department, an option seen at some large companies with significant numbers of products in regular development.

This type of consulting must consider a number of factors. One issue is the target user base, as members of various communities may have differing ideas about usability, comfort, and navigability. For example, blind users have certain expectations from a product interface that might not be present for sighted people. Likewise, older adults might have concerns about weak, arthritic hands and fine-grained controls that might not be an issue for younger people who can easily manipulate small, delicate controls.

When a company hires a usability specialist, the consultant may meet with personnel to discuss what the product is, what it is supposed to do, and who it is targeted at. All of this information goes into the next step, which involves a physical evaluation with these issues in mind. Depending on the project and the budget, it may be possible to perform usability testing with a small base of study subjects who can use the device in a controlled environment. They may provide feedback that can help the usability specialist determine how users expect to use the product, and how pleasurable they find their use experiences.

Concerns about product usability may lead to recommendations to alter design and layout to better meet the needs of users. These comments can vary from a suggestion about the base configuration of an electronic device to a recommendation to completely change a control panel on a car or piece of manufacturing equipment. Concerns can include the desire for users to be able to navigate a device intuitively, as well as worries about mistaken or confused user commands and controls that might create problems. An ill-positioned "stop" or "delete" button, for example, could cause problems in regular use.

In early stages of product development, a usability specialist may offer advices on design drawings and specifications, to help a team develop the best possible prototypes. As the product moves through development, the specialist follows it, adding to and refining these recommendations. Issues with usability may only become apparent in later design stages, an important concern for a usability specialist.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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