makes software simple. As a usability and design engineer,
she eliminates the snags that frustrate computer users.
Error messages, confusing menus, and missing links are just
some of the bugaboos she fights.
“It’s my job to make users’ jobs easier and faster. It
shouldn’t take seven steps to do something that could take
two; it should be easy to tell what icons mean,” Meredith
says, describing two types of problems she prevents.
Usability engineers go beyond making software user-friendly.
They improve computer hardware, software, and websites by
focusing on how users perceive and manipulate those tools.
“We have to understand how people learn and remember, how
they sort through data, and what steps they take when
building something,” says Meredith. “Efficient software
is software that doesn’t require excess mental energy. It
shouldn’t make the user remember too many details.”
Like all usability engineers, Meredith first analyzes users’
needs. “We design for the primary user,” she says, “the
people who will use the product most.” Meredith meets and
interviews groups of customers and makes field visits to
watch them use computer products in their offices. She
determines the kinds of tasks they do and how frequently
they do them. Usability engineers who design for the general
public—such as those who design commercial websites—venture
into customers’ homes and schools to watch people using
Meredith also meets with the software engineers working on
the product. Her role is to identify issues that affect
customers. Issues range from overall format—such as the
layout of screens—to specifics about color and icon style.
These questions go beyond aesthetics. Certain screen layouts
are less confusing, for example, and certain colors attract
Perhaps most important to usability is deciding what choices
users will have and when they will have them. To make these
decisions, Meredith anticipates what people want to
accomplish. “We try to predict what users will want to do
next so that we can increase their efficiency,” she says.
“Then, we test to see if our predictions were right.”
To test her hypotheses, Meredith creates paper prototypes of
the design. She uses graphics software to build a model of
what the screens, icons, and menus will look like. With
these prototypes, she performs the first usability tests.
She shows test subjects the paper “screen” and asks them
to perform a typical task. As they point to an item on the
paper, she whisks the corresponding menu or graphic into
place. “It’s a little like paper dolls,” she says. “I
cut out menus and icons and slap them down when the user
selects them.” Early versions of the software replace the
paper prototypes during later stages of product development.
In addition to simple observation, Meredith asks people
to describe their thoughts as they move through the test.
She might time or videotape people as well. Some usability
engineers use machines to track users’ eye movements
during a test.
Meredith studies users’ reactions and uncovers the reasons
for their difficulties. “Usability engineers need to be
very good investigators,” she says. “People might say
they want to print out a screen, but the solution might not
be to add a print command. If you ask them why they want to
print, they might say that it’s because they want to see
how the page will look. If you ask them another question,
you might discover that they couldn’t see everything they
needed on the screen. The solution might be a better display—not
another print button.”
Even after 10 years of experience, Meredith is often
surprised when she watches people use prototypes. “It’s
fascinating to see how people respond to the software,”
she says, “especially when they do things you don’t
expect.” Meredith gives the results of her tests to the
software engineers, along with recommendations. This starts
another round of design and testing.
Advocating changes requires skilled persuasion. “Meetings
can sometimes be heated,” she says. “People have
different ideas about what’s easy to use.” She supports
her recommendations with research from published journals
and her own user tests. As the usability expert, she often
focuses and moderates the debate.
Resolving issues successfully also takes flexibility. “You
have to be able to give in when things don’t matter,”
she says. “You can’t become too attached to your own
ideas.” Still, Meredith is sometimes frustrated if one of
her recommendations is ignored, especially when users
experience problems as a result.
Meredith needs written and oral communication skills, too.
She advises, “If you can’t communicate ideas well, you’ll
have difficulty in this job.” Like all usability
engineers, Meredith writes reports and e-mail. In meetings,
she needs to describe abstract concepts clearly. “We
resolve most issues by talking,” she says.
Sometimes usability engineers draw diagrams or sketches
to illustrate their ideas, but they don’t need to be
artists. Graphic artists create the images customers will
But usability engineers do need other kinds of creativity.
“You have to find innovative solutions to problems,”
says Meredith. “You have to think of different ways to
give users new information or new options. If a menu doesn’t
work, you find another way.”
Like most other software developers, usability engineers
work in a fast-paced environment. “We only have a few
weeks to develop a good prototype,” says Meredith. If
other development tasks take longer than planned, they have
even less time.
Although short deadlines can be stressful, Meredith likes
the speed of her work. “I’m going 100 miles an hour
every day,” she says, “so it’s never dull or boring.”
Even more than the rush, Meredith relishes the chance to
make new discoveries about human behavior. “It’s fun to
see users in the field do something unexpected and to figure
out why they did it,” she says. And she likes discussing
design issues with her coworkers.
According to estimates from the Human Factors and Ergonomics
Society, full-time usability engineers earned an average of
about $71,000 in 1997. Most worked for software companies;
others worked as college professors or independent
The number of usability engineers is difficult to determine.
The Association of Usability Professionals has 1,300
members. But the number of usability engineers could be
higher or lower than that. One fact is certain: the
occupation is larger than it was several years ago. The
surge in electronic commerce has increased the demand for
easy-to-use websites, much as the rise of personal computers
and computerized appliances has done for usable hardware and
In part because the field is new, there are many routes to a
usability career. Meredith’s path was one of the more
typical. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and
government. Looking for an alternative to counseling, she
answered a job advertisement for a human factors engineer—a
scientist who designs easy-to-use tools of all types—and
found a career. Before taking her present job, Meredith
honed her communication skills while working as a tester,
technical writer, and trainer.
Today, many usability engineers have master’s degrees in
cognitive, experimental, or organizational psychology. Other
common college majors include computer science, human
factors engineering, information science, and human-computer
interaction. Meredith continues to take classes in
psychology and human-computer interaction.
Meredith chose her career because it combined her interests
in people and technology. “It’s the perfect marriage of
two things I really like,” she says. “And I see the work
I do make a huge impact on the final product.”
Photos by Harrison Allen