Interview with Elizabeth Rosenzweig, Founder of World Usability Day
Elizabeth Rosenzweig is the driving force and founder of the Usability Professional’s Association World Usability Day, a day that seeks to recognize and promote usability as a means to making services and products easier to access and simpler to use. The World Usability Day or “WUD” for short takes place on the 2nd Thursday of the month of November.
In her “spare” time, Elizabeth leads the Bubble Mountain user experience consulting firm and is also an author, a multi-patent holder and mom.
Q1. What’s your background? Where did you go to school, what subjects interested you?
My background is in art and photography. I studied photography and fine arts at Goddard College in Vermont and worked as a freelance photography and graphic designer Fellowship for a few years when I graduated. I had a Fellowship at the Sun Valley Center for Arts and Humanities before returning to Vermont to go the freelance work.
I finally decided to go to graduate school and ended up at the Visible Language Workshop (WLW), The Media Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
I loved art, art history, sociology, psychology, english and poetry. I studied graphic design and then computer graphics at MIT.
In undergraduate school I was trained to take machines apart and put them back together. I remember once when a printing press didn’t work, we, my peers, took it apart to see what was wrong.
It took us a while to diagnose the problem and put the press back together, but it taught me a valuable lesson-that a machine is only a machine and that people are the one who make a machine work.
In graduate school I learned to work with digital technology and found that made me feel that we, people and users of machines, had even more control then we thought. By using a programming language to talk to a machine, I found that I could control the machine in ways I had never imagined. This was a real paradigm shift for me.
Q2. How did you get into the usability field?
Actually ,it was a bit accidental. I was studying computer graphics at MIT in 1985 and realized that no-one was doing advocacy for users. Then I started to do programming when I got out of graduate school and did a bit of design when I started putting users in front of the applications I was working on.
I heard people saying that they felt stupid when they saw a computer, and that struck me as wrong. How can a machine make a person feel stupid? Shouldn’t it be the other way around.
Since my background is in photography and printmaking, I had a lot of experience with different types of machines and was comfortable working with them. I found myself getting outraged that people would get so intimidated by a machine and I wanted to change that.
I started by creating a system for photographers and artists. At the VLW we had a system that allowed users to create amazing imagery. It was called “Sys” and was a precursor to Photoshop.
Sys was better then photoshop because it had evolved over the years by students using it, creating new functionality and iterating. Sys ran on a minicomputer and the output was either slides or a Polaroid large format printer.
Sys really opened my eyes to the capabilities of digital imagery but it was very hard to use. I decided that my thesis would be to create an easier system for users so they could access the power of the computer.
Once I graduated I started to work as a Graphic Design specialist. In those days, 1985, there was not really a field of user-centered design but many of us were doing those jobs.
I took the developers on my team out into the field to watch users do their jobs and then we would all go back and figure out how to design a system that was easy for those users to work. Over the years SIGCHI and then UPA developed and I was happy to have a peer group.
Q3. What is it about usability that you most enjoy, or find most rewarding?
I find it meaningful when I can make a difference. I enjoy helping people overcome their fear of technology and making them feel more powerful in terms of their use of tools. I enjoy developing tools and systems that help people do what they need and want to do, in a fun and easy way.
It is especially rewarding to work in a field that is making a difference, such as one of recent projects for National Science Foundation (NSF).
This is the National Science Foundation’s Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), the largest project I ever worked on, whose goal is to pull together data from several fields, including oceanography, NASA satellite and land seismic networks to create a cyberinfrastructure.
This was exciting because one of the goals was to create an easy to use system that would allow anyone to view data about the earth. The team started with eliciting user requirements from stakeholders and users. It was exciting to be part of a team that was walking the walk and talking the talk about user centered design.
Q4. You founded World Usability Day, why did you feel Usability needed a “day?”
I wanted to raise awareness about the problems of technology products and services so that the average citizen would know that they don’t have to make do with things that don’t work.
I wanted stop people from looking at machines and feeling stupid. I also wanted to bring the profession to parts of the world that had never heard of it before.
It is interesting to see that raising awareness is a slow process but spreading the profession is happening faster then I anticipated.
World Usability Day is a big part of the new success the field of user centered design has enjoyed in countries like India, Brazil, Russia, Poland, Romania, Peru, Philippines, Canary Islands, Iceland and many others.
In addition World Usability Day has helped to solidify the field in many parts of Europe and Australia.
Q5. World Usability Day is on the second Thursday of November, why that day, is there significance to it?
We tried very hard to find a day that would work all around the world. We wanted to balance all the conferences that took place in the spring and summer, as well as major vacation times. We tried to avoid major holidays like Christmas, Easter, Jewish High Holidays, Ramadan, and other important days such as major elections, bank holidays, etc.
We did a survey for all the volunteers and found only a few days that worked for everyone. It turns out that some holidays run on a lunar calendar and therefore move the dates. We tried to give a lot of leeway for those and came up with the current date.
Q6. In the past, some high-profile personalities in the usability industry have claimed that the World Usability Day charter and world usability day itself are irrelevant. How do you respond to people who maintain the charter is overkill, or that every day should be usability day and no specific day is needed?
I have talked with a few of them, and while some high profile personalities will always want to create controversy a few have changed their initial position.
I know of at least one very high profile personality who now sees that having a day for people to focus on the importance of user-centered design has opened up the field in places like India and many other countries.
He has said that the value of this message and raising awareness is very good for the field in general, and of course, for some countries specifically.
Q7. World Usability Day has been expanding greatly, you now have at least 43 Countries participating in World Usability Day events, why do you think there’s been such an increase in interest in usability?
The timing is right and people see that they don’t have to put up with products and services that don’t work right. People like to get together and they like structure.
World Usability Day has created a structure that allows people to share ideas, and plan regular events around important themes in user centered design.
In addition, World Usability Day has been able to go beyond any one organization to pull people together for something greater than themselves or their local group.
Also, we have provided a great and workable infrastructure for organizers to stay involved each year and build on their past work.
Q8. Your firm, Bubble Mountain Consulting, provides a pretty broad array of user centered design services. What are most of your clients asking for these days, what (if any) are the trends in existing or new service requests you are seeing?
In the past two years I have had many requests for contextual inquiry, persona and use case development and writing of user requirements.
There is always work in doing website design and redesign. I find that design is a staple of my practice, but I enjoy the full process.
I think the trend to really understanding the user is getting momentum and that is exciting, since that is where our profession can make a difference.
Prior to that I had been doing more innovation and invention, which is a lot of fun.
I think with the economy going down the work has gotten more concrete and specific around product revision and smaller applications.
Q9. What’s next for you? What are your looking forward to accomplishing in the future?
I want to get World Usability Day on the calendar of the United Nations.
If you look at the calendar of the UN you can see many dates such as World Book and Copyright Day, World Intellectual Property Day and World Television Day, in addition to all the humanitarian commemorations.
The value of getting recognized by the United Nations is more visibility and connection to other important events in the world. I think this would help us make the impact we are looking for.
If anyone wants to be a part of that, there are a few ways to help. The first is to go to World Usability Day and sign our charter.
The second way to help is to contact me and work with our committee to organize UN Ambassadors to sponsor our petition.
Thank you Elizabeth Rosenzweig!
To learn how you can participate in World Usability Day visit the Get Involved page. You can visit the World Usability Day Events page to stay current on the latest happenings with World Usability Day and to learn about events in your area.