World Usability Day falls on November 12. The web site tells visitors that “Designing for a Sustainable World focuses on how our products and services impact our world.” It asks: “Have the materials and processes that have been used been recycled and are they re-usable? Are they user and environmentally friendly? These are questions we all must consider as we design, purchase, use and dispose of products each and every day.”
What happened to questions about the ergonomics and human factors aspects of design? These are not mentioned.
The Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics (BCPE) recently added a separate but equal usability designation – Certified User Experience Professional (CUXP) – to the suite of credentials it offers. The original pair are: Certified Professional Ergonomist (CPE); and Certified Human Factors Professional (CHFP).
The Ergonomics Report™ asked Peter Budnick, Ph.D., CPE, to explain the context and significance of the new designation. He was not asked if the addition represented a response by the ergonomics community to a usability “independence movement.” The interview, revealing his concerns about the limitations of a usability specialty distanced from its ergonomics-human factors pillars, answered the question indirectly. The principal of Ergoweb, Inc., Dr. Budnick is a past BCPE director, and served as its president for two years.
The knowledge and experience foundation behind the three certification designations is the same, he explained. “It’s called the Ergonomist Formation Model, and all the testing and experience requirements are based on that model.” If you meet those criteria and pass the test, he added, you then can choose whichever designation fits better in your professional environment.
He explained that people tend to practice under different terms. In the military and aerospace industries, for example, the terminology “human factors” is often part of a job title. “Even though they are doing the same type of work they might do under the title of ‘ergonomics,’ they choose the CHFP certification because it fits the terminology recognized in their companies and organizations.”
The design of the BCPE system is partly market driven and recognizes the rise of usability as a growing specialty, said Dr. Budnick., particularly for software professionals. It’s new and emerging, he added, with a lot of interest in the topic and a rush to join in.
A Missing Systems Approach
The interest led to the founding in 1991 of the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA), which Dr. Budnick describes as “a big group because software usability has become a major problem, a major opportunity, if you will, for companies like Microsoft and Apple.” He noted that manufacturers, particularly in the hand-held device market, recognize how important it is to improve the computer interface, but they often neglect the physical ergonomics side because of their focus on software – or vice-versa. “Based on the fact that many end-users struggle with these technologies, I think it’s clear that ’usability’ practitioners should be better able to apply the systems approach that we do in ergonomics.”
There are people who call themselves usability experts, he explained, who may not know much about traditional ergonomics-human factors because they entered through the software door. “Essentially, anyone can start using [ergonomics] terminology. . . . People who really have no foundation in ergonomics are out there using the terminology to describe their services.” But they may not be using well-founded methodologies to improve usability, he added, emphasizing that the field of ergonomics incorporates methods that have been developed and validated over many years. The methods “have gone through scientific testing for valid ways to improve and measure usability, whereas somebody practicing under the usability title may not know anything about those and may be operating purely on instinct.”
The people in the software world who latched on to usability as a term to describe what they do often restrict their focus to the software interface, he said, neglecting the broader systems approach that’s inherent in ergonomics. “In other words, the software is only one component to how I’m using my computer device. [It] falls into what we often call the cognitive side of ergonomics – the psychological interface between human and machine. This is very important, but the physical ergonomics related to the device can’t be overlooked." The physical design of devices, and where we use the devices are critical factors, he added. “I’m going to stick with ‘ergonomics’ as the encompassing word here. While I might spend a great deal of time on software usability, I’d better also understand the physical ergonomics issues associated with usability. Again, ergonomics is a systems approach that recognizes and integrates the physical and psychological aspects of usability. Focusing on one aspect while ignoring or downplaying the other is a recipe for failure.”
UPA, only one example of the associations for usability specialists that have emerged in response to strong interest in the area, does not offer certification. “They have opted not to,” Dr. Budnick said, and it’s part of the reason BCPE decided to introduce the usability certification. The BCPE argues that to be practicing well in this area you need to understand this broader picture, he said, “so there is going to be an evolution here [that] absorbs usability practitioners, I would say.”
Dr. Budnick describes the usability rush as very confusing to the public. “We in the profession,” he explained, “are trying to make the point that there is a foundation for what it means to practice ergonomics, or human factors or usability or user experience, whatever you want to call it. And if you are practicing some subset of that and are unaware of the broader science behind it, that can be very problematic.”
World Usability Day’s focus on sustainability is laudable, Dr. Budnick said. But he also called on the usability community to expand their practice to include a broader systems approach to human-centered design.
Sources: Dr. Peter Budnick; Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics; World Usability Day web site (http://www.worldusabilityday.org/); Usability Professionals’ Association
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2009-10-28.