“People understand the concept, but they don’t understand that it has to be done.”
I recently sat down with Dave Lumerman, the in-house usability tester at New York Life. Over the 15 years he’s been with the company, he’s evolved into user-tester after a career in animation, advertising illustration and web publishing. His approach has always been user- focused. In this burgeoning field, he’s had to be strategic in promoting the value of user-testing. He made inroads by taking on the less attractive aspects of web production and honed his user testing expertise. He continues to fight the good fight, showing the ease and cost-effectiveness in testing. But inevitably, he’s found one needs a high level advocate.
Early on in your career you made yourself useful by creating what you call “good HTML.” What do you mean by that?
At the time (2001) it was the Wild West. Developers were building things based on their mental models which didn’t really equate to the mental models of the business areas they were supposed to be serving. There was no standard. The W3C [World Wide Web Consortium] was still young. There were no standards. Things that should make sense from screen to screen didn’t. You might start out with a button that’s square on one page and a click or two later, now its round and it’s a different color. It wasn’t uncommon to be working in an application, click a button and arrive at a screen that was entirely different as if you went to an entirely different application.
In 2001, web standards were still in the “Wild West” phase. So I took that on. I created house standards. This is stuff that is considered a no-brainer today. But what I did, what my team did, was to make the developer job easier. That got us a seat at the table.
So how do you go from cleaning up HTML to becoming a usability tester?
We were not considered as important as the web strategy team, but then something happened.
The entire employee benefits enrollment program used to be a collection of paper forms. It was very complicated on paper. The developers found a way to put it into a web-based system, so an employee could do it all online. The developers showed it to the CEO, and there was blood on the walls when he was done yelling at them. What they created made him feel stupid because he couldn’t figure it out.
The company had made a huge investment, so something had to be done. The developers batted it over to us to fix. We went through all the paper artifacts. We identified what made sense to translate into an online interface. Not only did we develop the application, but we did something radical. We put in front of actual people. They’d done this way back when there was a usability competence here to deal with mainframe applications.
We included power users, but we also included people who only used a computer to select benefits. Our efforts paid off. We made the investment pay. None of this was recorded. This was just us watching them. Fast-forward 14 years, and it’s all recorded, it’s all standardized. There are things like test scripts. None of this existed then.
So from that milestone, how has your role developed?
It’s a different environment now. We had the best thing you can possibly have at a corporation. We had an advocate. If you attend any conferences they all say the one thing: you have to have an advocate high enough in the organization to effect change. We had that. We never dealt with him again personally, but we has license. All we had to do was mention that story. That’s changed. User-testing is something I find I have to promote.