February 27, 2002

Practicing Usability in the future
You could say web design and development today is practiced by more people than just a few years ago, and you'd be right -- if you ignore the quality and complexity of the work. Lightweight HTML development and graphic design tools have opened the field to a much broader set of people. But companies didn't throw away their graphic designers and HTML developers -- they are still at work, but now focus on more difficult, more important, more risk-intensive projects.

Will the same thing happen with Usability and Information Architecture? Should we worry about it?
Yes and No.

Lightweight usability methods will continue to gain popularity. People like Steve Krug and Jakob Nielsen are acting as evangelists for usability. Those two "gurus" are very different in their approach to the unwashed -- Jakob can rub many people the wrong way -- being perceived as dogmatic, and Krug sells simplicity with humor and encouragingly says "you can do it too, this is easy" -- but both effectively convey the principle that "usability" as a concept revolves around being user-centric.

Yet while in the future there will be more developers and designers doing guerilla usability testing -- they will remain novices when it comes to the finer points of User-Centered Design. They won't know a heuristic from a urologist. The good news is that those same novices will get hungry for knowledge and skills...and they will promote usability-as-business-advantage within their organizations. In effect, they will create fertile ground for "the experts" -- who I'm afraid will remain in short supply.

Good information architectures will still be created by the pros in the future. Information Architecture (IA) is not a simple discipline -- just like building architecture -- you might be able to blueprint and build a shed for your mower, but a house or an office building is a whole different story. IA projects in the future will continue to get more complex, and integrating multiple sites, content, and workflow-intensive applications will require an experienced information architect with real training.

In the end, big, critical and risk-intensive projects will involve usability professionals and information architects with significant training and experience. Less experienced practitioners -- usually trying to play many roles -- will take care of the smaller, simpler efforts. We shouldn't worry about this. Instead, we should focus and enhance our skills so we can meet the new challenges ahead: systems that involve more integration, the need to design and test for multiple platforms and devices, and users that will come to expect an even higher level of usability and utility.