Archive | October, 2012

The world of work

31 Oct

Ah, ergonomics at university…the leisurely days, the whirling hygrometers… when the time rolled around to choose a project for the MSc grand finale, I was lucky enough to be offered one with Unilever‘s Global Portal team, based in the ancestral home of soap and hanging baskets, Port Sunlight.  For anyone who is interested in benign dictatorships, Post Sunlight followed the same mould as New Lanark in Scotland – create a utopian village for your workers to live in, which means happy workers, as long as they go to church, stay sober, and work hard til they die.  These days, Unilever is a collossus of consumer products; in fact you have probably used or eaten something from their factories today already.  I joined a team creating the company’s first global intranet, and so I was able to try out some of the principles I had learned from the MSc course on a web-based system, in a large and very diverse organisation.

Also, Unilever owns Walls, so there was a lot of free icecream.  I won’t lie, this was probably a contributing factor in my deciding to take a job there once I graduated.

Being a member of a global company has its perks: I was able to test with visually impaired employees in Hamburg, and to interview employees in New York about how they work with the many and varied systems.  I spent some time in Singapore, although to this day I can’t remember what crucial task I was supposed to be doing.  Another thing about large organisations is that people can be quite relaxed about travel budgets.  It had its frustrations too, a major one being the amount of influence you have on the systems you work with, and the ecosystem outwith those systems – perhaps more than most workplaces, the denizens of a large organisation have a LOT of IT to contend with.  They are punch-drunk with initiatives and new systems, each one hailed as the new saviour of productivity or convenience.  I stayed with Unilever for 5 years, and then moved to MoneySupermarket to tackle usability on a site which had grown incredibly quickly, in quite an ad-hoc fashion, to become the UK’s biggest price comparison site…there was less bureacracy, less structure, more speed and passion, and LOTS more for me to do.  In the time I have been here, usability has evolved into user experience, and I have learned a lot about the web, e-commerce, marketing, and SEO.  I have learned that in the top trumps of delivery, Agile beats waterfall, and that a confident collaborative nimble team beats a PRINCE2 project process, hands down.  I have also learned a lot (probably more than I might have wanted to) about financial products…

On starting

17 Oct

Next month, I am speaking at the Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors (IEHF) Ergonomics Careers Day 2012, a day aimed at students and newly qualified graduates of ergonomics and human factors and related disciplines.  That was me once, so I’m happy to accept the opportunity to talk to a roomful of students wondering what their next move after uni was going to be.  But what to talk about?

Getting into User Experience

My path into user experience started with a degree in psychology at the University of Glasgow, and 5 fateful lectures tacked onto the end of the cognitive course, where the supremely eccentric long-haired academic Steve Draper wished to tell us all about instruction manuals.  Or something like that.  All I DO remember is that the prescribed book was a golden gem, which I read from cover to cover, while listening to things falling into place all over my tiny brain.  The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman is essentially one man’s frustration that push doors have pull handles, expanded and expressed in one of the greats in the UEx library.

The Design of everyday things by Donald Norman

One man’s rage against the fact the cooker rings don’t correspond to the knobs properly.

This led me into reading about ergonomics, which I had heard of only in relation to office chairs; and BINGO, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.  Reading about ergonomics and the ethos of person-centred design lit lightbulbs and gave me a clear career path – more uni! A Masters! No need to go into the real world just yet!

Studying ergonomics

Some research led me to find that Loughborough University was considered the heart of ergonomics and human factors in the UK, and so I headed there to take up the Ergonomics MSc.  Like a wee sponge, I soaked up transport ergonomics, environmental assessments, and how to make sure you don’t accidentally send a nuclear plant into meltdown (key trick:  don’t place the ‘Initiate reactor meltdown’ button next to the intercom button).  It’s fair to point out that, much like my time studying psychology, I was not particularly sponge-like in my absorption of statistics, which I fear and revile to this day – mercifully, I have not needed to explain how an ANOVA test works to anyone, ever, so far.

The research in lboro was (and still is) focused heavily around safety critical systems, product design, and things of the real world, so I didn’t come across web usability as part of the course.  What I loved, though, was that the principles of human-centric design, and the principles around things like error prevention, held fast and true across the physical world, and the virtual one.  Of which more next time…

Autumn haiku

10 Oct

My first haiku, dedicated to Chlöe Morrish, poet par excellence and all round good egg…