How to become a Web Usability consultant?
October 4, 2010 2:17 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone have any experience becoming a Web Usability consultant?

I've been reading a lot about web usability lately and it's really caught my eye as a direction I'd like to take my career in. Currently I work a 9-5 as marketing writer for the web and was interested to see if anyone has started out on their own in Web Usability.

I'd like to get a site up once I've finished the required reading/classes I've chosen to get me started. My next step would be to offer services for free until I had enough experience/portfolio to actually start charging for services. I would use my site as a place to advertise/market/blog about what I do and what I can provide.

Does anyone out there have any advice or personal experience that might assist me with achieving this goal? I've already picked up the a good chunk of the required reading recommended by Google/Amazon.
posted by modoriculous to Work & Money (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
For what it's worth, the two people I know who do this professionally do it as a component of their larger web design consultancy. I'm not sure how much of a market exists out there for non-designers/developers to do this.
posted by Oktober at 2:23 PM on October 4, 2010

Echoing Oktober.

In my first shop, I would do usability reviews with the sales team as part of our initial consultation. It got to a point where my review was its own product. But never to the point where I could exclusively do reviews.

When I later became a freelance web designer, I had a niche as the person who "made sites better". Programmers would give me their initial designs to make into something usable. My deliverable would be mockups, wireframes, and written recommendations. Sometimes I would jump directly into the code to implement my changes.

Now, as part of an ad agency, I do web usability reviews in conjunction with general web strategy. It especially comes into play in SEO -- it's common for conversion problems to be due to usability, and not quality or quantity of incoming traffic. I also focus on usability during internal design reviews to make sure what the design department is creating stays on target. My deliverables here are mostly written recommendations, but again, since I have the design and coding chops, I'll sometimes implement my changes.
posted by Wossname at 2:36 PM on October 4, 2010

I'd have to ask why you'd think getting a site up is a priority. It's my view that anything beyond a blog would be of little or no use. What you need are what we call white papers, case studies detailing client problems, investigative techniques you implemented to gather usability information and strategies implemented to resolve problems while providing proof of positive results.

Usability is a soft skill not always seen as necessary to the success of a solution, as many of the clients I work with measure their success by getting a site up. You'll have to do a lot of selling to break in to the business and memorize a lot of useless quotes from the likes of Jared Spool and Jakob Nielsen, both of whom are fading in relevance to a different degree all the while they keep propping their brand up to keep the speaking fees and residual consulting fees rolling in.

What you need to convince a budgeted individual to take you on as an expert is to promote yourself via Twitter (the easiest direct route) and I would recommend choosing some low-hanging fruit like the new IMDB or Digg UI's and pick those apart while providing real testing data to back up your thesis. It's a lot of selling, I'm sorry to inform.

As a secondary stream of income, you can also teach usability to companies instead of implementing it for them. $800 for a one-day seminar, per head, are fees I see banded about as of late.
posted by jsavimbi at 2:40 PM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another data point, FWIW - Microsoft (and other Big Software Companies) requires that all their Usability Engineers have at least a Masters in HCI, preferably a PhD. Even the assistants are required to have a Masters.
posted by dbmcd at 2:58 PM on October 4, 2010

You'll have to do a lot of selling to break in to the business and memorize a lot of useless quotes from the likes of Jared Spool and Jakob Nielsen, both of whom are fading in relevance to a different degree

Agreed. A lot of the principles of early usability have been adopted across the board at this point (except in smaller shops that won't use your service anyway), and are even built into site-building software. There's still a place for it, but it's generally part of the design process, rather than a process unto itself.

You might have more success branching into app usability or something broader than just the web -- I'm appalled at the lack of usability on iPhone/Android apps, but most of those developers are too small to be looking for usability people. You could also focus on content usability, which designers tend to be clueless about (but then you'd generally need to be part of a team, rather than a stand-alone consultant -- know any designers you could team with?)

5 years ago, usability was HUGE and there was a major glut of people going into it, most of whom were clueless outside of reading some Spool and Nielsen. At this point, if you really want to pursue a consultancy, get A LOT of experience hands-on first (like, hundreds of hours of testing under your belt) in the corporate/educational environment before branching out. That'll give you a nice portfolio to help market yourself.
posted by coolguymichael at 2:58 PM on October 4, 2010

It seems most realistic for you to go at this from an editorial or content strategy point of view. You should realize that almost no clients will hire a usability person directly--you should make use of the agency contacts you have from your writing work. In which case you will be doing a slow lateral move (if you are full time) or subcontracting for both usability/UI/UX/whatever and editorial stuff with existing agency clients (if you are freelance).

Full disclosure: I am a content strategist, and former copywriter.
posted by lackutrol at 3:42 PM on October 4, 2010

Oh, and please don't give work away, for my sake and yours. Clients will value your work at the rate you charge them, and either you can charge something (good work) or you can't (bad work). I'm afraid people trying to "break in" depress the market for the rest of us.
posted by lackutrol at 3:46 PM on October 4, 2010

Look at major companies that do contract work for the government. I spent a couple years doing work for the government - it was great money but also really boring. I happened on it by accident through another project I'd worked on. (This was 2000-2003 so it was a much different playing field economically.)
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 3:47 PM on October 4, 2010

Twenty years ago I started work as a "Human Factors Specialist" at the research labs of a large phone company. We had a specially constructed usability lab, a team of technicians to help us build prototypes, a custom picker user panel and lots of other expensive stuff to play with. Tests took a while to carry out and document and we behaved a bit like the experimental psychologists that many of us had started out as. If we were lucky we might get to go to the ACM's Computer Human Interaction conference where we would listen to people like the above-mentioned Jakob Nielsen.

That world - of "big usability" is still going strong in a few areas: Look for companies who need to make large, complex or novel user interfaces: Microsoft, IBM, MIT Media Lab, IDEO and many military organisations. If you would like to target this sort of area then, as dbmcd says, you will probably need at least a masters degree and some decent experience as an intern at a suitable facility. The best courses (and workplaces) are those which take people from several disciplines and force them to work together on projects.

But, of course the big growth area has been in the line of "Don't Make me Think" usability work which is all about small tests done nimbly and repeated often by people who are often only wearing the "UX" for a part of their jobs. Consultancy in this area is much more about having the business skills to get the work in and the people skills the get the recommendations noted and acted on.

You need to decide which branch to follow, I believe.
posted by rongorongo at 4:05 PM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Get the masters degree from Bentley.

There are tons of independent usability consultants out there.

Larger shops generally combine it with design services, unless they have their own lab or something.
posted by reddot at 4:17 PM on October 4, 2010

I have been in usability for about 10 years. I am NOT a developer or a designer (though I have tried my hand at it here and there). It is definitely possible to start an amazing career in this field from scratch.

It helps to have a background in computer science so that you can speak geek to your clients and also to have some experience in psychology/anthropology/sociology so you can learn to understand how people think and react to the world around them. Getting a graduate degree is definitely a great way to gather those skills *if you can afford it*. A lot of iSchools (Berkeley, University of Michigan, UT Austin) teach human-computer interaction at the Masters level for people who have no prior experience in it.

I got into the field back when it was mostly people with PhDs and I had a crummy ol' undergrad degree. My method was to start with a small company in DC that focused mostly on government contracts (there's a lot of accessibility and usability work coming from the gov) where I could get a cheap entry-level "tech assistant" type job. My duties first revolved around crummy tasks like recruiting participants for studies and taking notes behind the scenes in usability sessions. Still, it exposed me to how studies are actually run and what the research materials look like. Eventually I gained enough credibility in the office to be given small projects, which led to bigger projects, which led to a cushy job at a big software company, and so on.

I definitely recommend this route, especially if going back to school isn't an option. Really, I'd even recommend working for a small usability consultancy more than doing consulting on your own because of the daily exposure to more experienced professionals and to a wider variety of projects.
posted by joan_holloway at 4:46 PM on October 4, 2010

I'm somewhat embittered on this topic, but over the last couple of years I've met quite a few Usability/Interface experts who were nothing of the sort. Quite a few of them were just graphic designers who decided to move up professionally by reading a couple of books and calling themselves Interface Designers or UI Specialists.

So from my admittedly jaundiced point of view, you could impress me simply by turning up and actually being genuinely focused on interfaces and usability, and not having a design background. That an insisting on real user testing, no matter how limited, à la Steve Krug.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:50 AM on October 5, 2010

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