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The View From Here: Who Would Want to Do Usability?

I have always been struck how certain people are attracted—often passionately—to the field of usability. Once they have been exposed to it, it seems that they almost have to get involved in it. They are also attracted to disciplines—technical writing, training, computers, psychology—that would naturally offer them that exposure.

This article looks at the results of a survey conducted in 2005 with eighty people in the field. The survey used the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), one of the most respected personality inventories in the world.

Understanding Type

  • Introversion/Extraversion (I/E): People’s basic orientation, whether inward or toward the outside world. Introverts are typically interested in the realm of thought, ideas, and opinions. Extraverts are typically oriented toward people and things.
  • Sensing/Intuition (S/N): How people process information. Sensors respond more to facts, details, and concrete reality. Intuitors are more attuned to meanings, relationships, implications, and patterns.
  • Thinking/Feeling (T/F): How people make decisions. Thinkers are typically logical, consistent, and impersonal. Feelers focus more on people, individuals, particular situations, and their own values.
  • Judging/Perceiving (J/P): How people structure their world. Judgers value closure and order. They tend to be neat and punctual. Perceivers value spontaneity and flexibility, and like to keep their options open.

People score on one side of each dimension. Thus, someone could be strongly introverted, less strongly intuitive, moderately feeling, and barely judging at all. The different dimensions combine to produce one of sixteen types—for example, INTP, ESFJ, or INFP. Each type has a unique set of qualities, values, behaviors, styles, likes, and dislikes.

The Survey

The survey tallied the types of eighty people in the usability field, including fifty respondents from a popular usability email list, twenty-one employees of a usability consulting firm, and nine usability staff of a Fortune 500 company. The breakdown of the eighty respondents appears in Figure 1.

This can be contrasted with the type distribution of the general population, as shown in Figure 2.

pie charts
Figure 1. (left) Characteristics of usability engineers. Figure 2 (right) Characteristics of the general public.

If you compare the two distributions, these differences are the most interesting:

  • INTJ: The most common type for the usability population, at 26 percent. In the general population, however, it is only 1 percent.
  • One-offs: Of the remainder, many were INTJ with one value changed. These include ENTJs (17 percent), INFJs (12 percent), and INTPs (10 percent).

Together, the INTJ type and its one-offs represent 69 percent of the usability population. This contrasts sharply with the general population, where they represent only 14 percent.

Together, these findings tell us that some-thing about this type seems to lead to an interest—and perhaps success—in the field.

The INTJ Type

What is it about the INTJ type that makes it associate so closely with usability? Some of the qualities ascribed to INTJs that might

  • Organization: To set up and run tests, deal with vast amounts of unorganized data, and write well-received reports.
  • Follow-through: To manage test after test, or project after project.
  • Practicality: To focus on real-world problems and solutions.
  • Seeing the forest and the trees: To work with the detailed nature of all the data they gather, but also to step back and see what the real problems are and to come up with far-reaching solutions.
  • Reading between the lines: To get to the heart of the matter; to focus on the real problem.
  • Creativity: To generate solutions; to break through thorny design issues.
  • Being a quick learner: To move quickly from one subject domain to another; to establish credibility by grasping a topic and making it their own.
  • Liking a challenge: To jump right into new projects, especially when they involve something different.
  • Self-confidence and independence: To stand up for what’s right, especially when this runs counter to accepted opinion.
  • Objectivity: To “tell it like it is” without choos-ing sides; to also be open to other ideas.