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This article was originally printed in the August 2002 issue (Vol 9, No. 1)


About the Author

Whitney Quesenbery is a past Manager of the Usability SIG and the UPA Director of Outreach. She can be reached at

STC Usability SIG Newsletter

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Usability Interface

Building Blocks to a Body of Knowledge for
User-Centered Design: To Certify or Not to Certify

by Whitney Quesenbery

For the past nine months the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) participated in a project to investigate the feasibility of certifying usability (or user-centered design) professionals. The project was kicked off in Salt Lake City last November when a group of people from many organizations, countries and associations met for three days. That meeting ended with a sense of enthusiasm for creating a certification program based on the international standard for a human-centered design process, ISO 13407. The group planned activities to survey professionals to determine the level of support for certification, and to understand the benefits and drawbacks seen by stakeholders. A detailed report of the meeting was published in the magazine Interactions in the January-February 2002 issue ("Certifying Usability Professionals" by Donald Day, pages 7-9).

Over the next several months, meetings were held at several conferences and local meetings, including a session at the STC Annual Conference in Nashville. An opinion expressed at that meeting was that the term "usability" was too narrow for the broad range of skills and concerns described in ISO 13407. Although the group could not decide on a "best" term, user-centered design (UCD) was one of those suggested. A report on this meeting, and others, is on the UPA web site archives of this project.

On April 18, the UPA launched a survey to collect feedback on attitudes. Members of UPA, the STC Usability SIG, and those on several other popular usability lists were invited to participate. The survey ran until May 31 and collected 975 responses. Although this survey was not a random sample, the sheer size and number of written comments lends weight to the responses.

A Portrait of a Community

Caroline Jarrett and I decided that the qualitative responses were the most important aspect of the survey data and we decided to report on the themes and issues in those comments. We were looking for patterns in the responses that might provide insight into correlation between expressed attitudes and the demographics of the respondents, the perceived barriers or other hurdles that a certification program must overcome, and insights into what makes this issue so contentious within the usability community.

What we found was a lot of strongly held opinions. Many people who responded to the survey used it as an opportunity to write carefully worded comments on what issues they felt were the most important in the field today.

At first we tried to organize the comments into themes by their opinion (pro or con) about certification. What we found was that the key themes included comments on a full spectrum of opinions about certification. Instead of a ballot on certification itself, we began to see the qualitative data as a portrait of the issues and concerns in the usability community.

Themes included:

  • Value of certification to the profession, in gaining credibility and legitimacy, and the danger of premature codification.
  • Possible value in defining core skills, with a lot of concern that the field might be too broad and undefined at this time.
  • Relative value of education and experience in training and establishing professional credentials.
  • Whether certification would help those entering the field, or simply become a barrier to those who are interested in usability.
  • The value to customers of usability services and to those who hire professionals.
  • The value in self-promotion, as a "badge" of status.

There were also many comments on the certification process and the value of the project itself. There was, not surprisingly, a lot of diversity of opinion on what a certification should consist of and how it should be assessed.

An interesting trend for SIG members was that those entering the field – without a degree or many years of experience – were generally more interested in seeking certification than those already established in the field. The complete report, along with all the other work of the certification core team, is available at the UPA web site archives of this project.

A Body of Knowledge

After reviewing the survey data, the UPA decided that it is premature to lead an effort to develop a program at this time. The official statement goes on to say that "this work also produced a strong consensus on related initiatives that would provide immediate value for the profession. Among these is developing a body of knowledge … that could then be used as the basis for a professional development plan, curriculum and self-assessment tools. The UPA is planning to move these initiatives forward."

In this view, the body of knowledge is a centerpiece out of which various useful activities might develop. A certification is one possible outcome…but not the first one that needs to be developed.

Visual showing the relationship of a body of knowledge to other initiatives

Building Blocks

At the UPA conference, five immediate activities and one planning project were defined.

  1. Create a pamphlet to lay the groundwork for a body of knowledge. This book will build on the UPA poster (depicting a UCD process), and some of the existing documents. The goal is a document in clear language with an attractive design. (Leaders: Caroline Jarrett and Nigel Bevan)
  2. Create an annotated bibliography for getting started in UCD. This list of reading will be integrated into the pamphlet to help those just learning about the field find the best reading material. (Leader: Chauncey Wilson)
  3. Catalog current courses and degree programs in usability, UCD, HCI, IA or related fields. This work is in preparation for developing guidelines for a UCD curriculum. (Leader: Julie Nowicki)
  4. Define roles for practicing UCD, and start work on creating sample job descriptions. This work will lead to additional professional development activities.
    (Leader: Whitney Quesenbery)
  5. Create a Code of Conduct for people practicing UCD. (Leader: Chauncey Wilson)

In addition, a team will begin the work of planning for and defining the body of knowledge, gathering a diverse team the represents different countries, industries and approaches.

The level of support for these activities – in the form of immediate volunteers – was a strong validation of the need for these immediate deliverables.

Update: February 2006
The UPA has launched a Code of Professional Conduct, and begun work on a Usability Body of Knowledge.




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