The customer is always right: Dr. Jason Saleem on Teaching Usability and Human Factors in Engineering

February 1, 2017

Headshot of Jason SaleemYou may not immediately recognize it, but the field of usability engineering works quietly in the background to make life easier for all front-end users. Companies like Amazon or Google are models for that success, offering up a platform in both examples easy for the user to maneuver. Put another way, usability engineering is where the rubber hits the road between engineering and user satisfaction, and Dr. Jason Saleem is leading the charge as the Director for the Center for Ergonomics.

A member of the Industrial Engineering department, Dr. Saleem is a relatively recent addition to the University. Going into college at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Saleem was split between astronomy and engineering. He ultimately went with a little of both, which led him to his love of Industrial Engineering.

“If I didn’t discover Industrial Engineering, I would have dropped out. Luckily, they had Industrial Engineering there, otherwise I would not be an engineer. Industrial Engineering is just fun. I did my Master’s and PhD at Virginia Tech. Their IE department is known for ergonomics. At Virginia Tech, they had ten faculty that focused on human factors and ergonomics,” says Dr. Saleem.

After his graduation, he went to work for the VA hospital in Indianapolis, where he was given the opportunity to provide his insight as he saw fit. During his tenure, President Obama legislated that medical records were required to transition from paper to digital storage methods, which presented a new set of challenges for the medical field. Part of his research work involved the continued use of paper after the implemented changes, which created a redundancy in work, but which also spoke to usability features that generated a less streamlined office.

That interest ultimately led to his focus on usability engineering and human factors, studies that look at how an engineered product interfaces with a user. This semester, Dr. Saleem is teaching a newly designed course, IE 590, Usability Engineering, that gives students the opportunity to work with industry to develop a program with the frontend user in mind. The students are broken into groups and given the task to work with their respective companies, which entails interviewing users and determining what design features would best benefit their situation.

Dr. Saleem believes that for, “Designers and engineers, it’s so important to go out into the field to study the product or system that they’re designing without understanding how people really do their work. They work 50% of their grade is a semester long project. They choose a client and a real application that they’re going to develop, and they have to go into that company or wherever the end users are, and observe them for long periods of time and interview them, so that they can really understand their work.”

He adds, “The next thing that they’re going to be working on is contextual inquiry. They’re going to go into a company… it’s about understanding the work domain, instead of engineers in a conference room with no context. It could be a redesign of a current product or application, or it could be that the client says that our employees could benefit from having a product like this. They have to go in and observe. They have to have a deep understanding of the work practices of the end users. They take a lot of observational notes, interviews.”

Ultimately, there is a real world financial component to his work that takes a look at the long-term cost of usability; if a platform isn’t user friendly, it threatens to waste time and money.

But Dr. Saleem remains optimistic that the cultural has evolved to understand that long-term cost. He explains, “I would say that 10, 15 years ago, when I was first getting starting in this area, we had to cost justify why companies should include usability testing the development of their products. Trying to justify why would you pay for a usability specialist. Actually, today it’s usability has been institutionalized in a lot of organizations. It’s shifted. There is less cost justification.”