Statement of Qualifications, Goals, and Career Objectives
We are now entering an era of ubiquitous Web-based content and rich information applications. We can no longer assume that computer users are highly-educated, affluent enthusiasts amenable to spending late nights digesting exhaustive manuals to learn a small set of expensive, shrink-wrapped applications. Users now have a plethora of Web applications competing for their attention, with little-to-no switching cost. For an application to achieve widespread adoption, its interface must be self-documenting, offering interface text that requires little-to-no explanation.
Despite this growing need, in ten years of Silicon Valley consumer software development I have rarely met user interface design practitioners equipped to assess the usability of user interface text. At best, I have seen interface text hastily improvised by an interface designer, and revised for cogency by a technical writer. At worst, the programmers themselves write these text strings unchecked, often yielding the infamous gobbledygook of system implementation parlance ("you have performed an illegal activity...session terminated"), rather than language appropriate to the user's world.
The opportunity to bridge this divide between technical writing and software usability is what drives my application to the Technical Communications day master's program at the University of Washington. I am attracted to the UWTC program's rare culture because it eschews a strictly vocational writing program for one that teaches the craft of technical writing while also allowing the opportunity to focus on the theoretical aspects of language usability. I'm drawn to the program's pragmatic bent and tradition of "avoiding isolation from the world of work", an academic environment rich in industry-relevant research projects such as Dr. Spyridakis's Internet-Based Research, and a strong bond to the professional world evident through faculty consulting, a structured student internship opportunity, and the TC 521 seminar. Through this unique hybrid of theoretical and professional engagement, I see a fertile ground on which to bridge the divide between technical writing and software usability.
By a twist of fate, my academic background is not in technical communications. Nonetheless, technical communication has comprised the crux of my work in software testing over the past decade, and is increasingly the direction of my interests. As a software tester, I am called upon to identify the areas in which a software product fails to meet customer expectations, whether through glitches, missing features, inadequate documentation, or usability problems. Typically, these concerns are captured in a "bug report": a concise document, typically a page or shorter, capturing the details of a specific software problem for a diverse audience across a company, spanning programmers to senior executives.
In most positions I've held, my bug reports have served to set the company's standard. An informal overview I authored for the Mozilla Foundation to teach the art of bug report writing to their open source contributors has now become an industry standard, used at hundreds of organizations including Yahoo!, Sun Microsystems, Novell, NASA, and open-source projects such as the Apache web server project.
My work in identifying usability defects in software products has also afforded me the opportunity to pursue the usability of language on an ad hoc basis, primarily through cognitive walkthroughs. My earliest experience in language usability occurred at my first "real" Silicon Valley job at Apple Computer, as a junior software tester assisting on Mac OS 7.6's new Extensions Manager utility. This interface included two adjacently placed buttons: "Restart" and "Revert". While the "Restart" button committed the user's choice of the hundreds of files their Macintosh would load at boot-time, the "Revert" button erased those same painstakingly-made changes. Despite the disastrous impact should a user confuse these two buttons, their button text shared an identical word-shape, rendering this confusion inevitable.
When I raised my concerns, I lacked formal credentials and a command of formal usability lexicon. Correspondingly, my concerns fell flat, and this defect went unfixed. Since then, Macintosh users have posted countless stories on internet newsgroups about wreaking havoc with their system by confusing these buttons.
Throughout my career, I've worked to ensure such an episode does not recur. To that end, I've enjoyed reading a variety of books on cognition and language usability, and also have learned from firsthand experience. The resulting empirical understanding has offered a nascent but rewarding ability to couch such interface concerns not in the subjective context of personal intuition, but through a framework of cognitive and perceptive processes. This culminated recently at America Online, when the executive overseeing a new version of AOL's You've Got Pictures service directly engaged me to compose all interface text elements for a new version to be usable by visually impaired (screen reader) users, citing me as the de facto subject matter expert on text design for screen readers within AOL West.
Naturally, this leads back to my interest in UWTC's day master's program. At this point in my career, I have firmly established myself as a capable senior software tester. However, I find myself increasingly drawn away from quotidian software defect discovery and towards the challenges inherent in diving further into language and usability. Through the UWTC program, I see myself moving formally into a role as a usability analyst/tester with a specialty in the usability of interface language. Although I see ample evidence that I can complete this transition without additional formal education, my interest is not driven by professional expediency, but by a genuine passion for the subject. This leads me towards the more penetrating and challenging path of relocating to Seattle for your program on a full-time basis.
Having perused the syllabi and reading lists for most UWTC master's classes, I see readings and assignments that open up engaging questions. From a writing angle, the possibility of truly delving into the nuances of technical writing and editing from such master instructors as Dr. Spyridakis and Dr. Coney would be exciting and rewarding. From a usability analysis angle, I am attracted to UWTC's integration of teaching established theory alongside burgeoning techniques such as eye-tracking and Internet-based research. I am particularly excited about the opportunity offered by the day program to jump into the design and execution of lab-based usability tests for the first time, both through TC 517 and through subsequent involvement in LUTE research projects that would leverage and further develop those usability testing skills.
Thus, through attending your program, I see the unique opportunity to augment and integrate the areas of my professional experience and interest — language, usability analysis and testing—and to bring that unified skill set back into the professional world.