Musings by @thedevel

Who Are Experts And How Can I Find One

719 words · 10 Oct 2010

The term expert seems to have relative weight depending on the profession being spoken of.

Most doctors can be considered experts in there field. This is of course a relative term; doctors are experts relative to the rest of society. Certain doctors even have the privilege of being known as an expert within there own group. This is not indifferent from any other trade such as carpentry, botany, engineering or sewing. Every group has a name so that society can distinguish these people for there skills. When someone needs a pipe fixed, we call the plumber. If we are having car troubles, we go to the mechanic (I realize I am stating the obvious makeup of what a society is).

The second part to this story has to do with respect of persons within a profession. Most would agree that cardiothoracic surgeons who perform open heart surgery on preterm infants are respected in society. How would you compare this kind of surgeon to, say, a plumber? Do you consider them equal in ability? They clearly do not get paid as much, but why? The consequences of screwing up on a 2 lb. preterm infant results in death while screwing up on a leaky pipe is, well, still a leaky pipe.

Everyone knows this.

So these trade names not only distinguish a set skills, but more or less a consequence level associated with them. But what happens when you do have a leaky pipe? Who do you call? Oh, of course, the plumber. Do you help and make suggestions while the plumber is evaluating or fixing the issue? Usually not. Would you make suggestions to the cardiothoracic surgeon if the infant he was performing surgery on was yours? Hell no.

I am a software developer. I build web applications for use in the research setting that may eventually be used in the clinical setting directly. I have a team of three (myself included) that I communicate with on a daily basis while developing these applications which provides the niceties of evaluating interface designs together, reflecting upon code decisions, etc. In most of our projects we work closely with a team of researchers/doctors that usually have a problem they want solved or a workflow issue. Since we are the experts in this space, one could deduce from above that when there is a technical problem we are the ones who solve it.

There is one difference.

Unlike the solutions doctors provide, which are in most cases objective and necessary, design decisions are not. When developing an interface, everyone and there mother has an opinion about where they think Button X should be placed or what colorscheme they like more (yet have no concept of the ramifications of there decision).

I have been told my whole professional life that I need to listen to my end-users, so I can design to suit their needs and workflow. The caveat here is that in many (if not all) cases we are building a new app to improve their workflow or extend their capabilities by bringing data together that has never been together before. We are developing the app and constructing thoughts and patterns that live throughout the app, based off experience and thorough review of other apps that are similar in nature. The idea that inexperienced people provide suggestions to interface design is virtually useless.

But wait! There's more...

Everyone uses websites (or web apps) everyday! They know Twitter, Basecamp, Facebook, Gmail, etc. they must have some knowledge of what is intuitive and what isn't? Nope, not really. The success of these mentioned web apps come from the fact that each feature is appropriately represented in the interface and makes sense within the context of that particular web app. "I want to be able to star it." What, what do you want to be able to star? There is only one thing you can star in Twitter, a tweet. That is not as simple to get across when there exists virtually 10 different contexts when viewing medical data. What exactly would one star? A patient? A shiny graph associated with a patient? Or maybe a graph showing aggregate data about 10,000 patients? Providing simple means of performing an action like starring is important, but providing a context is imperative. Nothing means anything without context.