Interview with Carol Barnum

When she emerged from graduate school, Carol Barnum found that her Ph.D. in English didn’t have employers banging down her door, but people were asking her to do technical writing. She said ‘yes’ to the first of these opportunities without even knowing what technical writing was (sound familiar?). Carol has incredible tenacity…after many years, she’s still teaching technical communication and consulting, and there’s no retirement in sight. She’s contributed to our field with her book Usability Testing and Research, but it’s arguable that the fact that she’s sent so many well-trained students into our field has had at least as much impact.


What I like is that I can constantly re-invent myself, usability obviously being one of those reinventions. When I entered academia, that wasn’t anything anybody in the field of Technical Communication was talking about and hardly anybody was doing it.

I find myself still perpetually having to make the case with clients about why they need to do it sooner or why it costs anything to do it; why they’re willing to pay for the software development or the quality assurance but the piece that’s usability seems to be, ‘Oh, I’m not sure we can afford that.


Conducted by Tamara Adlin on March 5, 2008 09:17 AM Carol Barnum has an amazing view–she’s seen the rise of usability from inside academia and in corporate America at the same time. And while her career is occasionally a circus, no, she’s not related.

Tamara Adlin: Today I am talking to Dr. Carol Barnum who is a Professor of Technical Communication and Director of the Usability Center at Southern Polytechnic State University in Atlanta, Georgia. She is also a Fellow of STC (The Society for Technical Communication) and a recipient of STC’s J.R. Gold Award for Excellence in Teaching Technical Communication. She worked for more than a decade as a copywriter in advertising and public relations and has her MA and PhD Degrees in English fromGeorgia State University and a Bachelor’s in English Honors from theUniversity of North Carolina. Today, she teaches and she is the author of Usability Testing and Research. Hello and thank you for taking the time today.

Carol Barnum: Great to talk to you.

TA: My first question is always the same. What’s the very first thing you can remember really interesting or fascinating to you?

CB: Not related to usability?

TA: Whatever it was.

CB: Because my name is Barnum, I always went to see the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus on my birthday.

TA: That’s fun

CB: And I did not get in free, although one time my mother tried to say, ‘but we’re Barnums.

TA: Are you any relation?

CB: We are but very, very distantly. I think P.T. Barnum was my great, great grandfather’s first cousin, or something like that.

TA:  Interesting. What did you love about it besides being a kid at the circus? What act was the best?

CB: I liked the whole spectacle. I used to tell my students when I first started teaching that because my name was Barnum, we were going to have somewhat of a circus experience and hopefully keep it entertaining as well as educational.

TA:  So how did you move on from loving the circus to the things you chose in your academic career?

CB: I always enjoyed reading. I had no real career aspirations taking me in a specific direction. That doesn’t mean to say I didn’t want a career, but I didn’t know where it would go. Fortunately I grew up in an era with supportive parents that basically said go to college and study what you like and something will come up. So I became an English major. When I graduated from college, the only work experience I had had was as a lifeguard. So I had no idea what I was going to do with it. First I worked very briefly as an editor for a group of trade publications and then I fell into a job as a copywriter for a major retail department store. One thing led to another. I did that for a couple of years and got bored with it and decided to go to grad school. So I went to Georgia State University in Atlanta while I could continue to work as a freelance copywriter, then pressed on through the Masters and PhD. Fortunately I had taken on different kinds of jobs as a freelance copywriter other than just writing ad copy. One job was the script for the slide presentation for the introduction of microwave towers. That tells you how long ago that was.

TA: When was this?

CB: That was in the mid-’70’s. It was produced by Bell South (now AT&T) to let people know what these towers were that they were seeing in their neighborhoods and so on, and how they were supporting the transmission of pre-cell phone technology.

TA: They decided to do that as a slide show?

CB: Exactly; as something to take to a meeting of the Kiwanis or something like that, and be able to present this new technology to the public.

TA: So you wrote the script for that.

CB: Right. I also wrote a couple of proposals – the ‘can-you-do…’ kinds of jobs that you say ‘sure’. Because I had a sort of portfolio by the time I finished my PhD, I was hired at what was then called Southern Tech to teach business and technical writing.

TA:  So you did everything from presenting wireless towers to ad copy for a major department store. Was that copy that showed up in print ads? Was it catalogues?

CB:  Right; print and then direct mail catalogues. I did mostly newspaper but some magazine print advertising while l was fully employed. Then when I left, they asked me if I would continue on as a freelancer doing all the catalogues. So I did all the sorts of things that we used to get and still do – like the white sale, the bedding sale, the fashion clearance – all those kinds of things that a major retail department store sends out.

TA:  Are you still sensitized to that copy?

CB:  Absolutely. I cannot read an ad without critiquing it and I’ve turned that interest and experience into one of the courses I developed in our marketing communication program.

TA: My dad taught commercial art and photography for a long time. I can’t go by a billboard or even a sign on a store without it irritating me.

CB: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I can’t turn the editor off. That’s also unfortunately combined with having been an English major, I can’t read any trash fiction.

TA: That’s another question I have for you. When I talk to people who started in art, there was a bit of a stigma about going into graphic design; it was a bit of a sell out. I wonder if you experienced any of that with a pure English major and doing marketing text and work that had to do with commerce.

CB:  Not at all. When I came onto the market with a Ph.D. in English, it was a very, very tight market and there weren’t any jobs available. But it was the dawn of the expansion of technical writing. I was ranging, looking – once I realized the ivy covered walls were not going to be the right fit for me, given the time when I graduated and my background, I started looking around for something in which I could combine my real world experience and commercial writing with teaching English. I lucked into being able to find something in Atlanta, which was great, because I really didn’t want to move but was willing to. I’ve had a very good home at Southern Polytechnic because it is very supportive of consulting, real world experience – whereas in some of the more traditional English departments, people who have gone into technical writing have met with some resistance when they continue to do work in the real world. 

TA:  Yes. In the department I went through at the University of Washington, Technical Communications is in the Engineering Department. There are just as many if not more problems with that association.

CB:  That’s interesting. Judy Ramey is a colleague of mine. I would think being in engineering, even though it has a strong research focus, keeps it very practitioner-centered, which I admire.

TA:  It does but there’s this battle all the time, I think. I can’t really speak for it.

CB:  Are you talking about second-class citizenship?

TA:  Sure. Meanwhile, sometimes it brings in more money, more interest, more practicality. Lord knows, if engineers graduate without being able to write, they can’t make any money.

CB: That’s how I was originally hired. Southern Tech was an engineering technology school back then. I was interviewed to teach Business Communication, which I felt very comfortable with, and also Technical Writing, which I had no idea what that was. But of course when you’re on the market and the question is would you be interested in teaching Technical Writing, the answer is well, sure, saying under breath, I need to find out what that is, but yes.

TA:  Exactly. Even if it means I’m one chapter ahead of my students.

CB:  And I frequently was.

TA:  That happened to me too. When I went to grad school, I didn’t know what Technical Communication was. That was scary. So you finished your grad degree and then entered those ivy-covered walls.

CB:  I knew once I decided to go on for the PhD that I was going to be looking for an academic career. I just had envisioned it being more traditionally English but – I almost hate to publicize it – this fall I’ll be going into my 29th year at Southern Polytechnic so clearly the fit was right.

TA:  I don’t know if I’ve ever talked to anybody who has that kind of longevity. You’re getting into the gold watch territory.

CB:  (laughter) What I like is that I can constantly re-invent myself, usability obviously being one of those reinventions. When I entered academia, that wasn’t anything anybody in the field of Technical Communication was talking about and hardly anybody was doing it.

TA: That was in the late ’70’s when you finished everything?

CB:  Right. I started my academic career in 1979 and really it wasn’t until the early 90’s that people in Technical Communication began seriously thinking about usability. Even then, the University of Washington was really leading the effort. Judy’s little LUTE lab was it. I don’t know of another program. I know they had something at Rensselaer but I don’t think they had a lab. They had an arrangement with IBM, I think.

TA: Judy Ramey said part of the reason she started the lab was because she went to Ginny Redish’s lab and got jealous.

CB: Exactly. I had a very similar experience – I came out to the second annual UPA Conference which was hosted by Microsoft, and was on the Microsoft campus, and I asked Judy when I was coming out, which I think was ’92 or ’93, if I could come and visit her lab. She said sure. She took me to her lab. I don’t know where it is currently but at the time it was literally in what had formerly been a janitor’s closet. I very snobbishly said well, I definitely want to do what you’re doing but I want to do it in a better space with better equipment. Judy had put together her usability lab from the money generated from doing those seminars on getting started in usability testing. She had a little portable panel that divided the person who was taping on one side of the panel from the participant on the other side of the panel. I just knew at my little university, without being a research university, that we’d need something more demonstrative to be credible. I was lucky to learn about the development of a proposal for an IBM million dollar total quality management grant. Through the grant, we got the funding for the only hardware deliverable, which was the usability center. That’s how we got started.

TA: I want to hear more about that project. Before we do, though, there is a gap in here between you starting your academic teaching career, saying “I don’t know what Technical Communication is but sure; I’ll teach it” to this point in the early ’90s when you met Judy and got excited about building a lab. There’s a transition in there somewhere from marketing communications or whatever else you had originally thought was exciting to teach to Technical Communication.

CB:  Yes, and you are a very perceptive interviewer. When I started teaching in 1979 our department was only offering two professional writing courses – technical writing and business communication – strictly as service courses in support of engineering technology majors. So we had no degree, nothing beyond being a service department. A lot of other university English departments were in the same situation back in the late ’70s, early ’80s. I taught literature, composition, business communication, technical writing and speech – things like that. After a while I got restless. A couple of things happened at the same time. In 1987 I was the first faculty member at my university to participate in an exchange with a similar university in Beijing, China. I taught for a semester in China, which was still in the early days of China’s exposure to the West. They didn’t open up to the West until the late ’70s. So there were still a lot of restrictions on travel. There weren’t very many foreigners. I was a real oddity. That was a life-transforming experience on a number of fronts. One is it got me completely out of my comfort zone, which was very good. Two, it really opened up my interest in international, intercultural issues and concerns. There were so many things going on in China that I was completely clueless about – why things were happening or why people were saying or doing what they were doing. That started me on another path in which I wanted to study and learn about international and in particular inter-cultural issues in Asia, especially. I morphed into somebody who was focusing on that as a research area. One of the ways I fostered my education in Asia was in securing a Fulbright-Hays summer study abroad grant, in which I took faculty to both Thailand and Taiwan one summer to compare a developing country and a developed country and to expand my understanding of Asian cultures. I also started taking courses in Chinese history and the religion and culture of Asia. I eventually created an elective course in China Culture, and I found or created opportunities to go back to China and other Asian countries to lecture, travel with study groups, and speak at conferences, which I really enjoy doing. That takes me up to he early ’90s. Meanwhile my department has gotten a master’s degree in Technical Communication. That’s how we started offering programs. I began looking for a new area of interest because I wanted to develop an area of expertise beyond the narrow definition of technical communication as writing documentation. I’ve never written documentation, never taught it, never had an interest in it. So, in the early ’90s when I would go to the STC conferences, I started hearing people talk about usability. I’m always interested in people and relationships. So the relationship of people to the products really interested me. That started me off in the next direction, which was to explore everything I could about usability. I started looking for ways I could learn more about it, including going to the UPA conferences. The first time I taught a course was before we had a usability lab. I connected with a consultant in Atlanta who had a usability consulting business and a lab, and he and I team-taught the first course in his lab. He did the whole practitioner side and I did the whole reading and resources side.

TA: Do you think that exposure to the cultural differences and the problems of communication have something to do with this interest in the communication between systems and computers and people?

CB:  No. That would be nice if I could connect the dots that way, but I’m more about how many balls can I keep in the air at the same time. If that’s the circus metaphor coming back, I don’t know, but no; they weren’t connected. I just knew my bread and butter was in technical communication, but I wanted to find a new area and usability was it.

TA: Right; okay. Then the big contract came in.

CB: Then we got the IBM grant; that’s right. From that grant we extracted $100.000 for the usability center. It was a very high-end usability lab, state of the art in 1994 when it opened. In the beginning, we were very lucky to partner with NCR as their external validation center in Atlanta.

TA:  What does external validation mean?

CB: From their point of view, what they had done is partner with a few universities in different locations, in which they decided they would use an external resource to provide what they call ‘validation’ of usability of their products because they felt their internal resources would be too close to their products to be objective. In my case, we partnered with the Information Products Division – so we were looking at documentation, a perfect fit. One of our early projects with them was the launch of the grocery store scanner. I know that seems ancient history. It’s hard to imagine grocery stores and Home Depot and places like that without scanners where you can go in and scan your own merchandise, but in 1994, NCR was rolling out the first grocery store scanner. We actually set up a little grocery store line in the lab and did a usability test of two different types of online documentation – one was for training – so this would be the new hire that would come in and have to learn how to use the scanner – we had a couple of cans of peas and things like that for the person to practice scanning. The second type of user was the technician that would go out to the various grocery stores and calibrate the scale to weigh the produce and those kinds of things. We tested the online documentation for that. We also worked with NCR to test computer-based training in the early days of using CBT. In this case, the goal was to shorten on-site employee training by putting the first week of training into a CBT course. The partnership with NCR was just the sort of arrangement we have continued to seek, not always successfully. Many of our projects are one-off. We like best when we can work over time with a particular client and get to know who those users are and who the players are. That was a very good start to our usability center. And we have had other similar arrangements with clients since then.

TA:  What was state of the art in ’94?

CB: For a usability lab?

TA:  Yes.

CB: Well, we had a built-in lab with a bank of monitors, providing positions for six people in the control room, and we had three permanently mounted cameras, plus direct feed from the participant’s computer to the video recorder. We had the one-way mirror, the microphone to pick up the participant’s voice, and all the rest of that – not so different from what we have today except the new equipment is not so clunky. And we’ve switched from analog to digital and from video recording to DVD and recording directly to the computer hard drive. Also, over time, we’ve moved the usability lab into a new academic building where we could build the space out the way we wanted and upgrade the equipment. We have a new mixing board, new digital editing equipment, new logging software – we use Morae – those kinds of things. But the method hasn’t changed much.

TA: Yes; it’s interesting what works, works, and the observation methods that worked in ’94 really haven’t changed.

CB: No; not at all. Really, the biggest change was analog to digital.

TA: So you must have been pretty aware of the other usability work that was going on out there, and on the challenge of also developing courses of this for students.

CB: That’s right. There were very few courses. I definitely knew who was out there doing work. As I said, I was extremely fortunate to be able to partner with the usability consultant to provide the credibility because I was such a newbie. I could read what was out there but without having the experience of being able to do it or observe other people doing it, there was a big piece missing. My education has come from working with people who are usability consultants who have generously shared their knowledge and experience, allowed me to observe and participate in usability tests, and then to start doing the work myself.

TA: Who were some of the folks you worked with?

CB:  Clients?

TA: No; the consultants.

CB:  I began with Loren Burke who was the usability consultant I partnered with to teach the first course. He actually came out of the IBM Multiples Marketing Group, which many claim to be the origin of usability testing. Then I continued to work with Dave Rinehart, who originally had worked with Loren but went off and founded his own company, Usability Management, and actually – I don’t know how much of this history we want to get into – but then he partnered with Jeff Rubin, so he had the Atlanta office and Jeff had the New Jersey office. What I am really saying is I was working with the usability pioneers. Of course, Ginny Redish was also my mentor. She was incredibly helpful to me in the beginning. One of the challenges of teaching the course in 1993 was that there was no book. The first book was Joe Dumas and Ginny Redish’s book, which came out in late 1993. Ginny was extremely generous in sharing a pre-released chapter on writing the report – because I’d never seen a usability report – so she sent me the chapter to help me.

TA: You must have gobbled that up.

CB: I did. We then used her book the next time I taught the course.

TA: We talked about how the lab hasn’t really changed; has the way you teach the course changed?

CB:  The biggest change that’s happened in the way I have taught the course is that in the very beginning I focused on documentation because that’s what technical communicators did, primarily. I would buy a really cheap product from the close-out bin of an office supply store – like a home design product – something to help homeowners create a plan for how to remodel a kitchen or how to plot the landscape of their backyard; that kind of thing.

TA:  This is software?

CB: Software. I assumed if it was really cheap it would have really lousy documentation. I was always right. I would then have my students re-write the documentation and –

TA: That’s such a great idea.

CB: Yes, and test it. Then based on what they learned from the testing, they would re-write the documentation again. That worked for a while. But, as time went on, they grew increasingly frustrated at being kept in the narrow box of focusing on documentation, so I started letting them do websites. That’s really been the biggest change. The methodology hasn’t changed but what they are interested in has changed, so now they find a sponsor (or I locate one for them) and they work with the sponsor on testing the user experience with websites.

TA: As user-centered design people, we’re all trying to swim upstream, so to speak, in the design and development process for software and other products. So getting involved early is important, so that the product ends up better – and hearing and thinking about user testing and documentation – of course, it’s important to do – it just seems so late. It’s almost like user testing a band aid rather than trying to fix the problem.

CB: Getting involved early has probably been my biggest frustration. When I first got into this in the early ’90s, I thought by now there would be no case to make. Everyone would get it. But I find myself still perpetually having to make the case with clients about why they need to do it sooner or why it costs anything to do it; why they’re willing to pay for the software development or the quality assurance but the piece that’s usability seems to be, ‘Oh, I’m not sure we can afford that.’ I also find I have to keep pressing upon my students that they have a mission – that they are the user advocate and they have to effect change in their organizations. If they’re not doing usability testing now, they’ve got to champion it. That part hasn’t changed.

TA:  Which is very different. You are really telling them they have to be a champion for organizational change, which is the skill that’s very related but different from doing usability and user-centered design.

CB: That’s right. One of the things that I include as a requirement in their deliverables is that they become usability advocates. They’ve got to put that persuasive element into their reports, congratulating the sponsor on whatever stage it is they did a usability test and then encouraging and motivating them to do more and do it sooner.

TA:  There you are with psychology and petting them saying, ‘Good job, good job.’

CB: Right. By the way, another significant change I’ve introduced into my course is personas and the The Persona Lifecycle : Keeping People in Mind Throughout Product Design.

TA: That’s excellent news, of course.

CB: Yes; I would think so. As soon as your book arrived, I immediately recommended it to them. I’ve read some of it but part of my summer reading is going to be going through that massive tome.

TA:  I suggest you skim. It’s supposed to be sort of a reference as opposed to reading the whole thing.

CB:  Right; but I do recommend that to them because I don’t have anything on personas in my usability book. I’ve added that into the course requirements: that they have to create a primary and a secondary user based on whatever user research they can gather from the client or their own methods.

TA: One of the reasons that book is so large is exactly the reason you are talking about; it’s not even about personas as much as it is about the problem of getting focus in a large organization. The devil is in the details, and that takes a lot more time in most cases than creating and using personas. It takes a lot of planning in advance. I think it’s exactly the same problem. The individual methods share the same challenges.

CB: It is, and in a way, I really wish I weren’t so closely identified with usability testing because I really want to push contextual inquiry and persona creation and card sorting and all of those other things that are part of a user-centered design process. I find that clients come to me because they want a usability test but even that is a hard sell in some cases.

TA: Right. The problem is that too often, usability testing is done to basically ask the question, “is our baby cute?” The answer is almost always no.

CB: Again, it’s that vision of validation. ‘Well maybe we should validate this, so let’s get a usability test,’ and then you get into their shock at the results.

TA: Part of that is a problem with language. All the people in our field were called usability people in the early ’90s – it’s hard to get away from that title even as our field expands.

CB: Right. You do see a lot of attempts to break out of that user experience researcher in the narrow sense of the word – all kinds of strange and interesting names people are coming up with so that they aren’t pigeon-holed into being viewed as a single step in the quality assurance process.

TA: We should just call ourselves ‘get us in earlier.’ I’m a ‘get us in earlier, damn it,’ professional. One of the reasons I’m doing these interviews is that we’re all from such whacky backgrounds – the early pioneers and those of us who came later. You’re now seeing and participating in letting graduate students into this advanced degree program. Who’s coming in now? Where are they from?

CB: The changes, I think, are a good thing. Our program began in 1988. A couple of years ago we changed the name of the degree. It was called Master of Science and Technical and Professional Communication. That title worked for quite a while, but a couple of years ago I began to realize that people who should be in our program weren’t thinking of us because of the name. Our program had changed to include courses in web design and information architecture and user research and graphics and multimedia and all these other kinds of things that just didn’t fit into the pre-conceived label of technical and professional communication – so we changed our name to Master of Science in Information Design and Communication. As soon as we changed our name, that word got out and we began getting the design students.

TA:  Interesting.

CB: They have added so much depth and complexity to the discussions and also the team projects. We have the ‘word’ folks and the ‘visual’ folks and they partner on projects. These partnership projects are strengthening the side that is weak for them in coming into the program. I love the mix of the students now. The ones that come into the usability testing course – some of them are designers, some are more traditional technical writers, some are in training or marketing. They have all kinds of jobs. They’re in the non-profit sector. They work in big companies. They work in government. There are a lot of freelancers. So the mix is healthy and representative of the profession.

TA: So as your graduates spill into the work force; can you imagine how that is going to change the way people work or the way we see the field? You’re seeing so much benefit from the new partnerships between word and visual people, I’m wondering if you can extrapolate that out.

CB:  I can backtrack and talk about some of the success stories of some of my students that I know who have gone on to do great work – probably more easily than I can project.

TA:  Fair enough.

CB: Looking back to the beginning when I was teaching the course in the more traditional program, I’ve had a couple of great success stories from their exposure to that single course, which indicates to me that now that we’ve changed the program, I think the change will snowball. One student who was a technical writer worked for a software company that develops software for the airline industry (Worldspan). She was a technical writer and after taking the usability testing course, she persuaded management to let her start doing small usability tests. Nothing had ever been done at Worldspan. Of course Janice James came out of – was it Sabre – the one that American Airlines used –

TA: Yes.

CB:  They’d been doing it but Worldspan had not been doing it. She grew that experience into managing a department, hiring other people. I thought that was one great success story. Another great success story was I had a student who again, had no background except the one course. He was a technical communicator too. He went to work for AOL. He then became the director of usability. He’s doing international things now. I’ve kept up with him over the years and have marveled at his success in user experience work. 

TA: That’s a perfect lead-in to one of my finishing-up questions, which is what do you think makes someone 1) a good candidate to come into your program, and 2) end up being a really good person in our field?

CB:  I think that first of all, they have to be good communicators. And certainly they have to be good communicators verbally; meaning, in writing, and orally, meaning in speaking. They also have to be good communicators visually. We do have a heavy emphasis on creating products that reflect good rhetorical principles combining word, text and graphics in any medium. I think that they have to have strengths or the ability to learn to become good communicators. Some students come into the program thinking they’re good communicators and unfortunately we have to point out that perhaps their background isn’t as strong as they might like. They can rise to that challenge but they need to develop the right combination of skills. Then I think they need to be effective in the work place. They need to see themselves as on a mission; otherwise they’ll be cast aside – and of course, this is facing the profession of Technical Communication. They need to be on a mission to demonstrate, to prove their value, to claim a seat or make a seat at the table. I do think the direction of multidisciplinary teams and user research and international teams – I think all of this plays into where we’re going – so I think they need to know how to sell what they have to offer. That persuasive element is very important.

TA:  That’s one of the things you try to teach, I suppose.

CB:  Right. That could be my advertising background coming back around.

TA:  Right. It’s all wrapped up in that. It’s great to be able to communicate – and that’s something that’s part of teaching technical writing to engineers but we still have to be massive advocates and really loud and squeaky in order to get things done.

CB:  Right.

TA: You were talking earlier about still being surprised at how little companies know or accept the fact that usability is important. It’s a surprise to come in as a consultant that way.

CB: Right. I was on a panel at UPA a few years ago that talked about how to incorporate usability into your organization. I said it then and I still think it’s true. It seems to  me we’re at the stage right now where everybody knows how to spell usability, but they’re still not quite sure what it is or why they need it.

TA: (laughter) Whatever that usability is, I need some of that. My last question is looking forward, what really fascinates you now?

CB: About the future?

TA: Whatever. It could be the Barnum & Bailey Circus; it could be something you’re working on –

CB: I don’t think I’ve dried up my interest in usability. The books, the articles and conferences are expanding faster than I can keep up my learning. So that’s still a great area for learning and I stay challenged by learning new things – which is why, although so many of my friends and associates have retired, I still love being engaged and learning new things. I love my work in all of its variety so I don’t see retirement in my future. I’m also continuing to be very interested in cross-cultural and international cultural communication issues, especially with the whole flattening of the world. That’s another area of real interest for me – with lots to learn.

TA:  I’m sure I speak for lots of people when I say I can’t wait to see what you publish and do and what students you push out into the world next.

CB: Thank you.