I talked to a number of practitioners at a usability event recently, and one theme I recognized throughout can be summed up as delivering to deadline, paying the bills, or meeting tough business goals. What it feels like, however, is Doing The Wrong Thing. That's when you know what the usability best practices are for a given situation, but you can't follow them for some reason. Maybe there's simply no budget for user testing, or perhaps a new stakeholder parachutes into your project demanding wrongheaded changes.
Generally you can't fire your client, blow off your grant committee, or tell your boss to get lost. Instead, you have to grit your teeth and get things done as best you can. At times like these, it really can help to have something on the side -- a way to exercise your skills outside of your day job. Taking an interest outside of the 9-5 workday is a key indicator of profession enthusiasm and success. Here are some of the ways usability professionals can follow their bliss outside of the office:
1. Volunteer for World Usability Day. Better move fast though, WUD 2009 is arriving on November 12.
2. Start a blog. Although Twitter has eaten up much of my blogging ideas, I still find blogging is one of the best things I ever did for my career. Sites like Posterous and Tumblr, along with smartphone clients, make it unbelievably easy to let the world know what you're thinking about.
3. Take a course outside of your comfort zone. More and more these days, employers are looking for double- or triple-treat practitioners who are as well versed in visual design and UI coding as they are with usability. It's easy and not too expensive to take night courses and expand your skillset.
4. Help design open source software. This has a much steeper learning curve than other options on the list, but it can be done. Look for a project on software that you use and care about, where the developers are eager for help. Or, see if you can figure out the open source design movement related to physical products.
What have you done to wield your usability skills beyond your typical work context? Please share in the comments.