Interview with Arnie Lund

Arnie has always enjoyed research and scientific pursuit…he spent most of his childhood trying to build hovercrafts, blow various things up, and create life out of a home-made primordial ooze made out of motor oil and cold cream. Of course, he ended up studying chemistry…and then turned his studies and attention to theoretical chemistry, psychology, religion (as a seminary student), then plumber, ditch-digger, jeweler, and teaching (his own) personality theory. His interest in psychology seems to have stemmed from things he’d heard about what happened between young men and young women on a couch. He landed a job at Bell Labs, where he was paid to do nothing, now he’s at Microsoft…oh, for heaven’s sakes, read the interview. His history is nuts, he’s nuts (in a great, smart, interesting way), and you’re in for quite a ride.

EXCERPTS FROM THE INTERVIEW

The great thing about moving into the field I’ve moved into is that being interested in too many things is a virtue.

At the time, what I was interested in is: How does this work, and what goes on in peoples’ heads as they read and use the information to do things? Thinking through it, are you going into the process with some kind of model in your head of what the solution is going to look like, and you’re filling in the solution as you read? Do you go into the process looking for certain clues about how the information is structured? What information are you looking for? How do you put that information together in order to create solutions to problems? I was a kid.

AN INTERVIEW WITH ARNIE LUND

Conducted by Tamara Adlin on June 15, 2008 02:23 AM

Arnie is really great at connecting with a huge assortment of people and recognizing the opportunities these people bring with them. He’s an ‘eyes wide open’ kind of guy…oh, and he’s hilarious.

Tamara Adlin: Today I tam talking to Arnie Lund, who is the Director of User Experience and Discipline Lead for Microsoft’s IT Organization.

It’s important for everybody reading this to know that my lunch with Arnie was actually the inspiration for this entire UX Pioneers project.

Although I had known his name for ages, I didn’t know him personally. I asked him, “How did you get into this wacky field,” and he started talking. A light bulb went on over my head, and I said oh my God, I’m going to collect these stories.

Arnie, thank you for starting UX Pioneers.

Arnie Lund:  There you go. I thought it was actually because of a microbrew beer that we were drinking at the time.

TA:  That’s right… although it wasn’t that much beer, but it was a fun lunch.

(laughter)

TA: The first thing I ask everybody is: What is the very first thing you can remember that fascinated you? It can be from way back when you were a kid and have nothing to do with our field.

AL:  The first thing that fascinated me?

TA:  Yes.

AL:  I’ve always been fascinated by science, science fiction, and inventing things. That’s what I spent a lot of time doing as a kid. Kids, I guess, did have chemistry sets – but I turned it into a chemistry lab and was trying to build out explosive weapons and hovercrafts, things like that. My family didn’t know about most of it because it was happening in the basement.

TA:  Were any of your projects successful?

AL: It depends on how you define success. Nothing ever went into production. It was more the exploration. One example from when I was very young, and this probably characterizes me now in some ways, is how I thought: oh, I wonder if I can create life?

I went around and swiped the various mysterious concoctions that my mother had in her makeup cabinet, and various other things like gasoline and oil and things my father had in his workshop, and started mixing them all together, and then hooking them up to electric charges and trying to run electricity in them like what happened in the science fiction movies. But nothing actually happened.

TA:  Into motor oil and cold cream?

AL:  Yes. Exactly. Things like that; perfume. You’d think it must be like primordial earth, but well -

TA:  That’s right; I think primordial earth was full of Pond’s Cold Cream.

AL:  I grew up in a family where it was an interesting mix. My mom was an artist – not a professional artist but it was something she loved. It was her passion. My father was an aspiring geek before there was official geekdom. He had lots of things he bought, like electric devices, and most of them didn’t work.

He’d take them apart even if they did work, and then they’d stop working. I grew up in that environment.

It was that mix of things that was always combined in what I did.

TA:  Did you love science when you were in high school?

AL:  Yes; my intent was, in fact, to go into science. At the time, of course, I didn’t know anything about psychology other than Freud. There was a girl I was interested in whose father, people said, was a psychologist. He had this couch, and there were stories about things that happened on the couch.

That was fascinating.

TA:  What do you mean, “stories about things that happened on the couch”?

AL:  Between young men and young women on the couch.

TA:  I see. So it wasn’t psychological. It was more biological.

AL:  Exactly. But that world was interesting. I didn’t know much about it. Most of what I knew about was traditional science, chemistry and physics and things like that.

It wasn’t until I got into college and started taking psychology classes that I discovered that while I enjoyed the science, it wasn’t the chemistry I enjoyed, per se. It was more the understanding side of things.

I realized I wanted to understand human beings more than I wanted to understand chemicals. In high school I was still aiming in that chemistry direction, but in college I discovered psychology.

TA:  How did you choose what college to go to?

AL:  When I was in high school, I was selected for a special National Science Foundation summer program, where they sent a bunch of us off to the University of Chicago.

I grew up here in lower/middle class suburban Seattle in a little public school. I had never really been out of that environment, except to maybe British Columbia. So that summer, going to inner city Chicago and University of Chicago and taking college level classes all summer, was very exciting and stimulating, and opened up the world.

It was like going to Paris and not wanting to come back to the farm.

When I was applying for college, I only applied to two schools: the University of Chicago and also Washington State, because they had a nuclear reactor and I could work in the nuclear reactor.

I think I made a good decision in going with the University of Chicago. 

TA:  Stay away from nuclear reactors: good rule of thumb.

So you were at the University of Chicago and studying…?

AL: I was in the Chemistry program, and in fact graduated with my Bachelor’s in Theoretical Chemistry.

About midway through the University of Chicago, I took organic chemistry. I remember very distinctly how, on the first day, my professor got up in front of the class and said that he hated pre-meds and that there were too many pre-meds in the organic chemistry class.

Of course the pre-meds worked their butts off all the time. To take care of that, he said he was going to flunk out half the class the first quarter, half the remainder in the second quarter, and half the remainder in the third quarter, and the only people who would survive would be those who had “chemical intuition.” 

TA:  That’s evil.

AL:  Yes, it was. But this was the 60s and there was an antagonism between the faculty and students going on around lots of things back then. I survived, but it ruined my GPA.

I also was curious about lots of other things.

I was taking art classes and culture classes; things like that. One of the things I started taking was psychology classes, and one of the things I discovered was that while I didn’t have chemical intuition – I had, instead, perseverance and hard work – I did have psychological intuition.

The psychology classes were an easy A. They were hard classes but I just ‘got it’ and I understood how everything worked, loved it and had a good time. I was also taking philosophy and, in particular, ethics.

I was also involved in religious organizations and things like that. I got interested in why people make the decisions that they make about their lives, about what they do, and so on.

That got me interested in psychology and in pursuing psychology as a future. 

TA:  That’s a big shift, from chemistry to psychology.

AL: It was but it wasn’t. It seems like a big shift but it’s not such a big shift if you realize that what I enjoyed was the science part of it. I enjoyed the understanding, and I enjoyed trying to determine where there were principles and laws that govern things and how things work, and the domain… I was interested in lots of domains. I’m still interested in lots of domains.

When I was in graduate school, I used to take my professor out to lunch every once in a while for a “how am I doing?” feedback session, because I was working as his assistant.

As we got near the end of my doctoral program, he said: You know, your problem as you think about an academic career is that you’re interested in too many things.

That turned out to be true.

The great thing about moving into the field I’ve moved into is that being interested in too many things is a virtue; it’s not a penalty. 

TA:  It certainly is in this field. I’ve heard it over and over again; it’s a sort of professional dilettantism.

So you reached the end of your undergraduate degree, and you had some choices to make.

First of all, your degree ended up being in psychology? 

AL:  No; my Bachelor’s Degree is in Chemistry.

TA:  Then you had a choice to make about what you were going to continue doing. What did you decide?

AL:  I went to seminary.

TA:  Of course. That’s natural.

AL:  Doesn’t that make sense?

TA:  From pure science to faith.

AL:  Yes. It was the continual pursuit of understanding why people make decisions that they make, in this case ethical, moral decisions.

My intent was to actually eventually, at that point, maybe enter psychology as an academic but in a theological setting or something. I went off and did that for a year. 

TA:  Lots of religious organizations and churches offer counseling, don’t they?

AL:  Yes; though I wasn’t as interested in the counseling path. It did come up again, and it came up in the later part of this career, but that wasn’t the main reason I went.

I was trying to understand more deeply my faith, my religion, and to think about people and why people do what they do. 

TA:  Okay.

AL:  I was in seminary and, as it happens, got engaged while I was there.

TA:  Was she in seminary too?

AL:  No, she was at nursing school in Chicago. I had met her when I was at the University of Chicago at this fabulous party I went to, which is a story in itself but I won’t take time to tell you that one.

Her father said okay – and we didn’t have much money, either of us – he said look, you guys can get married and you can do it faster and we can save some money if we – her sister was also engaged -could make it a double wedding, so it’s two for the price of one.

The only deal is, you have to move here to California until you pay off my daughter’s school loans, the two of you.

TA:  Wow. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard such bargaining happening over a wedding. It’s a reverse dowry.

AL:  It’s a little Old Testamentish, I guess. Biblical. I said okay. I moved out to California, we got married -

TA:  Did you finish seminary?

AL:  No; it was just the one year because I wanted to get married.

In fact, I started working as a plumber, digging ditches, and doing stuff like that. I also started taking correspondence courses in psychology fromBerkeley and some other places, to build up my formal educational background–the equivalent of a psychology major.

I did that and then got laid off, became a jeweler, and continued to take classes. Then I started taking classes from Cal State Fullerton. That was when I applied to their Clinical Counseling Program, and they hired me.

One of the things I had been doing while l was digging ditches and feeling bored and selling jewelry – it really went all the way back to when I was at the University of Chicago – was gradually put together my own theory of human personality. Fullerton liked it. They hired me to teach personality theory. 

TA:  They hired you to teach your own personality theory?

AL:  That was the deal. I could teach Jung and Freud and Lund, among other things.

I didn’t have a graduate degree. I had a Bachelor in Chemistry and was teaching personality theory at Fullerton, including my own. That was fun.

Then one of the professors that took me under his wing there came to me one day. He taught experimental psychology there. He said: I just want to let you know, I took your application out of the clinical program and put it in the experimental program; is that okay?

TA:  What?

AL:  He said, if you’re in the experimental program, you can always go back and do clinical work if you want to, but if you’re in the clinical program it’s hard to get into the experimental program. I think you really would make a great experimental psychologist.

I said well, okay; I’ll try it for a while. We’ll see. 

TA:  somebody else chose your degree. That’s wild.

AL:  I went with it. I continued to teach there. I got my Master’s Degree in Experimental Psychology there.

TA:  It turned out you liked experimental, then?

AL:  It turned out I did. Again, what I liked was the science process, the understanding part of the process. This is probably true: I tend to be kind of a shy guy, so sitting and actually talking with people about their problems isn’t nearly as much fun as watching them do stuff and trying to figure out why they are doing it.

I got my experimental degree. I applied to graduate schools and got accepted into a bunch of graduate schools, but one of them…

There was a guy who was very well known at the time in experimental psychology, named Benton J. Underwood. He had written a bunch of books. A lot of people knew him. He was a direct academic descendent of William James – he was an old-style academic in the sense that while he had a lot of graduate students around, he only took one assistant at a time.

A bunch of his assistants have gone on and become famous themselves, or written books. Well, he offered me an assistantship. I remember his letter of offer: Despite your lackluster undergraduate career – 

TA:  Ouch.

AL: – I would like to have you come be my assistant.

Later on, at one time when he had a couple of martinis in him, he said it was because of my very strange background that he wanted me to be his assistant. So all of those things – going to seminary, digging ditches, being a jeweler, being a chemist – actually intrigued him.

TA:  What year was this?

AL:  This was ‘77-‘80.

TA:  I’ve heard more than one story like that from that timeframe, having some luck with being a weirdo.

AL:  Yes. It turned out that he was a famous psychologist. It was great because a lot of psychologists would come through. We had dinner with the folks who were teaching chimps to sign for the first time, and all that stuff.

He got into psychology because he wanted to be a baseball coach at the university he was in, and then he got interested in a girl who was signing up for classes. She said, “You have to declare a major,” and he said ‘baseball coach,’ and she said that’s not a major and he said, so what’s your major? And she said psychology, and he said, “Okay, that’s what I’ll major in.” I think he was intrigued by this strange path.

Then, he took me on. The thing about working with Ben was that as his assistant, I was in charge of the subject pool for the entire psychology department at Northwestern. It was an interesting leadership opportunity as a graduate student, with professors coming and asking if they could get some users for their students for their thing. I approved every experiment and so on, ran his lab, was a co-author on all his papers at that time, and could run my own research. I had all the support to do that.

My job was to get in at about 6:30 in the morning and get the coffee going. Then he would come in and we would talk psychology for two or three hours before classes started, every day. It was really a unique educational experience.

One of the things he talked about–besides being a baseball coach–was how he got his funding, which continued to fund even me throughout his career, from the Office of Naval Research through an early human factors project.

He had been approached during the war by the Navy. They had a new bombsight that had been built for them, but it wasn’t working. The people who were using it weren’t able to hit the targets. They asked him if he could help them. He said okay, send me the sight. They sent him the sight, he put it up on a bench, and he looked in through the eyepiece and pressed the trigger that would drop the bomb.

The people who had designed the sight had designed a little flap that would flip up over the eyepiece so that the person wouldn’t be blinded by the explosion.

But what this meant was they never had any feedback on where the bomb went. So without any feedback, they could never improve their aim. That’s why it was totally unsuccessful.

Based on that, the Office of Naval Research started funding him and his students, and they funded him his entire career, which was 50 years.

He was supportive of this notion of taking psychology and applying it in practical areas. His special area was human cognition, verbal learning, memory, stuff like that.

His area was this learning and memory stuff. He was rooted in this practical human factors design space, in a way 

TA:  It’s interesting nobody figured that out. It probably took him 10 seconds to figure out what was wrong.

AL:  It is amazing, isn’t it? But so much of what we do sometimes is, “Why did they need me to figure that out?”

He was really supportive. It seems so primitive now because everything was mainframes and cardpunch. The big new thing was the TRS 80–I brought in that little Radio Shack computer. I was so excited because I was the hero among the graduate students because I had upgraded it from 16k to 64k myself.

He did a lot of his experiments using something called a memory drum, which is a big mechanical drum with a cloth tape on which you’d typed nonsense syllables or words or things like that, and then they would show these words through a little window. He could use this mechanical thing to study recognition and recall, and the serial positioning curve–remembering things better at the beginning and the end—and stuff like that.

I replaced it with this computer. It was a major technological advance of the lab.

TA:  A lot of ooohs and aaahs.

AL:  Exactly.

TA:  I know you were having these conversations with him about psychology every morning over coffee. Were you also talking about human factors? There certainly wasn’t literature around on human factors.

AL:  It was mostly about human learning in memory–how memory works, how memories are stored, and how to improve learning. It just happened to be that human cognition is this interesting blend; it’s about how the mind works, as well as the obvious practical implications.

That was what was kind of fun about it for me. But we were mostly talking pretty academic and “researchy” at the time.

Then I was graduating and starting to think about what I was going to do after graduate school. Most of us were planning on teaching, going into academics, and doing research. But in the whole country there were probably only a dozen jobs in my part of psychology in the academic world.

One university I was looking at paid something like $13,000 a year and had this huge teaching load, and of course you didn’t have tenure; you were just a new grad, so after a few years you could be laid off. And it was way off in the boonies of North Carolina.

Then Bell Labs came through. Bell Labs–well of course, I’d heard of Bell Labs: discoverer of fiber optics, inventor of the transistor, discoverer of black holes–gosh, Bell Labs.

The first person who came through from Bell Labs was Tom Landauer. It turned out, as I discovered later, he was at Murray Hill, the more researchy side of Bell Labs. As a graduate student, I was helping him give a special lecture.

We went out drinking. He said the great thing about Bell Labs is you get paid to do nothing useful. And if you do something useful, you get into trouble. I thought that was an interesting thing, that notion of just doing research. Gosh, that seemed intriguing, especially compared to the big teaching load. 

TA:  You do something useful you get into trouble. Was he being–

AL:  That’s what he said. That was over beer.

There were parts of IBM that were like this, and Bell Labs was like this. They had a research arm in the industrial setting, the corporate setting, that was supposed to be pure research. It was supposed to be about thinking really far out. It really was supposed to be exploratory and not be tied to particular practical problems.

They were doing very basic research kinds of things in the area he was in. The other parts of Bell Labs did need to do stuff that was very practical and oriented.

I didn’t know the difference at the time, as a poor graduate student. Another guy from Bell Labs came through not too long after who was recruiting, and he was talking with me. He said, why don’t you come and talk with us. It turned out he was on the side of Bell Labs where yes, you needed to do practical things–but it was still more “applied researchy.”

I was eventually hired, and the research plan was one step closer to this kind of applied world. Back then there was a lot of research going on about what happens when people read text. Of course AI was in its early hot heyday. There was a lot of work along the lines of problem-solving and expertise.

There was hardly any research on how to read to solve problems. 

TA:  Are we still in the early ‘70s?

AL:  That was ‘80. That was going to be my research area. In that area, I would be trying to understand how and why people–what goes on in their heads as they read and do problem solving at the same time. One of the by-products was clearly going to be guidance for manuals, for help, for user support and things like that–plans, instructions–all the stuff we still deal with today, but it was going to be research-based.

I don’t know that there’s been a lot of research even now in that interesting convergence of reading and problem solving, but that’s where I started when I started working at Bell Labs, research in that area.

This was the department that was the original Human Factors Department within AT&T. It was the place where early work on all number dialing happened. The creation of the touchtone pad happened there.

At the time I was there, it was still a world of mainframes and cards and paper tape. They were starting to explore the early cell phone technologies, where the whole trunk of your car was needed to contain the electronics; and early video conferencing and the precursor, I guess you could say, to what is today the internet. The video tech services that were being experimented with were pretty popular in Europe and were just starting to move to the U.S. We were studying those and trying to figure out what to do with them.

That was the stuff going on as I was working on this reading-for-problem-solving stuff. 

TA:  What was your goal? What did you want to find out?

AL:  At the time, what I was interested in is: How does this work, and what goes on in peoples’ heads as they read and use the information to do things?

Thinking through it, are you going into the process with some kind of model in your head of what the solution is going to look like, and you’re filling in the solution as you read? Do you go into the process looking for certain clues about how the information is structured? What information are you looking for? How do you put that information together in order to create solutions to problems?

It didn’t take very long. Part of what I was starting to feel was that there are probably classes of problems. For different classes of problems, there are different visual representations of the information that people tacitly–without even thinking about it–associate to solutions. These visual representations contain the solutions to the problems, and as people interact with a particular design, they have a kind of script.

We were talking a lot back then about scripts. They would have a script that they follow as they process that information and use that information to put together the solution to the problem.

You could almost think, very crudely, if you think of cooking a meal as a kind of a problem, you have a recipe format. You have a different kind of format if you’re trying to build something, like putting together a toy for your kid or whatever. And this actually was the kind of guidance we gave people out in the field.

There was this notion that if you could start to understand that structure, then you could try and come up with an algorithm for classifying the problem, and then you would get a bunch of design guidance you could provide to the people who are putting the information together, to solve the problem. 

TA:  Was this work related or linked in any way to some of the plain language stuff that was going on? I don’t remember if it was exactly at the same time. 

AL:  I think that came along a little later, but it was in that same zeitgeist. 

TA:  I think it was during Carter but I don’t remember the years of Carter. 

AL:  That’s what I started working on. Then after maybe a year or so, they came and said: You know, we’ve got this new thing. We’re going to try and combine these new data services and voice services in the same environment. We need somebody to design an interface or signals, clues, for human beings to manage this stuff. Do that.

So I started working on integrated voice data services. That’s when I started getting into what is in essence UI design in this very primitive, early world, that just continued to evolve. 

TA:  Are you talking about interacting with data by speaking or are you talking about something else? 

AL:  In that time it wasn’t nearly that exciting. The earliest question was about phones for offices, for PBXs [private branch exchanges]. They wanted to go from a voice mode, when you were talking with somebody, to creating a channel that would allow computers to talk to each other, or that would allow you to connect a fax machine with something else.

It seems like a very simple problem now but it was interesting when it was first out the gate. What should the visual signals look like? What kind of a coding scheme should become the standard coding scheme?

Back then there was work going on–a woman named Mary Carol Davis doing a lot of the stuff—where we actually spent a lot of time thinking about things like when a light is on, what should that mean? When a light is off, what should that mean? When it is red, what should that mean? When it is yellow? How do you put all of these things together that signal new states that maybe hadn’t existed before until you started to think about it–oh, it’s going to be more than just connecting people; it’s going to be connecting machines.

How do you integrate that? 

TA:  Interesting. How much longer were you at Bell after that?

AL:  I was at Bell for about nine years. I got moved over from that department, and worked for a woman–Judy Olsen–from the University of Michigan in the i-School there. She had moved from an academic job at Michigan to be a supervisor at Bell Labs. I started reporting to her.

She had this notion: They were going to create a user interface that would allow customers to create their own telephone services.

This was starting to be a world that was called the intelligent network, where they had switched from mechanical switches in the network to basically giant computers. Some of the earliest big applications then were possible.

You could actually make–write software–to create telephone services. There was early exploration of online banking and things like that.

The question was, does all that have to be programmed through the software or could we create some kind of environment where just regular people–marketers or business people–could make their own services?

This was before there were GUIs. We created this interface that let you create a decision tree: from 9-12, do this; from these hours, do that. If you go down one path you reach this kind of a phone, then do this.

We put these things together in a sort of GUI interface before there were GUIs. We started experimenting with what is now known as usability methods, this notion of: let’s build the interface and actually have some people use it and see what happens. That was a brand new thing.

That was all of what was going on there. Eventually I started managing my own human factors group in that department.

I guess this is where the chemistry and other parts of the science came back. To move up within Bell Labs, you had to demonstrate you could be a generic manager.

I wanted to move up from supervisor of human factors to eventually having my own department of human factors people. So to prove my worth, I became a systems engineer and started managing all of the systems engineering for the 800 and 900 family of services, which was about a $4 billion business back then, for AT&T. That included, inside that big set of responsibilities with one of the teams that I funded and supervised, the human factors work.

I needed to learn systems engineering and protocols and software. It was actually very much more like physics and chemistry and things like that. It was an easy transition. What I brought to that was what I think made me a good psychologist and a good person working in the field: A good sense of problem solving. I’m interested in problems and figuring out how to deal with them.

I managed systems engineering during those later years, but I missed working with people. I wasn’t getting back to that department-head path as fast as I wanted because they kept saying, “we want you to do more here; we want you to do this”–they were taking me off into some management engineering thing. I wanted to come back to people and technology.

My wife and I also discovered we had a baby on the way, and we weren’t sure we wanted to raise our baby out here on the east coast. We enjoyed the east coast but it’s pretty intense. I’m a west-coaster; I was maybe looking to move back to a more mellow world.

We started looking around. I interviewed in several places. One of the Baby Bells, in Chicago, was building its own version of Bell Labs. There had been a generic version created call Bell Corps that was split out of Bell labs to support the Baby Bells, but many of the Baby Bells were feeling like they wanted their own version of Bell Labs.

A guy who, it turned out, had worked in human factors at Bell Labs, and gone on to be head of R&D for Satellite Business Systems and other groups, was hired by Ameritech to start their version of a science and technology organization. Because he had had user experience, along with people working for him in the past, he had this vision. He came in at a very CIO, Chief Technology Officer sort of level. He had this vision that he was going to have senior directors of each of the technologies of the future report to him, but one of these people that he wanted to have as a peer of those people was somebody responsible for the user experience.

I was hired. It was in those wonderful days when you’re told you have an unlimited budget; hire whoever you want, as many as you want; figure out what you want to do. 

TA:  Now, when were those days?

AL:  Those brief halcyon days; that was ’89.

TA:  That’s still pretty early to be thinking of having someone in charge of user experience 

AL:  I don’t think there was any other place like that at the time. 

TA:  At this point were you aware of other work happening in user experience? It wasn’t called that then, was it?

AL:  No; it was all human factors and HCI – HCI was starting to emerge. We were starting to talk about usability; things like that.

When I was at AT&T, the nice thing about AT&T was that the behavioral science community was several hundred people – probably 400-500 people. We had our own conferences and so on.

You were in a stimulating behavioral science community just within the company. But as I moved to Ameritech and was sitting there by myself starting to build an organization and trying to figure out what I wanted to advance, what initiatives I wanted, that’s when I started connecting with what had emerged by that time as the HCI community and the CHI community.

I remember when I was working with Judy, we all got on the train–her group–to go to the SIGCHI Conference. I had started to plug into that. That was what was happening in the mid 80s. By the time I got to Ameritech, it was starting to emerge. I was plugging into it, and then plugging into the largest technical group at that time in the Human Factors Society, the computer systems technical group. That was the hot stuff that was going on.

Then not too long after I was at Ameritech, one of my peers who was in charge of the most emerging UI technology–he had the AI group under him, he had the signal processing group under him, and so on–he left to go to work for Nortel.

They had his group temporarily also report to me. Not too long after that, they made that permanent. So now I had the ability to do research and uncover new product concepts, get them actually designed, and then build them, deploy them, and move them out into the field.

TA:  The whole thing.

AL:  Yes. That was a lot of fun, to invent new services, to explore new technologies; to go where no human being had gone before. 

TA:  What was the best one?

AL:  There were so many interesting things we did. The first major application for speech recognition, we did, which was not particularly exciting but was a landmark of: Will you accept a collect call? Say “yes” or “no.”

To expose this new technology, this speech recognition technology, to 10 million customers, which was the regional area… That was a huge thing.

The internet was of course just emerging as a big thing. We played with it back in the labs but it wasn’t really public. But by then it was starting to emerge as a public thing. We were helping Ameritech put up one of the first electronic yellow pages; one of the first e-commerce stores for Telco.

The Democratic National Convention was in Chicago during that time. That was the first convention that really had a website, and we were brought on to design the website for the DNC. We started to explore all kinds of things like community, online news, streaming; all kinds of things all integrated into this notion of a presence that was tied to a physical presence in organizing something as big as that. That was fun. 

TA:  We’re in the early 90s now.

AL:  Yes. We were doing education applications on the internet, which of course was very popular. We were exploring desktop video conferencing. We took something that had been a laboratory technology at Bell Corps called the video wall, and we productized it. We were the first to bring it out and productize it in partnership with them. The notion of the video wall was to move beyond the problem that video conferencing always had, and it still does, that clearly there’s a technology between the people.

The notion was that if you covered an entire wall with a video screen and embedded the cameras in the middle of it so you could get eye contact with other people, it would be a virtual space.

We deployed that across the worldwide, world trade centers back then. We got press for that. Then they were moving into interactive television for the first time. 

TA:  Did the video conference thing work?

AL:  Yes; not quite as well as they hoped, so it never really took off, but it was better than a traditional video conferencing room in some sense. There was the early research coming out. We were finding similar things that violated the experimental psychology research, in that the notion was that video conferencing should give you more channels of communication, to get feedback from body language along with what you are hearing and listening to, and kind of make this human connection. It should enable people to collaborate more effectively than not having the video.

It turns out that the video doesn’t seem to add a whole lot. We’re still speculating on why.

We funded some research the Olsons did in Michigan around that. We funded other work and did some of our own experiments to develop requirements that Intel incorporated into their requirements for their desktop video conferencing product.

We did a lot of work around that area. The other big technology that was exciting was interactive television, which was just starting to be talked about. We started collaborating with Disney, trying to imagine what an interactive TV experience could be like, what would be in there–if you had an infinite number of channels, virtually an unlimited number, how do people navigate that and find things within it?

TA:  You were doing a lot of fun stuff. Why did you decide to leave?

AL:  I was at a CHI Conference in ’96, I guess. It turned out that the new CEO and I got along really well. It was one of those serendipitous things. The original Ameritech CEO was retiring. He was frustrated–this is another side thing, but it will come back.

He was retiring. Everything he did in the business didn’t seem to have the impact he thought it would have. A business case would be built: If I do this, I can grow my business by another 3%. He would do it, and it wouldn’t happen.

There was a book out at the time called The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. There was this notion that organizational antibodies form around change. He wanted to break through that.

He got rid of all his direct reports and brought in the most change-agent-like people from across his company as senior executives, and had them compete against each other to see who was the most innovative one.

I happened to be in the organization of one of these guys. Before he stood up to introduce himself the very first day in front of the organization–he was sitting in the audience because he had to be introduced–he sat next to me, and he turned to me and said “so, what is it you do? I’m Dick Nordebart.” And I happened to say the right thing. I said, what we try and do in my area is understand what people need, and then we build things to satisfy those needs.

He got that. He was a sales guy. He knew. This goes back to my jewelry days. He knew that sales is about understanding what people need, and then convincing them that what you have is going to satisfy those needs.

Here he’s met somebody who actually builds a thing to map to the needs. He was so excited about that.

Ever after, he had me come talk to the board of directors. They changed the brand of the company and added usability to the brand attributes of the company. They ran an ad campaign around our work for three years; they came down, filmed in our labs, and featured me in an ad. Our team’s work in a bunch of ads – he loved it.

Again, doing all this exploratory stuff – he loved the web. That’s part of what he had me talk to the board about, this notion of what you could do with the internet. On the board was the CEO of Sears–the person who had been in the President’s cabinet was now on the board–so there was the chance to share user experience with some pretty big people. That was exciting.

The trouble was, he didn’t believe in actually doing all the engineering work. The way he thought of what we did, and of how his business could operate, was that these industrial labs, Nortel, AT&T, could do the hard, risky investment in the new technology, and then he would use us to pick out the best things to fit and satisfy the needs of Ameritech’s customers.

I got this call when I was at the CHI Conference. It was: When you come home, we want you to lay off all the other science and technology people, basically, and then we’re going to move your group into the marketing organization and then what you’re going to do is basically select from products and find the best products for us to sell.

That wasn’t my vision of what I enjoyed, what I had passion for, and what I wanted to do. I started to look around and find what would be the next step. That’s when I moved on from there.

Shortly after that they got taken over by SBC which then shut down the entire Chicago lab operation anyway, so I actually got out just in time. 

TA:  Is this when you went to Microsoft?

AL:  No; this is when I went to US West. I actually interviewed at Oracle. I was thinking a lot about Oracle, and Anna Wichansky and Dan and all those folks; I really enjoyed talking with them. But I also knew a lot of the folks at US West Advanced Technology, which was another lab that did a lot of interesting things.

I ended up going there partly for family, for lifestyle reasons. Part of what I was going to do was come in as a senior individual contributor. I had been managing all this internet stuff but hadn’t had a chance to get my hands on it.

What I wanted to do at US West, and what I did going in to US West, was to pursue the notion of helping drive this emerging e-commerce stuff; do design, do user research, to make e-commerce happen for US West. It was a chance to get hands-on.

I came in; I did that for a few months. Then unfortunately I got promoted and became a manager again. What we were doing there, the group, was also fun because–this was ’97, the late ‘90s–I think of as being all about technology convergence. My team was working on putting television on the internet; internet on your phone; your phone on the internet–everything was on everything else.

Things that we had started when I was at Ameritech, which was starting to explore DSL broadband and what you could do with broadband, were now starting to become the expected technology that the companies were rolling out.

We were talking about creating community portals and what would be in the community portal, things like that.

For part of the time, when I was at US West, I ran the exploratory software development area, as they were restructuring the way Advanced Technologies was working. They had split off a chunk of it that eventually went to AT&T – eventually became Comcast and so on – and with that change, I ran exploratory software development for a while. Most of the time I was managing the human factors work.

Then, as was the sign of the times, they got taken over by Qwest. There were two groups bidding for them. One was Qwest, another was some little company out on a Caribbean island that managed to have billions of dollars of net worth. Qwest won. 

TA:  Yes; I remember my phone bill changing from US West to Qwest.

AL:  Yes. I left shortly thereafter. Then they brought on a new CEO, and that was Dick Nordebart from Ameritech, who just recently retired from Qwest or is in the process of leaving Qwest now.

TA:  Now, you were already gone when he got there.

AL:  Yes. But one of the things I did with my group was that I ran this exercise for my team around what makes great design. Design was really coming into its own as the web got much more sophisticated. You started to see some great sites. We would look for best practices out on the web. We’d talk about what made them great. Pretty consistently in the top ten were sites coming from a company called Sapient.

A group of researchers–ethnographers–that I had hired when I was back at Ameritech, called E-Lab, was starting to get religion around ethnography and how that could uncover new opportunities and drive new sources of value for users. Sapient had acquired that team. The guy who had run it, Rick Robinson, became Chief Experience Officer at Sapient. They also acquiredStudio Archetype, and Clement Mok was made Chief Creative Officer.

This was a big consulting company that had heavy middleware technology back-end, but a really powerful user experience front-end as part of its value proposition, going from field research all the way to great design and branding.

They were starting up a Denver office. As I looked around I thought, “I don’t even have to move; I can develop new skills and exercise skills in new ways.” There was this new thing called Information Architecture, so I applied for this job as Director of Information Architecture and convinced them that’s what I was, which was mostly the same stuff I had been doing but now I had a new name, and I got hired, so I helped start the Denver office.

That was just about three months before the internet bubble burst. I remember when it started to burst, my wife said, is this a problem? And I said aah, no; new business models! The internet is different! Then everything fell apart.

We were there. Our clients were going to be Sun and IBM, AT&T, Lucent, Qwest and so on – and nobody was hiring contractors and consultants.

After a while, I started managing R&D for Sapient; developing speech recognition practice and other areas of their business.

They started up an advance research area as they were trying to restructure in response to what was going on with the internet and their changing business model – then they couldn’t keep a Denver office going anymore so they shut down the Denver office.

I became self-employed for a while; got a couple of jobs locally, was looking around; and that’s when I connected with Microsoft and came to Microsoft. 

TA:  What year was that?

AL:  That was 2002.

TA:  You were in the user experience community, and in 2002 Microsoft was certainly still struggling with their reputation with respect to user experience. Did that factor into your choice at all?

 

AL:  It did in the sense that I knew the reputation, and I knew the struggles because I had experienced them as I used the devices and the software, but I also knew that it was the big powerhouse in software in the world.

There was an opportunity to do something that had huge impact. Almost anything you do here has huge impact. That was what was compelling.

I talked to Mary Czerwinski over at Microsoft Research, and she connected me up to the people in the server area. They were talking about wanting somebody to help build this infrastructure that would support the new kinds of services and applications that would be offered in the future.

These were a lot of the kinds of problems I had been thinking about and trying to solve when I was in the Telco world. Part of it is application but part of it is thinking about how to serve up these applications and make them happen.

It was an opportunity to take those lessons but apply them in a new environment. The other thing that was attractive was it was a chance to come home to Seattle, where I had grown up; be closer to family, while having this big impact. And then coming in at a senior level.

I came in, had a chance to come in as a senior person within Microsoft and learn from a bunch of other senior people, and also try and bring lessons from outside Microsoft.

A lot of the people in Microsoft were still people who had grown up in Microsoft. But in those years, I think with the bubble bursting and a lot of people coming onto the market while Microsoft was still growing, they were starting to pull in a lot of outside people.

Dennis Wixon had come in from DEC, and Monty Hammontree had come in from Sun. A lot of people were coming in. It was an exciting time to bring in some new ideas; to mix with all of the great ideas and experiences those who’d grown up here had developed, and use that diversity to drive still more innovation and new ideas.

Then, of course, we were starting to kick into what became this latest wave of products, Vista and New Office suite and so on. Eventually, after about a year and a half, I moved over to the tablet side, so I had a chance to take things I had done in speech and move into new paradigms for how to interact with computers, natural interaction paradigms, and think out of the box there, and do it while working on a new version of Windows that would affect everybody.

It was pretty exciting and compelling. 

TA:  I have two more questions about Microsoft and then we’ll finish up, because I’ve taken up a lot of your time.

As a user experience person, what is the biggest challenge of working at a company as big as Microsoft? 

AL:  The biggest challenge is that still, the engineering population is so much larger than the user experience population. You can’t cover everything, and yet you know the users experience it holistically.

Problems that people experience… It’s not like there wasn’t a lot of user experience work in doing research and doing design, and yet there wasn’t a lot of impact; well in fact there was a tremendous amount of impact, but still, a lot of it is being done on the side. There’s a lot of creative energy that UX doesn’t even touch and it comes in from the side and becomes a feature…

The other problem is that it is so big it tends to be silo’d and fragmented. Again, that feeds into the user’s holistic experience. But trying to design form within the different pieces and making it all connect up in some smooth, integrated way–that’s probably where our biggest frustration comes from.

It’s a very exciting, creative place; a lot of people have lots of passion but it’s the stuff that’s out of your control or sphere of influence that becomes the challenge.

TA:  This is something we talked about when we met for lunch. I was really curious: You are a senior person there; you have a huge amount of experience. I assume you can pretty much pick and choose what you want to do over there. I know there’s a lot of lateral movement opportunity.

What you chose, where you are now, is in the office of the CIO, looking at stuff that’s all about infrastructure both within Microsoft and in the system Microsoft creates to help other people with their own infrastructure.

You talked a little bit about that as a frontier. I wonder if you can talk a little about that choice and why you think it’s an interesting area. 

AL:  Actually, even as a senior person, you can’t pick whatever you want to do. If anything, it’s more of a challenge because there are only a few positions around the company where there might be a slot to hire a senior person in.

Most of them are filled most of the time. But when I was looking, there were three things I narrowed down to, that I had a lot of passion on. I’ve had a lot of involvement over the years in ISO standards work and especially, within that, around accessibility, which I feel a lot of passion for.

They were re-positioning the accessibility team. One opportunity was to go in as an individual contributor within accessibility.

Another place I really want to be goes all the way back to the early parts of my career–I collected up these research areas that I care about. I have a lot of passion trying to figure out how to create engineering processes and research and principles around emotional design, compelling design, and things beyond just the functional side of design.

There was the notion of moving over into Microsoft Research.

But then there was this IT opportunity that emerged. It’s more than just internal. It was what I got into that was intriguing about it, that the business, it’s no secret–it’s been talked about how Microsoft wants to move into services, and into the world that Google has been exploring and making a mark in and is also trying to develop applications in.

For Microsoft, it’s a combination of client application and service network based application and how to do that. That infrastructure that will house those services that knits the diverse experiences together so that customers, an average person, can go online in an Amazon-like environment, shop for solutions, find out what’s available – and shop.

Microsoft isn’t rolling its own as much as it’s partnering with many, many different partners to create combinations of things that become solutions.

How do you find that combination that satisfies your needs as a user, and then buy it and learn how to use it, and get more value added over time and get more support–all of that infrastructure, all of that UI–is going to be built out by the IT organization.

Then these partners–taking a figure out of the air, but it’s something like 90% of our revenue in essence passes through our partners–OEM partners, like Dell and the channels like Best Buy and Amazon, with all of these different partners, IT makes all the interfaces that enable them to have successful businesses in partnership with Microsoft.

Then the revenue they don’t deliver comes through the account teams, and so on, that support the big businesses that buy massive amounts of this stuff.

There’s a big contract with the National Health Service in England, and so on. We’re building the interfaces for those account teams to collaborate effectively with their customers.

If there’s anything bigger than a Windows or an office of comparable size, potentially impacting the business in a worldwide set of users, IT is it.

The challenge was that IT traditionally has been viewed as the office of the CIO, and as being internally focused. “Internal” usually means the cobbler’s children. So they’ve had hardly any user experience people. They’ve had some, very excellent ones with unique talents, but relatively few.

So the opportunity was to come in and help grow and shape the practice, and move IT from being this internally focused, very technology focused entity to being more user and user experienced focused, as we expand the vision of the role of IT within this business and how it grows the business and how it grows our partners’ business and satisfies our customers.

That was a huge opportunity and a huge challenge. At this point in my career, I’m looking for big challenges. I still expect–I hope–to eventually get into research mode where I can be exploring some of the problems that I’ve learned and acquired over the years and take lessons from that and drive the lessons back. I’d like to teach; I’ve been doing a little teaching over at theUniversity of Washington. I’d like to get into teaching and research, and get those lessons back out into the big world from a career.

As a last great, big challenge before I do that, this is a pretty good one. 

TA:  You’ve almost answered the last question, which is looping all the way back around to the beginning: What’s your favorite thing to think about now? Perhaps it’s not work related. What fascinates you these days? 

AL:  Still, the personal goals I think about are all looping back around to the beginning of wanting to teach and do research. I still love to do research. I still love technology and people.

But the new thing I’ve learned over the years, and maybe it does loop all the way back around in some ways to the things that interested me when I was in college and going into psychology and philosophy and theology and so on, is still the experience of human beings and helping them do what they do and achieve what they want to achieve, and making their lives better.

That’s also my interest in accessibility.

What keeps me going is that in my own little way what I do, I hope, makes the world a little better place. It’s grown beyond functional stuff to things that drive joy and happiness and pleasure; that make things compelling, and express who you are and express your values and express your ethics and express your self definition. Those kinds of things are things I enjoy thinking about, and I want to do research in, and I try to incorporate into the design.

Even with the stuff I’m doing here, I’m not so much thinking about the pure functions of buying and selling and shopping carts and things like that. What I’m thinking about is creating relationships. How do I strengthen the relationships and sense of intimacy between organizations and people and among people? How do I create an experience that feels like a compelling experience that delights when you use it?

Those are things I think about and enjoy in the work part of my life. It is stuff I used to think about when I was a kid. 

TA:  Perfect. On that note, I want to thank you so much for your time today and for sharing all your stories. 

AL:  My pleasure.