After end-to-end schooling, all the way through a PhD in psychology, Carol Righi scooted to Israel to get some perspective. She came back to work at IBM during a very exciting time for user-centered design; one of her first projects was working on making operating systems invisible. Want some cognitive dissonance? She recruited IBM usability test participant…on the beach during spring break! Back in the offices, she was part of a movement to build a multidisciplinary approach to product design, breaking down the silos between design, development, and documentation. She went on to write a book full of case studies of real projects, which helps express her conviction that a multidisciplinary approach is the way to go if you want to build great products. Today, she is fascinated with helping newbies navigate through their careers, so that they can enjoy working in our field as much as she has.
Excerpts From the Interview
[The early 90’s, when we were working on OS/2,] was a great time at IBM. We were very enthusiastic about our prospects for beating Microsoft because we knew we had the better product. Even some of our friends at Microsoft told us so. Unfortunately having the better product doesn’t mean you’re going to win in the marketplace. That was another huge lesson for me: There is a lot more to user experience than just the quality of the solution. There’s so much more that comes with it.
At IBM, We also did a lot of things that bordered on market research. We would go out to the malls and the beaches – we were in south Florida; why not? We would do preference testing of icons and preference testing of different names for products and features. We discovered that there is sometimes a fine line between market research and user research from a user experience perspective, but also learned how much they complement each other, and how important they all are to the bigger picture. We tried to move further away from just thinking about back end usability testing and more toward front end, building things that people want in the first place.
An Interview with Carol Righi
Conducted by Tamara Adlin on June 5, 2008 11:12 PM
Tamara Adlin: Today I am talking to Carol Righi, Director of User Experience at Perficient. She is in St. Louis.
In April 2007, Carol and her colleague at Perficient, Janice James, co-authored User-Centered Design Stories: Real-World UCD Case Studies which is pretty much the first user centered design case book.
She also wrote User-Centered Design: An Integrated Approach. I am glad you could take the time to talk to me today.
Carol Righi: I appreciate you having me.
TA: Way back when, as a kid or teenager, what’s the first thing that really interested and fascinated you?
CR: I liked invention. I would occasionally come up with a cockamamie idea, look around the house for whatever I could put together, and create different little tools or toys. I remember making alarm clocks and burglar alarms. They usually consisted of having stacks of pennies hitting a piece of plastic making a lot of noise; that kind of thing.
TA: You would rig it to a clock?
CR: No; it was all pretty user-driven. There were strings and wires. If you walked through a door a certain way, it would trigger an alarm. They weren’t very sophisticated, I must say, but –
TA: Your parents survived without heart attacks?
CR: They tolerated it very well; yes. I’m not bragging about them because none of them developed into anything really useful but I had a good time.
TA: How old were you when you were doing this stuff?
CR: About 7-9 – somewhere around there. I am thinking of my own daughter. She somehow apparently got the gene for inventing things so she does a lot of that now. It recently triggered my memory of having done a lot of that when I was around her age. She is 9 now.
It used to occupy my time for long periods. I would work on these things for a few hours and just have fun with it. I hadn’t thought about it for a long time until just recently so I am glad you asked that question.
TA: Did that transfer into the way you thought about things at school?
CR: I never took that further with regard to going into a field such as architecture or the fine arts. I had never thought about myself as creative. I always felt as if I was very good at analysis and procedural types of efforts.
Because I went into psychology later on, I thought that being good with people was something I wanted to learn and get better at. It interested me inherently. It felt like a very different path than some of the things I was doing early on in my life.
Somehow I came back to invention and creativity later on through user centered design. It has in a sense come full circle.
TA: You know, there is this great book called Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace which is by a guy who was the director of Creative at Hallmark for a long time. It actually was not a very creative place. One of the things he says is all kids think of themselves as artists and creative and then almost no adults do. You were so creative and then so soon after that, even high school, you didn’t think of yourself as creative and more analytic?
CR: That’s really interesting… I don’t know if perhaps the way we our educational system set up that almost washes out the creativity in people. I hate to put it in such a negative light but when you think about the kinds of things you have to do in school (depending on where you go to school) creativity may or may not be emphasized. The curriculum may force you to think about things in a more standard way.
TA: I love that you came back to it full circle. I think a lot of people in the field who have done some of the most interesting thinking, really did have to tap into that side of themselves of breaking out of the standard way of thinking about things.
CR: It would be great if there were more opportunities for people to do that day to day. Unfortunately, we all get caught up in just trying to get through the work day, get all our tasks done and check things off the to do list, that we focus way to much on just doing instead of thinking, or accomplishing things instead of taking other paths and exploring some alternatives.
That’s true of design too. When you talk about user centered design, It’s important to put alternative designs in front of users. A lot of times we fail to do that. We’re driving to a solution and we put our heads down and just drive instead of exploring possible better ways to do things.
TA: Sure; even just researching what people think they want to do doesn’t necessarily lead to the most creative – I love the phrase, and I don’t know who said it – ‘nobody ever asked for the Mac’ –
CR: Exactly. Or the Walkman or the Ipod or any number of great things we can’t live without now that we never really would have thought about in the first place.
TA: Right. So after this childhood of inventing things, and through high school, you decided to go into psychology in both your undergrad and grad academic careers. How did you choose that?
CR: I never chose it. It chose me. It was pretty natural. That was what I wanted to do. I remember maybe in the 8th grade, picking up one of my sister’s psychology textbooks and being fascinated with every topic; perception, memory, learning – and getting very interested in what makes people tick, how people behave – not so much the clinical end of it at that juncture but more the cognitive aspects of psychology. When I figured out there was a field of study that addressed all those topics, I thought okay; that’s what I’m doing. I declared my major the day I registered for college. I went straight through for my doctorate after I received my bachelor’s; I didn’t even pause for a masters because I was so convinced that I knew what I wanted to do. I stayed on that track and was very happy in that area. It was a no brainer for me.
TA: It doesn’t sound as if you were as interested in clinical as you were in research type psychology issues.
CR: I started in research areas but very quickly took a turn toward more clinical areas. I had a couple of wonderful instructors in college that were very passionate about classical, clinical psychology – Freud and Jung and Adler and all of the pioneers – and since I attended a Jesuit university there was a big emphasis on cross disciplinary instruction. The best classes I took were team taught, for example, by psychologists and philosophers – in one case an economist and a clinical psychologist. That was another huge influence on my thinking from that point on; to be able to bring together different disciplines and see all of their perspectives on the same issue.
TA: Those classes sound amazing.
CR: They were wonderful. It was a wonderful education. I think that a liberal arts education has a great deal to offer. It can get you out of the mode of just trying to get things done in a very standard way. It really stretches your ways of thinking and challenges you.
TA: What did you do for your dissertation?
CR: My graduate degree was in educational psychology. By that time I had steered away from the clinical and more philosophical aspects of psychology and more into applied psychology with regard to education and learning, and school psychology. My dissertation addressed computer applications to education. I was interested in the topic of advance organizers which is a concept out of the cognitive literature. It entails presenting information at a higher level of specificity prior to giving the details, to provide the learner with an anchor onto which to pin the details that are going to come later. It prepares the mind to accept more detailed information later on. We see advance organizers used very frequently in textbooks and training materials. I wanted to see if using advance organizers would help kids learn computer programming concepts more easily.
TA: This was in the early, mid-’80s, right?
CR: It was in the mid-’80s’ correct.
TA: How did you structure it? What kind of computers, what kind of kids?
CR: There were no computers. I just used paper to test basic programming concepts. I was working at the Board of Education in New York City at the time. I found a couple of teachers who allowed me access to their classrooms. I taught some BASIC code to kids… some of them were given an advance organizer which was a video tape of some metaphorical concepts that relate to kids what programming is all about. I related programming to a restaurant; taking orders, executing the orders of etc. Others were taught not using it. I measured the difference in performance on a later test of those basic concepts.
TA: What was the interesting thing you found?
CR: I became a big proponent of advance organizers because I did get a significant effect in the experiment. It has carried over to my practice as well as a user experience professional because whenever I try to explain any kinds of concepts to clients or to stakeholders, I typically use metaphors to explain complicated concepts. It makes it easier for them to understand. For example, when I am talking about the difference between conceptual design and detail design, which is a critical difference when you are doing any kind of user interface design, I’ll talk about things like pouring the foundation of a house vs painting the walls and hanging pictures.
TA: Yes; I use that one too.
CR: That’s a good one. You can help me write a paper on all the different metaphors we should use because there are many of them that would help us explain some of the things we do and some of the trickier concepts; for example, the conceptual model is very difficult for folks to understand. A lot of times those are roadblocks if people don’t understand our process and what we are doing and why we are doing it. It becomes very difficult for us to defend what we are doing and get buy in. I think we all know on some level that this type of communication works, but it was nice to find out why, and to do a more formal exploration of why metaphors really help people learn better.
TA: I was thinking about this yesterday. I was in a meeting, and I was using about a thousand different metaphors in the course of ten minutes. They are not all related. I was jumping from skeleton to blueprint to a mouse zooming around a big elephant – you know – it was kind of nutty, but it made me realize that we can’t use the house metaphor to describe everything we do and we can’t use the skeleton metaphor to describe everything we do. It takes a mixture of things to understand.
CR: Right; it sure does. Certain things are more appropriate to certain situations than others. Different types of people respond to different types of metaphors…it’s really an interesting line of inquiry to follow.
TA: It makes things more fun too if you can talk about wacky metaphors instead of boring spreadsheets and charts and things.
CR: There you go. Absolutely.
TA: If it’s not fun, why do it; right? What did you choose to do next? What was the job? Did you stay at the Board of Ed?
CR: No. I actually went to work at Columbia University. I managed their academic computing facilities. That was really my first practical exposure to users and usability. A lot of what we did there was trying to simplify the interactions of people with computers in its broadest sense.
I managed a couple of computer labs. At the time, if you remember, or you may not, it was a very PC driven world. MacIntosh’s were just coming on the scene.
TA: So this was late 1980s?
CR: It was about 1986 or so.
TA: The first Macs came out in ’84?
CR: ’84; right. At the time, a lot of people were using things like Wangs, which were dedicated word processors. They were really hot at the time. The IBM PC came out around the same time.
At Columbia, we set up computer labs. At that time, many people didn’t own their own computer. Everyone came to a public access lab. We would have to do things like teach classes write documentation for how to use these new machines.
For example, way back when, there were cartridges that you would plug into your printers that you would use to generate a certain kind of font. So we would have to write documentation and teach classes about how to get your printouts to look the way you wanted them -
TA: That wasn’t even about your interaction with the computer, it was your interaction with the printer.
CR: Very true. Everything was very much on the surface. Nothing was seamless. You had to interact with every aspect of the process to get your final printout.
TA: We take that for granted now. You don’t have to go stick something in the printer; you just go pick it up.
CR: We do. It’s all WYSIWYG. When fonts were instead built into the MacIntosh, people were just floored by the fact that all they had to do was hit the print button and the paper would look like their screen.
Over the years, of course, it became easier and easier to do that but initially you had to do a lot more work to get things to look the way you wanted them to look.
Remembering back, at that time Microsoft Word was just starting to gain popularity. Word Perfect had been the most popular word processing application. With many of those applications there were lots of cryptic codes you would need to use to get your output. We also did a lot of mainframe computing. There were several tagging languages, like TeX where if you wanted capital letters or bolded font, you would have to type in codes prior to the text. Then the system would interpret it and output it the way you wanted it.
TA: If it’s name was TeX, even the name of it was scary.
CR: Exactly. Be afraid; be very afraid. Of course all of this took training. You certainly couldn’t intuit any of this. A lot of what I did at Columbia was related to training and documentation. That was really where I got a taste for the difference between what is and isn’t usable; how to make technology more usable, and how to communicate to users.
TA: It’s so interesting to think about how people had to learn something completely outside of what they were trying to do in order to get what they wanted to do done. For example, if you wanted to write a great English paper or dissertation then suddenly you had to learn something called TeX which is horrifying.
CR: We actually taught a course called How to Write Your Dissertation Using a Computer. We broke down all the tasks which were so disparate; some of them involved using a word processor, some involved figuring out how to use printers. Others involved using a mainframe statistical analysis program. There were so many parts and pieces. They were all on different platforms.
The task of managing all of those things, as you said, had very little to do with the content of what you were writing about.
TA: Was it a popular class?
CR: It was, in fact.
TA: Isn’t that interesting.
CR: Because it brought all the pieces together. People inherently want integrated approaches. There is no mystery there.
TA: It also implies that the alternative is more horrifying.
CR: Exactly; even more horrifying. Those were the days when people would still hire typists and hand over hand written manuscripts and have somebody else worry about it. It was a transitional period where more and more was in your own hands, but at your peril. You had to learn a ton before it was all truly under control.
TA: That keeps going today. I was in e-commerce for a long time. I came to think about the fact if you want to sell socks, why do you have to learn on line retail technology. It keeps going.
CR: It does. I think big picture-wise, it is getting easier. Technology is becoming more integrated; more easy to use overall. But ease of use is certainly not pervasive yet. We still have a long way to go.
TA: Job security for us, I guess.
CR: There you go; we’ll never be out of work in our lifetime, probably.
TA: Right. Where did you go next?
CR: I left the country for a while. After having worked in user services for a while, I knew that wasn’t ultimately what I wanted to do. I wanted to do something that pulled in more of my formal background, that was more challenging. The things I was exposed to in user services I thought, were so critical to where technology was heading, and so interesting to me. Usability and working with users and designing things that would make their lives easier became my central focus.
I took an analytic approach to deciding what I was going to do next. I sat down, wrote down all the things that I liked to do, and all the experiences I had had in the last few years. It was almost like doing a card sort of my resume. I was trying to figure out where all of this was leading by looking at it objectively. So I sat down, wrote it all out on paper and laid it out on the table in front of me. I asked, ‘what kind of a career does a person like this have in front of them?’
TA: How cool. You should lead workshops on that.
CR: It was a pretty ad hoc process. I hadn’t planned to do it that way but it was the only thing at the time that made sense to me. I had a vague notion that there was something out there that would pull all of this stuff together but I didn’t know what it was. It turned out to be UCD – although wasn’t what it was called at the time. So I started doing some reading. I found a couple of books in the area and learned that yes, indeed, there is a field for which I seem to be suited.
I was out of the country for a while, living abroad, taking a break, thinking about what I wanted to do next.
TA: Where were you?
CR: I was in Israel.
TA: You must have learned some stuff in that, that affected your life and your career.
CR: I did; quite a bit. It was quite an eye opening experience to live in another culture.
TA: What year was this?
CR: This was in ’91, ’92 time frame.
TA: The beginning of ’91 was the SCUD attack.
CR: Yes… right after that first Gulf War I spent about a year and a half in Israel, and learned a new language – tried to, at least – and had a lot of free time so I did a lot of reading on my own, starting to understand what I wanted to do. I decided to read as much as I could in the field. I wanted to start doing some of my own research in the area and prepare to come back to the States with a really clear goal of where I wanted to go.
That’s what I did when I was over there. I also did some teaching in behavioral research methods; things I had been trained in, just to keep me sharp and allowing me to keep my skills up while I was taking what was somewhat of an extended vacation. I like to think of it in retrospect as preparation for the rest of my career.
TA: To me, it’s an interesting choice at that point in your life and your career – and a great choice – to go somewhere else and get some perspective and know that it’s going to be okay with respect to the rest of your career – and not panic – taking a year and a half out –
CR: Yes… it was hard for me to make that decision to actually take that break but I figured if I didn’t do it then, I probably never would. So I went for it. I figured if worse came to worst, I could always get some sort of job to pay the rent. I’m able bodied; I can paint houses, just do something until I figure out what I ultimately wanted to do.
TA: I always told myself I can go back and fold sweaters at Benetton or something…
TA: That’s a lot of the bravery and creativity raising its head again at that point in your life. To say, wait a second, I’m not going to go out there and look at job descriptions and choose something that’s sort of-kind of what I’m going to do – doctor, heal thyself. Look at myself as a user of the job world and see where I fit in.
CR: I felt that I had to. I was always very stubborn about being happy.
TA: What a great thing to be stubborn about.
CR: Yes; I wasn’t going to compromise that. I was always very career oriented. Even though I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, I knew I wanted to be productive and be happy in something that interested me. So it was just a matter of finding out what that was.
TA: So you came back.
CR: Before I came back, I started sending out resumes. I sent out, I believe, four of them. One of the four was to IBM. I sent it to the Watson Research Lab because I had met someone in Israel who did work with the Watson Lab. He suggested sending it there. Turns out I could have sent it pretty much anywhere within IBM because they have a central data base that resumes gets scanned into. Shortly after returning to the States, I got a phone call from Boca Raton, Florida from a recruiter at IBM, asking me if I was interested in joining their usability department.
TA: In Boca Raton?
CR: In Boca Raton.
TA: A hotbed of usability.
CR: Literally. The first question that came to mind was, well, I sent my resume to New York and I am getting a phone call from Florida – okay – I’ll figure out how that happened later on. Then I asked the recruiter what product are we talking about. He said it was the OS/2 Operating System. My next question – I asked the recruiter – why would you need usability for an operating system? Shouldn’t it be invisible? That was a reasonable question in retrospect because that was of course what we were trying to do. Once I got down there, I accepted the job, and wound up working on OS/2 for a couple of years. That was one of our goals, to make OS/2 as intuitive as possible. And of course, that’s a focus of user experience; making things intuitive. And that’s really where I cut my teeth in the formal practice of user experience.
TA: IBM OS/2.
CR: It was a great time at IBM. We were very enthusiastic about our prospects for beating Microsoft because we knew we had the better product. Even some of our friends at Microsoft told us so. Unfortunately having the better product doesn’t mean you’re going to win in the marketplace. That was another huge lesson for me: There is a lot more to user experience than just the quality of the solution. There’s so much more that comes with it.
TA: Like business strategy and marketing.
CR: Yes; marketing especially. Some of our folks had the right answers but it was too little too late. Some of our marketing folks knew – and actually had a phrase that they used – ‘It’s the application, stupid.’ Nobody cares about the operating system. They care that it’s going to run the applications that they need to do their tasks.
Even though we knew that, the wheels had already been in motion for too long, and Microsoft was clearly winning in the application space. Eventually we gave up the ghost but we gave it the old college try! I think we had achieved some real successes and big leaps within IBM. We changed a lot of the look and feel of the operating system, and really touched on some of the aspects of the user experience that we know to be critical, such as the importance of aesthetics in a user experience. Early on in this field, a lot of folks really didn’t think that was very important.
TA: You don’t happen to have screen shots of those originals around, do you?
CR: I probably do.
TA: Aagh – you’ve got to find them – we could put them up.
CR: Yes, for example, we had previously use very flat and plain looking icons. Sure, those were understandable but if you put them side by side more attractive icons, people respond more favorably to the attractive ones as well as being able to understand them, so your user experience is improved.
A lot of what we did within IBM was to evangelize that point of view. We did it in a lot of very interesting ways. I had a great team. We really tried to push the envelope with regard to methodology and wing span – trying to move away from the usability point of view and more to a user experience point of view.
TA: Yes; and 15 years later there’s books on that and Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things –
CR: Exactly. A lot of folks had been thinking about that at the time but again, the inertia was so great that we were still stuck in the old mold of, just make it functional.
We also did a lot of things that bordered on market research. We would go out to the malls and the beaches – we were in south Florida; why not? We would do preference testing of icons and preference testing of different names for products and features.
We discovered that there is sometimes a fine line between market research and user research from a user experience perspective, but also learned how much they complement each other, and how important they all are to the bigger picture. We tried to move further away from just thinking about back end usability testing and more toward front end, building things that people want in the first place.
TA: Yes; and you also created a fine line between lying on the beach and being part of market research.
CR: Yes. That was one of my favorite parts of the job.
TA: I can’t even imagine lying on the beach, playing in the sand, and having somebody ask you which icon you prefer.
CR: It was great. We had many spring breakers down there. We had more users than we knew what to do with. Recruiting was never a problem.
TA: When intoxicated, users tend to prefer this…
CR: Exactly. Users Gone Wild.
TA: That’s going to be a quote.
So you were doing all this stuff – and then – how long were you at IBM?
CR: I was at IBM for about five and a half years. After the Boca Raton plant closed, folks went to several different places. Many people went to Austin. I went into user-centered design training, I spent about a year in the training group there teaching basically what we had been doing, and helping define the user-centered design process at IBM.
Around that time, Karel Vredenburg and others at IBM were formalizing the concept of user-centered design as including not just usability testing but the end to end process of designing and evaluating solutions as a multidisciplinary team; working with the technology team, the marketing team, tech writers, user experience folks, service and support; — the whole team, to address everything the user sees, hears and touches.
TA: You must have loved that. Just like college and the greatest courses you had.
CR: Exactly. When I heard multidisciplinary, I was immediately convinced this was absolutely the way we have to do this. All of us had been through the experience of siloed design and development, where programmers are off creating code somewhere, and somebody else is off in another place writing the documentation and then everyone throws their work over the wall at one another – and how disintegrated the solution looks as a result. Talking about pulling things together and having a team work on a solution from the beginning together as a team just made such intuitive sense to me, that I knew this was the right way to go. So I latched onto that movement at IBM. It started earlier while I was with OS/2 and then it was brought it forth into the training role that I played after that. That was around 1995: I got to help deliver and develop training on user-centered design. It was a great experience. I got to run all around the country teaching about UCD and what we called at the time the Total User Experience… sometimes to other countries as well.
I did that for about a year. After that stint, I joined a consulting group at IBM in their Global Services division.
Every one of these positions gave me another emphasis. While I was in the lab, I was primarily doing user research. Then I focused on training. When I went into consulting I got to emphasize design a lot more. I became very interested in, interaction design, reading everything I could get my hands on – Bruce Tognazini, Donald Norman, and others- and I spent a couple of years doing that in the consulting group.
TA: So both training and consulting, it seems to me you then have to do a very interesting thing which I like thinking about, which is making yourself usable and making your own work product usable within a company. Your users are within your company.
Did you do some thinking about that or was it natural because you had been a teacher before?
CR: I had some background in education because of my educational psychology degree, and did some training while I was at Columbia and in also Israel. My experience and training helped me understand how to communicate and demonstrate concepts. Interestingly, what we talk about and think about with regard to training in user-centered design, are the same things we talk about when designing interfaces. That is, you design from the outside in; you think about how the user is going to experience an interface and then you work on the technology to create it.
It’s the same thing with training and communicating the process of user-centered design. If it’s too complicated to describe or understand or be palatable, then maybe there’s something wrong with the process.
TA: It’s got to make your life as a coder, as a manager, easier or it’s not worth it.
CR: It’s not worth it, or it won’t happen, or it might work really well in a textbook but nobody’s going to adopt it if it’s too heavy duty a process or if it’s not practically possible.
We spent a lot of time thinking about how user-centered design should ideally be implemented from the basic techniques on up to the full end-to-end process.
A lot of times, large companies like IBM can often be very heavy duty with regard to process. The other extreme of working totally by the seat of your pants with no process is certainly not good either. The question we struggled with was, what is the happy medium, what really works.
A lot at IBM was happening in real time. We were teaching as we were developing and designing the process of user-centered design and refining it. We were learning as we went. That was a very exciting time. We were always asked to rationalize and justify what we were teaching. The stories we told had to be very relevant and very fresh. So we kept in close contact with the day-to-day practitioners. As they were refining their methods and learning their methods, we were building that into our training and communication of how UCD works.
At the same time, Karel and other folks at IBM were working cross-industry to understand how Microsoft and Sun and other companies were doing user-centered design. It was a real bringing together of all of the forces to really make user-centered design something that was doable, and hopefully, a better alternative to what had been done before.
TA: And now you’ve started talking about stories which seems to be related to what you eventually chose to do in the case book.
CR: That’s correct. It’s really where the case book idea came from: From my experiences as a trainer. We talked about this earlier with metaphors: people respond better to something that’s more accessible to them than abstract concepts. The same goes for these kinds of stories. If you can communicate a concept through a story, then people can relate to it more and enjoy it more and understand it better.
Almost all of our UCD training was case study based. A lot of my challenge, when I developed courses, was to come up with a compelling case study to carry through an entire course so that people could, for example, follow the development of a product from inception to delivery in a one day class. I would create fictional products, and actually show how each went from A-Z over six hours. Watching students’ reaction to that story unfolding showed me that that was a real, meaningful way for them to learn what user-centered design was all about.
The idea of using case studies to teach, in my mind, is the way to go.
TA: Tell me what happened next in your career.
CR: After a couple of years consulting for IBM, I decided I wanted to try it on my own. I had just given birth to my daughter and I wanted a more flexible work schedule. I also wanted the challenge of making it on my own.
I left IBM, started my own consulting company (and when I say company I mean myself) and did that for about eight years. During that eight year period I pretty much touched on all three aspects of my interest in user experience; user research, interaction design, and training – I did all of those as part of my practice.
The biggest appeal to me of having my own practice other than the flexibility was being able to engage with a very wide variety of clients and projects. I had the pleasure of working with many wonderful folks over the years at lots of interesting companies on many fascinating projects, everywhere from doing old mainframe conversion to working with dotcoms and companies like Google and Yahoo.
TA: And you started writing these books.
CR: Yes. The first book – I was invited to participate in by Karel Vredenburg and also with Scott Isensee , then a user-centered design practitioner at IBM, and got a taste of what it was like to author a book. I really enjoyed the process and wanted to do it again at some point; I wasn’t quite sure where and when.
About three years ago I was on a plane, on the way home from UPA. You know that feeling after you go to a conference — you’re so invigorated – you realize you’re exactly where you want to be; you’re in the right field, you’re happy with what you are doing; you get very motivated. On the plane I started writing a case study about card sorting based on a project I had worked on in my consultancy. I wrote most of it by the time I got home, then kind of sat on it for a while. I wasn’t sure what to do with it.
About a year later, I submitted the idea and chapter to Diane Cerra at Morgan Kauffman who is well known for her ability to publish great books from some of the best folks in our field.
I sought her out, put together a proposal; it was accepted. I invited Janice James to work with me on this because we had worked on many projects over the previous few years.
She graciously decided to join me and hopefully is still speaking with me now – authoring a book it is a very involved process – but two years later, User-Centered Design Stories was published.
TA: Yes. You had to collect all of these case studies.
CR: Yes; we enlisted the help of more than 20 of our colleagues – we have 22 chapters in the book all written by colleagues in different areas of user experience. Some were colleagues from past companies in which we worked. Some were clients who we worked on projects with.
We put together a series of chapters that addressed different issues around user experience. We didn’t want to address just design and user research, but we wanted to look at things like politics in the workplace, evangelizing user-centered design; and other process-oriented topics. We tapped into the wisdom of folks who have been in the field for a long time and who have encountered many of the issues we’ve all encountered as user experience professionals. We asked them to draw on specific experiences and write case studies based on those experiences.
It was an interesting project. These case studies are written along the lines of the Harvard Case Study Method. The style of writing is very different than most folks were accustomed to. The case studies have plots, characters, and drama. The collection is also written somewhat like a textbook in that at various junctures, there are questions that the reader should answer to best experience the case and get the greatest learning benefits.
Everyone was so wonderful in their openness to this experience. Everyone had great stories to share. I enjoyed reading every one of them.
I hope readers of the book will come away with what we hope them to come away with, which is the ability to experience things through the eyes of people who are true practitioners, and learn from their experiences in a very real way.
TA: And you’ve tapped into the work or the ideas that are coming to the fore from people like Whitney Quisenberry who’s talking about the value of storytelling in design and also in understand and evoking empathy.
Plus, again, it’s fun. It’s more fun to read stories than a textbook.
CR: I thought that might be a different angle on learning UCD.
The only thing we wanted to be wary of when we were writing these cases was that the user experience professional wasn’t always the smartest person and the most insightful person in the story. We didn’t want to always set ourselves up as brilliant. We had the tendency to make us the heroes of our story.
TA: We’re just so smart. We’re always right. As long as people would just learn that.
CR: That’s true. IN fact, Randolph Bias wrote to me recently saying we need to screen all of the cases, count up the number of bafoons, and see if there’s any pattern with regard to whether they are, for example, male, female; in other words, do we have any bad patterns in here we should have avoided. We were laughing about our tendency to make ourselves the stars of the design and development process. I guess that’s natural.
TA: Self congratulation is a part of my defined process.
What really fascinates you now?
CR: I am a director now in a company called Perficient. I’m based in St. Louis. We have about 25 folks in our user experience group.
TA: I wanted to ask you about managing a user experience group but that will have to be another conversation.
CR: Yes; For now, I’ll just say that what motivates and fascinates me is watching folks who are coming up through the ranks and whether their experience is similar to or very different from what mine over the last 15-20 years, helping them navigate through their careers, and giving them a chance to enjoy what they’re doing as much as I’ve enjoyed what I’ve been doing. That’s what my goal is now.
TA: Kids today don’t have to walk through snow for two miles to get to school, do they.
CR: That’s right. We liked it.
TA: It’s true.
CR: They have in some ways bigger challenges than we did. I think about all the evangelizing we had to do just to get a place at the table. Now user experience in some circles is so accepted, that people just engage us and we do our work like anyone else on the team.
On the other hand there are still some pockets we haven’t reached yet, so we’re still out there evangelizing, trying to get people aware of how we can really bring value to technology.
TA: Is that the challenge they face that we didn’t have to?
CR: I think we are all facing it together and we will continue to for a long time to come. There’s still a lot of territory we haven’t touched yet. But there definitely have been changes for the better. Taking the long view, I can really see how we have evolved over the last 15-20 years. It’s been very gratifying to have been a part of that.
TA: On that note, thank you so much for a wonderful conversation.