Ginny Redish has followed her fascinations through decades of change. By asking unrelenting questions about why documents are hard for people to use, she ended up being one of the founders of the field of usability. Her books trace her interests as they’ve evolved, and my conversation with her focuses on – what else? – conversations.
Excerpts From the Interview
I’ve always been fascinated by language and language history, how language changes, and how people use language. That’s why I studied linguistics. That seems an unusual path into our field, but when you think about it, it really isn’t. Linguistics is about how people use language, and language is such a critical part of user interfaces, web sites, and all the things we work on.
I am in a much happier place in the web world than I was in the software world, where it was just that much harder to get people to understand. You could talk about software as a conversation: the user comes wanting to do a task and says to the software interface: ‘Okay, I want to make a bulleted list. How do I go about doing that?’ And the software has to talk back again in the interface. But somehow that metaphor of the conversation was never as clear to people in the software world as it seems to be in the web world.
An Interview with Ginny Redish
Conducted by Tamara Adlin on June 13, 2007 12:53 AM
Ginny Redish has been in love with language since she was twelve. And today? It’s only logical – she creates conversations between people and computers.
In 1979, she founded the Document Design Center (remember documents?) at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) in Washington, DC, and she directed that center for 13 years.
In 1985, Ginny set up one of the first independent usability test laboratories in North America, where she and her colleagues had users come in to try out interfaces and documentation for clients like HP, IBM, SAP, and Sony. If you read the interview with Judy Ramey, you will hear lots of great stuff about that work.
Since 1992 Ginny has been working with private companies and government agencies as a consultant in usability and documentation.
Ginny wrote the classic book, A Practical Guide to Usability Testing, with Joe Dumas. The first edition came out in 1993, and it was reprinted with a new introduction in 1999. With JoAnn Hackos, she wrote User and Task Analysis for Interface Design, which originally came out in 1998, and it is still as fresh and useful as it was when it first appeared.
Ginny’s new book on writing for the web, Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works, has just been published by Morgan Kaufmann.
The first question I always ask is: What really fascinated you when you were young? It could be from when you were a kid, or it could be as you started to choose your educational path.
I was also interested in journalism, which is another great background for the things that we do. I read a lot of books about language and linguistics. I got to meet a very famous professor at Columbia University, because I lived in New Jersey right across the river from New York City.
I think it’s interesting that in 9th grade you would have gotten interested in linguistics. That just seems so early to have an interest in something that’s so relatively esoteric.
I have to say that an awful lot of what I have come to do in my professional life did not really exist when I was in school. I think that’s true for many of us. What we studied and what we do today… I can see the thread, but if I were going to school today there would be lots of things to study that didn’t even exist when I was in school.
There actually is one called the Center for Applied Linguistics. It was originally funded by the Ford Foundation, and it does projects that have to do with practical applications of linguistics. So there was the world in which to take an esoteric, academic degree and find practical ways to use it.
The first project I ever worked on was funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I went around to Native American communities as a consultant. I helped the community to figure out whether, given its language situation, it should be teaching children bilingually – whether the community should be teaching English as a second language or teaching in the native language. I became an expert in language education policy.
What I really came to do [in my job at the Center for Applied Linguistics] was to help people think about the ways in which people use language.
Just to make my story shorter, I ended up going from project to project and to different organizations because they had projects for which my skills were relevant. I ended up at American Institutes for Research which, as you may know, is the same place that Joe Dumas eventually ended up. I came there not to do the sort of thing we do today, but to do educational policy research, which is a major topic they still deal with.
I was in the right place at the right time when Jimmy Carter, as President of the United States, declared that the government would do everything it wanted to do, but it would do it in plain language. And it would involve people in the process.
So both translation and usability were coming up in work around documents that come out of the government.
I was in the right place at the right time during the cycle of this movement that became really active in the late 1970s. I also always give credit to some folks in the government. There were linguists, reading specialists, writing specialists, psychologists, some folks from AT&T Bell Labs who happened to be all together in the government agency that funds research on education at that very moment.
The Department of Education had put a great deal of money into trying to understand why young people can’t read and other school activities like that. But no one had looked into the question of why adults have so much trouble understanding government documents. They decided to fund a three-year project they called the Document Design Project.
I was at American Institutes for Research at the time. We wrote the winning proposal, in collaboration with folks at Carnegie Mellon University, and a private design firm, and we got to be the people who did research on the question of why documents are so difficult for people.
We now look at that in terms of software interfaces, hardware interfaces, and so many other interfaces. But it’s exactly the same question; it’s the basic usability question.
Was that interest born when you got to the American Institutes for Research?
So we wrote the proposal and we got to do it. I stopped being a language education policy expert and became a usability and documentation specialist.
I looked at their model when we were writing the proposal to the government to be the people to do the Document Design Project, and I said, “That is exactly what we do as writers.” If you’re developing a form, you’re writing a document that lives in the functional world. We’re not talking about novels and poetry. We’re talking about things that are functional in the real world. So I just adapted that model and put it in the proposal. It included user-centered design and evaluation.
So we stopped being interested in plain language for a while. But that was exactly the same year that the PC arrived. A vice president of IBM called me up, having gotten my name from Dave Kieras. This person from IBM contacted me because, as he said, they were about to put a computer on the desk of every executive in America and they didn’t know how to talk to those people; they only knew how to talk to system administrators.
So my whole group – and by that time I had quite a large group of folks working with me – turned our attention to computers.
By that time, we had a group called the Document Design Center, and it was an institute within AIR’s set of institutes, so we were able to go looking for other work. The computer projects materialized at just the right moment for us.
That was the impetus for the lab that I built at AIR in Washington, DC in about 1985. At that point we were calling it “usability.”
The user was in one room, and then there was glass between the two rooms. We had note-takers and observers; they sat behind the glass taking their notes. Sometimes there was a person in the room with the user and sometimes not. But it was what I think many people today, or many people a few years ago, would have thought of as a standard usability lab.
I know that today a lot of labs are being built without the one-way glass because the technology allows us to observe on a monitor without using the one-way glass.
We did have lots of computers in our observation room even then, but you had to synch the video tape to the computer by checking the times before you started, and you were pushing both buttons at the same moment, which of course we don’t have to do anymore today.
Washington , DC is where AIR’s headquarters are located, but even at the time AIR had a major office in New England, and one in Palo Alto.
The office in New England was primarily human factors specialists, like the members of the Human Factors and Ergonomic Society (HFES). They supported Hanscom Air Force Base with real human factors engineering. I know you’ve talked to Joe, so perhaps he’s told you his story. I don’t know the early part of it, but he ended up at AIR to support human factors projects. Then he and I met and he realized that he was very much interested in the usability side – not so much the human factors knobs and dials, but the other aspects – the kind of usability that we do today.
We started collaborating. So many people were asking us both about usability, about what we did and how we did it, that we decided it would be appropriate to write a book about it. So we did.
I do hope you are interviewing Janice, because it was when Janice James was in that job at American that she founded the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA).
Judy Ramey was talking about yours being the first usability lab that she ever came into contact with, and that was a very powerful experience for her.
We attempted to start that at Carnegie Mellon University because they were partners with us in the original Document Design Project. They started a comparable center to our Document Design Center: the Communications Design Center. They were doing similar things, and it lasted until about 1990.
Karen Schriver is another person you might well consider talking to because she’s done fantastic work, but she’s not in the university anymore. Judy maintains an incredible university department that does this sort of stuff.
It always amazes me. From my perspective – and I’m not completely in the know – it’s a constant battle to stay alive within an engineering school. And this is even though the department is so productive and popular and actually, I think, a money-making program for them.
That actually relates to another question I’d like to ask. Were you aware you were participating in something that was new and developing? You were participating in two new developing fields, which were related to document design and plain language, but also the field related to computer usability.
I can remember being at the facility of a major computer company (whose name I will not mention) talking to developers and saying, “We have to get out and meet the users! We have to understand the users in this!” They were saying, “We know our users.” But when I talked to them, they were obviously assuming the users were all absolutely identical to themselves, when of course they weren’t at all.
I think all of us in this field realize that we’re not coming into something that has been well-established for ever and ever, and that is, in fact, for many of the people we meet, a totally new concept.
Jakob Nielsen, of course, was very much into usability. I had heard Jakob talk to a Washington, DC group that Ben Shneiderman had started back in the 1980s. That was a group of people interested in the intersection of computer science and psychology.
So in ’93, the book came out. Did that change things for you?
I took the opportunity when we went on sabbatical, which was in fact in Seattle. I had the opportunity to spend a year with Judy Ramey, and I left AIR to become an independent consultant.
That’s when I started Redish & Associates and went out on my own.
I started with three projects: Working as a consultant for Janice James at American Airlines, doing training that led to the book, and writing the book.
And then Judy and I got to do a project funded by the Society for Technical Communication. They wanted someone to do research on how you could show that technical communication and technical communicators bring value to their companies. It’s really the same topic as the Bias and Mayhew Cost-Justifying Usability book. We were talking about cost-justifying good documentation .
So I had projects going, and it was an opportunity, as I say, to get out from under the tremendous management job that is running an institute. In that sense, the book was very opportune for me because it did bring me a lot of independent clients.
Many of us in the field operate that way.
We are in the mid ’90s, and the internet – or the internets, I should say – were popping up their little heads at this point. When did you start to have projects related to that?
So I guess it was the late ’90s when people were asking me to think about and review web sites.
In the academic world you’re permitted to just think about the audience, But it was clear to many of us who were doing documentation that it wasn’t enough to just think about the audience; you had to go out there and meet the audience.
I give Janice James credit for a lot of my learning how to do user and task analysis, because she asked me in about ’94 to spend several months doing a very extensive user and task analysis of travel agents. I think we did a paper on this at UPA in ’96.
Much of what we learned shows up today in Travelocity, which was originally an American Airlines product. I got to do a lot of that early analysis with enough background and experience to be able to then write a book about how to go about doing it. Once again, Janice James has had a tremendous influence on this field.
You mentioned earlier the difficulty of convincing academia that practical stuff is worthwhile. In industry, it has to be all practical.
I had an experience like that in the 1980s when I was first starting out
I told you about my first foray into documentation when I worked on computer manuals for IBM because someone had gotten my name from someone else whom they knew.
My second foray with my team at AIR was for Hewlett Packard, and that was because a gal who was there at the time realized that part of their problem was that they were not doing usable documentation
It takes somebody who is willing to take the risk of saying: “I will convince people inside to try something completely different.”
The team I brought in there to work together with folks at Hewlett Packard did what I think was probably the first usability test at Hewlett Packard; this was in about 1982. We wrote what was some of the earliest really good task-oriented documentation, all because someone inside recognized there was a problem and went out, did the research, and found out there were people who had potential solutions.
You mentioned that when you started your consulting agency, one of the prime directives you gave yourself was for your work to be fun and interesting. It also sounded like you also concluded that you didn’t want to start running a big agency, or having to deal with spreadsheets all day.
I assume that has stayed true throughout your now quite long consulting career. What has changed since the very beginning? Are there different types of projects you look for now; is there a different approach that you have?
So yes, although I’m still selling it sometimes, I don’t have to sell it nearly as much, and that’s a great thing.
I guess the other thing is that my business today is almost exclusively related to the web, and not nearly as much as it used to be related to computer documentation, to software interfaces. Perhaps I am finding it easier in the web world because web developers understand the need to connect to the user in ways in which we often could not get the software developers to accept.
My new book is about the web. It’s called Letting Go of the Words:Writing Web Content that Works.
So of course you have to understand the user, and you have to understand the user’s scenario – whatever scenario is bringing the user to the web site at this given moment. It seems to me it’s much easier to get that message across to web developers than it was to the software developers.
But right now I really foresee doing more of what I now do a great deal of, which is training people in good web writing, training people in user centered design related to web sites, and helping people put good content on their web sites.
I hope that my book will change the way people think about web sites. Even within the usability community, many people still focus exclusively on navigation.
Of course, navigation is important – if you can’t find the information, it doesn’t matter how well written the information is.
But finding it isn’t enough. What people come to a web site for is the content. And many companies have not paid nearly enough attention to putting good content on their web sites. Perhaps my goal for the next several years is getting people to appreciate that and then be interested in having help doing that.
Obviously it’s critical that the usability be good. As Steve Krug says, “don’t make me think” when I’m navigating. I don’t want to think until I get to the place that has the information I want to think about.
My book is about the information you get to at the end of your navigating – the information that you’ve come to the web site to find. I hope that will be of interest to people, and that I’ll be able to help people work on their web content, as well as doing usability studies on people using web content.
Of course, usability studies have changed radically in the past ten years with technology that allows us to do it remotely and without a lab, etc. So I see a lot of change. My approach to usability testing has certainly changed phenomenally over the past 20 years. The technology allows us to change.
Also, the philosophy of what we mean by “usability testing” has changed. The line is very blurry between “I am out there doing user site visits,” and “I am doing usability testing in someone’s cubicle.” In reality I am basically doing contextual inquiry, whether I’m doing it pre-design or post-design. We aren’t doing summative testing very much any more. We’re doing formative testing – in the lab or in people’s home or work spaces.
I love what you said earlier: It’s very interesting to think about navigation as downtime. I think that’s a really powerful concept.
I want to thank you for your time today and for sharing all of these great stories with me and the people who are going to be reading or listening to these interviews.