Interview with Judy Ramey

Judy has wanted to know how things really work since her days in the Campfire Girls. Too bad no one is giving out achievement beads to hang on our vests now, because Judy’s would be full of them. She managed to parlay a PhD in Medieval Studies into a career that helped bring usability into industry. Lately, through chairing the University of Washington’s Department of Technical Communication, she’s modeled some of the most successful ways to create, evolve, and maintain a successful academic program focused on issues in human-computer interaction.


The questions in our field are the same but they evolve as far as how you ask and answer them. Because not only is the computing technology changing incredibly rapidly, but our techniques for being able to collect data, analyze and represent it have changed equally rapidly with sensing, with instrumentation, with the eye tracking stuff. So it feels like that cartoon everybody sees where you’re running furiously and there’s two guys in front of you running even faster and they’re carrying the finishing line. You’re chasing the finish line. There’s still so much to understand. As soon as you think you’re catching up then somebody comes out with an entirely different way to use computing power.

I try to make technologies fit users’ needs. These days you get all beat up about that because people don’t want to say ‘users’ anymore. ‘User centered design’ is considered too narrow; people want to talk about ‘human centered design’ and moving away from the idea of ‘use’, which has that sort of ‘office’ association. The focus now is people living their lives with various kinds of technologies to support them. And I’m interested in the idea that the only things that are called technologies are things that don’t work yet. Nobody talks about the ‘light switch technology.’ Maybe that’s a good way to summarize where we are. A ‘technology’ is something that doesn’t work yet.

An Interview with Judy Ramey

Conducted by Tamara Adlin on April 24, 2007 04:08 PM

Tamara Adlin: Today I am talking to Judy Ramey who is Professor and Chair of the Department of Technical Communication at the University of Washington, and the creator and Director of the UWTC Laboratory for Usability Testing and Evaluation also known as LUTE. Isn’t that lovely.

She has taught and consulted in the areas of usability research and user centered design techniques for many, many years, and she and Dennis Wixan co-edited the books, Field Methods Case Book for Software Design which was published in 1996.

In the nature of full disclosure, I will let you all know that I was one of Judy’s students as a UWTC graduate student and have happily kept in touch with her in the ensuing years.

Judy, thank you for joining me.

Judy Ramey: I am happy to be here.

TA: What I am doing is collecting stories of people who have really helped to start the field by choosing interesting options for their education and work lives.

One of the things I wanted to ask first is what fascinated you as a kid or a young woman as you started making decisions for your education and your professional life.

JR: That is actually a really interesting question because they go in totally different directions, actually.

When I was a kid, this goes back to campfire girls where you’re trying to get those little beads that you sew on your vest – they had things for finding out how stuff gets done.

I had no idea about how anything got done. I remember I got a bead for going to work at this motel in Kingsville, Texas, and figuring out how motels rang.

So it was my first contextual inquiry at about 9 – 10 – however old you are when you do those things.

I was always really interested in how stuff got done. But for my education, I was really interested in literature. I thought I was going to be a famous writer. I was one of the co-editors of a little poetry magazine when I was in college – early graduate school – and I got into the Medieval Studies Program at the University of Texas.

I was going along learning everything there was to know about the Middle Ages.

Tamara, will you be editing these at all?

TA:  I will although I was thinking that someday they may turn into a podcast.

JR: There’s this whole chapter that has to do with my marriage which I’ll tell you about.

So I’m at graduate school in Medieval Studies and I meet the man who is going to be my husband, and we go off to Oregon where he was going to be a visiting writer at Reed College.

I got a job at a publishing company outside of Portland and it was a new venture. It was actually a collection of small presses. One of the presses was called Dilithium Press. It published books about the very, very young personal computer world.

This was 1976.

TA:  You already had your Medieval Studies degree?

JR: No. I hadn’t finished that yet. I went off on this marriage instead. I finished my course work.

So I’m off in Oregon and beginning to think seriously about perhaps writing a dissertation. Meanwhile, I’m working at this publishing company that publishes books on basic and soldering Heathkit computers together and that sort of thing.

Time passes, and I end up back in Texas, at this point no longer married – that’s why I wondered if you were going to edit –

I’m writing my dissertation, doing this and that, and I needed to make a living so I went to work at Texas Instruments. That was in 1980-81 – right around in there.

TA:  What was the job?

JR: I was an editor in the hardware group. I did things like edit signal flow diagrams and depot maintenance manuals and things like that.

TA:  My goodness. Did you see this job in the paper or something?

JR: A friend of mine worked for Texas Instruments in the marketing department. She recommended that if they needed all these editors and writers, they should go over to the university and hire graduate students, and she told me about it.

So I was doing this – I actually had experience at this, you know – from this publisher in Oregon. So I was going along, and then I got promoted.

I became the manager of the editing group at about the same time that Texas Instruments was coming out with its TI Professional Computer.

It was basically a PC clone. It was going to sport all this software by this weird little company called Microsoft. They suddenly realized that they needed documentation.

So we were caught up in this crazy thing to produce the documentation for the Texas Instruments Professional Computer.

TA:  This was documentation in addition to the Microsoft software documentation.

JR: Yes. I was trying to actually get clear on exactly how all that came down. We had system documentation and then the actual VisiCalq – some of the applications had the documentation from the vendor, right? So it was this package deal.

This involved the software writers as well. I remember one guy created a thing called ‘taking a tour of your computer’. It so enraged the engineers and programmers that we had a major rebellion on our hands.

I had one guy really visibly upset; telling me that he didn’t get an advanced degree from Rice University to create tinker toys for idiots. It was an amazing time to be doing that work.

Here’s the thing – meanwhile back at the ranch, over at the University of Texas, I was doing a dissertation that was really about the cultural — reserve words in cultures – I was looking at the use by Troubadour Love Lyrics of religious terminology to describe love – secular love – like sex – what happened to them was, that was so offensive that essentially the Pope called in a couple of crusades and a whole lot of people got assassinated and all of this.

It suddenly occurred to me that this was a cultural revolution; this was a moment where people were trying to talk to each other and all the burdens of what we thought we knew and who we thought we were, were getting all caught up in the argument. It was just fascinating.

TA:  You mean like for the troubadours; they were documenting love, in a way; in a simpler way -

JR: Using language that was the special province of the Church. They were talking about being transfigured by love – well you’re only supposed to say that about religious feeling, not about sex.

You’re only supposed to say that you are abased by the beauty of your loved one; you’re only supposed to say that about God, not about – so you get the idea.

TA: Yes.

JR: So the cultural conflict between secular use of religious language – in my mind in some weird way, I was seeing this parallel between the high church of technology and engineers used to writing and talking to other engineers and having this really radically uncomfortable transition they were having to go through; where they learned to talk about this incredible thing they created in everyday language.

It made them very unhappy.

TA:  Especially Texas Instruments, right? They weren’t targeting regular people; they were targeting scientists.

JR: Exactly. We had been doing mid and large scale systems so our audience was really system administrators. You could talk to them like regular people – meaning engineers, right? – whereas if you’re talking to your mother or the guy next door who’s bought his first personal computer, you had to explain it in the simplest language possible.

That was really offensive to a lot of people. It was so interesting. But it seemed to me gosh; there’s something here. This is so freighted with all of these emotions and all these peoples’ ideas about who they are. It was just a fascinating moment.

TA: Do you think you would have noticed that if you hadn’t been doing that dissertation or were you naturally sort of pulled towards these cultural language issues anyway?

JR: That’s a really good question and I don’t know the answer to that. I think I was a really shy kid and like a lot of very shy people I probably watched people a whole lot. I always found people really interesting; tried to figure them out – so maybe – but we’ll never really know because that’s how I encountered it.

I must say it was also really uncomfortable because everyone was really upset. Then I found out about this job up here and I thought to myself well, let me see; stay here in the middle of this big fight or go to Seattle and be a professor. It wasn’t that hard a choice.

TA: Do you remember how you pushed back on the engineers – what you said to them to try to mitigate this?

JR: You have to be careful because hindsight can distort things. What I recall mostly is trying to get people to unpack what their concern was and try to get them to talk about it. Of course if you talk about it for long, and somebody says well, but gosh; I don’t know how we can do that if the person we’re trying to sell this to hasn’t had that knowledge.

At Texas Instruments, the culture was really engineering-centered and the joke used to be they want to build them, they don’t want to sell them. So that took some working through.

I think I left before that got resolved. I think it was a dynamic that was underway at the time I decided to leave.

TA: It sounds psychological as much as anything else.

JR: Yes; I think it was very threatening to them. If you could explain it really simply, does that mean it’s really simple? And but wait; I went to school all those years – we really did something remarkable here – it can’t be really, really simple. It was just one of those dynamics.

Anyway, I came up here and the first thing – one of the reasons they brought me here was to design a course in computer documentation, as they termed it then.

TA: One second; what year was this, first of all?

JR: By now it’s 1982. The Fall of 1982. That’s when I came up here and interviewed.

TA:  Did you finish your Medieval Studies?

JR: Yes; I did. I did. I interviewed in November of ’82. They offered me the job. So I went back to Texas and resigned.

There’s a funny little interesting thing here. Shortly after I resigned, I got a call from the guy who was then director of this program, Jim Souther, telling me that there was a hiring freeze on which was not what I wanted to hear. But it all worked out.

TA:  Souther at the University of Washington.

JR: Yes.

TA:  He’s Souther of Souther & White.

JR: Yes. Exactly. So I wasn’t quite sure whether I had a job or not but I had already resigned so here we are.

I used that time to almost finish my dissertation. I came here for Spring quarter. I came here in mid March of 1983 and I finished my dissertation and defended it at the end of that quarter. That’s the timeline on that.

TA: But your head was still wrapped in both medieval studies and then this new idea about teaching this whacky course.

Did you read anything in usability or documentation at that point?

JR: This is really interesting. There wasn’t that much. There was stuff on documentation and – the Jonathan Price book came out somewhere right around there – maybe not that first year – How to Write a Computer Manual – that was early on. I could probably find it on my shelf. I could check the date if you wanted me to.

Over that summer, I created this course in computer documentation and I can’t remember if I first taught it that Fall of ’83 or Fall of ’84. I think I taught it Fall of ’83.

TA:  This was in the Department of Engineering?

JR: We were a program then. It was the Program of Scientific and Technical Communication. We were not yet a department.

TA: You were a program inside of something else?

JR: We had been but they had cut the department of which we were a part so we were kind of – it was Humanistic Social Studies – if you can believe it – HSS – so that was an awkward couple of years in there.

There are a couple of key things that happened. One, was in the Fall of 1984 – maybe it was the spring of ’84 – I went to a conference and after it, I went to Washington D.C., and I visited American Institutes for Research where Ginny Reddish had created one of the very first usability testing labs.

I think it had grown out of a project she had done at Carnegie Melon. I think the shape of the lab was influenced by Dick Hayes of Flower & Hayes who were at Carnegie Melon and starting the writing process, and so forth.

I’ll come back to the Carnegie Melon connection; it was really interesting.

At any rate, I visited Ginny and I saw the lab they had just finished building at American Institutes for Research. They were doing usability testing for IMB on their manuals.

In my course, I had designed in the idea of doing a field study – which was sort of a hybrid of a usability test and a field study in that I had the students who were writing the documentation in my class, take the documentation and go to somebody who was sitting in their office using the software they were documenting, and asked them to use the documentation to do their work and think out loud while they did it.

I didn’t have a lab yet. So that was going on. Then I saw Ginny’s lab and found that really interesting. I came back and wanted a lab really badly. Nobody had any money. This was unheard of; the idea that anybody was going to give you money to set up a lab at a university – crazy.

TA: So you coveted Ginny’s lab.

JR: I coveted Ginny’s lab. Then what happened, I was basically doing consulting work and I did a study for a company – it was actually a three-way comparison of some data bases but as part of the price to do the study, I had them buy me this video equipment.

That was the birth of LUTE. I called it LUTE because I wanted it to have that medieval echo. It had the slogan – it depends on the day – I think it still has the slogan – technology and harmony with human performance – that was tying this altogether.

At any rate, now I had all this equipment. Then I talked the person who was then dean into giving me this really tiny little office in the basement of the engineering library. We set up a cubicle wall and put the equipment on one side, and put the computer on the other side, and started doing usability tests.

I started getting projects. Long about 1988, Microsoft hired a woman named Mary Dielli. I had been doing usability work with Microsoft before that. Their usability effort started in the documentation group under Susan Boshan.

Actually, the person who was doing it then, Marty True; the high point at that point was doing usability testing on Word 1.0.

TA: That must have been interesting.

JR: Yes; the product that was guided by Charles Simoni who is now in space. So this is back then.

Marty moved on and they decided to replace her; they did a search and they came to hire Mary Dielli. I was on the interview cycle for her so I started doing some work with her at Microsoft. She started in ’88.

TA: So by this time – I just want to point out – that you had gone to no books at all to you knowing the term usability enough to name your lab that.

JR:  Yes.

TA: Do you remember when you started hearing about this as a discipline?

JR: I remember there was a bid discussion about whether it had an ‘e’ in it. Was it useability or was it usability.

That was – ’83-’84 because Ginny was really the pioneer, I think.

I think hers was the first non-industry lab. It was the Institute’s. I think IBM may have been doing some internally. There was a project – and I’m kind of sketchy on how it was funded – but it was American Institutes for Research and Carnegie Melon and it was the document design center and Ginny was publishing -

TA:  It was all about documentation.

JR: Yes, it was.

Ginny was publishing a little newsletter called Simply Stated. That all flowed out of this project she had done at Carnegie Melon. I think that is a key connection because at Carnegie Melon, remember, Herb Simon was there; Dick Hayes and those people were there, and it was all about problem solving; human cognition, human problem solving cognition, and studying that in the context of computer use was an incredibly fruitful approach.

The same tools for studying it I think migrated into industry from that connection.

Guess who was at Carnegie Melon at that time? Karen Shriver. Mary Dielli. Key Dye. They were all there and they all populated out – Pat Sullivan who is now at Perdue.

TA: Were these folks – were they in the Cognitive Science Department? I know when I started looking for graduate programs, there weren’t any that fit me because you either had to be a coder or you had to be a fabulous artist.

I know Carnegie Melon was really technical at that time.

JR: Yes, and Carnegie Melon’s English Department had ties to both psychology, which is where Dick Hayes was, and the School of Design.

TA:  I’ve never heard that.

JR: Yes. Dick Hayes was doing a study about the writing process; about how people wrote; how they composed. They were using thinking aloud as one of their tools.

I think that Ginny, working with those people; I think the idea of usability lab, the idea of thinking aloud – you should talk to her too because I could be getting this scrambled – but it’s my understanding that all of that was really in the intellectual climate at Carnegie Melon and the shared climate, then, of American Institutes for Research and Carnegie Melon on that project.

TA: Yes; I am going to be talking to her as well.

JR: Check my facts on that but I think that’s how it went.

At any rate, it was an incredibly dynamic time in the field. And it was coming out of very specific – out of Carnegie Melon’s English Department. But the reason that Carnegie Melon’s English Department was the source was because of the general climate at Carnegie Melon and the fact that they were doing studying in writing process and the fact they were interested in professional writing. It was a really kind of small world.

TA: So you find yourself inspired by these things, and you find yourself with this sneakily created LUTE lab, and you are in a little bit of an orphaned program but oddly enough, you are starting to bring money in.

JR: Yes.

TA:  Did that affect

JR: It really affected how we were perceived, I think.

We had some rather large projects. Dave Barks and I did a large project for Xerox. I did a fairly complex, fairly long series of studies for Fluke, and I did my first contextual inquiry which also was emerging at Dek at the same time — same time period – but IBM funded a study to see if we could do medical imaging systems; if we could design a functioning medical imaging system.

I did a big contextual inquiry about diagnostic radiology and the imagine aspect of the intensive care unit.

TA: I bet you had a lot of beads for your girl scouts by now.

JR: (laugh) I had a very heavy vest at this point. But it was fascinating. What one of the hugely fun things was to realize how much people know about what they do and how canny and strategic they are in trying to do it well. It was just so interesting, and still is.

So all of this is going on. You know, we could roll back the clock to that same period around ’80-’84 – who was at Dek; John Whiteside, Dennis Wixan, Karen Holdsplatt, Sandra Jones; right?

TA: Yes.

JR: They were evolving usability engineering and they were evolving contextual inquiry. It’s a fascinating period.

In a way, it’s still rolling forward. We’re still – our techniques are – there are so many new computing environments – I want to say it a different way – computing is being employed in so many different contexts, in so many different environments, in so many different applications, that we’re still hurdling along trying to figure out how to get user data to affect design. It’s still a new problem.

TA:   I want to be conscious of your time. I have a couple of more questions for you.

One of them is, were you really aware you were helping to create a new discipline? I know you eventually wrote your book on Usability Testing and then the Field Guide as well, so at that point you knew you had a lot to say -

JR: I think – what did I think…

My original impulse – because I came out of industry – my original impulse was to try to evangelize usability testing so it would be done in industry. For probably 10-15 years I did my short course on usability testing. In a three day format, I’d sometimes have 80 people in it. I was doing it a couple, three times a year.

My first impulse was to get people doing this. I thought of Ginny Reddish as the leading pioneer and in the corporate world, Mary Dielli, in the organization she created at Microsoft. There were others out there but there were some very serious guys out there.

I think I had the first usability lab in a university. That was an innovation that I did. I was really interested in training students to do this and then developing internships and so forth for them. So I always maintain really close ties to industry.

TA: I discovered the Department of Technical Communication by accident. I didn’t know what Technical Communication was.

For those who don’t know, the University of Washington Department of Technical Communication has a huge focus on human computer interaction including Judy’s class on usability and of course also rhetoric and technical writing.

It’s within the Department of Engineering and the graduate assistantships are for teaching both intro and advanced technical writing to engineers which are required courses.

JR: Yes; exactly. It’s a funny little — It’s kind of a crazy deal. So many of these things seem to be merging. For instance when information became an internet phenomenon, then web design, information architecture, usability, user interface design all became aspects of really the same problem.

TA: And library science.

JR: And library science; yes. Then of course UW created the Information School which has also a focus in this area and right now, I think it’s about the hottest time ever at UW in human computer interaction.

We’ve got all kinds of collaborations; we have new faculty in the School of Design in Art – we have new faculty in Computer Science – we have new faculty in the I School; we have new faculty in TC, all interested in the area broadly speaking.

TA: Why do you think they’re all interested in it?

JR: Because it is still a huge question. The technology is changing so rapidly that our understanding of the human impact of it can’t catch up.

So the questions are the same but they evolve as far as how you ask and answer them. Because not only is the computing technology changing incredibly rapidly but our techniques for being able to collect data, analyze and represent it have changed equally rapidly with sensing, with instrumentation, with the I tracking stuff – all of this stuff – so it feels like that cartoon everybody sees where you’re running furiously and there’s two guys in front of you running even faster and they’re carrying the finishing line.

You’re chasing the finish line. There’s still so much to understand. As soon as you think you’re catching up then somebody comes out with an entirely different way to use computing power.

Think of the accessibility issues that have come up; think of wearable computing all the personal and social computing devices and techniques. All of that opens up huge questions about how do people live in this environment; how do they use their environment; how do they want to interact using these media – so it’s fascinating.

TA:  Second to last question, how do you explain to people who aren’t in this field what you do.

JR:  I try to make technologies fit users needs. These days you get all beat up about that because people don’t want to say users anymore. A user centered design is considered too narrow; people want to talk about human centered design and moving away from the idea of use which has that sort of ‘office’ association and getting into people living their lives with various kinds of

TA:  That old thought about the only two industries that call people users are ours and the drug trade.

JR: Exactly. And the idea that somehow – I heard another thing – the only things that are called technologies are things that don’t work yet. Nobody talks about the light switch technology – so maybe that’s a good way to summarize where we are. A technology is something that doesn’t work yet.

TA: I love that.

My last question for you is this; I think I get a sense of what really drives and fascinates you professionally; this moving finish line, this continuing desire to know how things work and your enjoyment of really sharing this with students, which you are so great at.

For the sake of people reading this, what fascinates you personally now?

JR: Next year will be my last year as Chair of the department. The next person will get to line up for that duty so I will have spent 11 years thinking about administrative issues – we’ve had a good ride – we’ve done some good things – but what’s really fascinating me now is the idea of going back to my lab and getting to spend some serious time looking at informal, everyday life uses of computing.

Trying to figure out how to get the user into that design process; how to get innovative ways to instrument the things or collect data; interesting new ways to address some of these emerging computing areas. That’s one thing.

TA:  Where there isn’t a particular use, potentially but integration into what I do everyday.

JR: Yes. I walk around Greenlake a lot. You see people wearing these little devices on their waistband to keep track of how much exercise they are getting.

Or I was home visiting my 90 year old parents observing how incredibly hard life is for them, and there are so many assistive technologies out there now. How do you really get the design of those technologies to be driven with the user data; how do you get the human being in all of these technologies. That’s what I’m really interested in.

That’s on the humane end of things. As a sort of techy-geeky kind of thing I am really interested in formalizing some of our methods.

We do all t his stuff and we don’t even know what we’re doing. We don’t know if it works or not. I’m really interested in validating some of these methods.

TA:  Is part of that to certify people too?

JR: I hadn’t thought of that direction so much although I could imagine that we’re trying to build out the technologies in LUTE right now; we’ve started with the I tracking stuff and so on – I could easily imagine as a next thing for me to do, is to create some sort of seminars or workshops – bring people in and really teach the technologies and how to use them.

I could imagine doing something like that – provide the training – I’m not so much interested in certification as I am getting people equipped to really be able to milk these technologies to the greatest extent possible.

TA: Well I think you have done the field and the Department a great service in all the administrative work you’ve done. It’s great to hear that’s not dampened your fascination and love for actually doing the work.

JR:  Got to do the work.

TA: Thank you so much.