Luke Wroblewski: The Want Magazine Interview

An interview I conducted with Luke for the now-defunct Want Magazine, back in Winter 2010.

Luke Wroblewski isn’t exactly what you’d expect. For one thing, he looks a lot younger than his 15 years in the Usability and design fields would imply. And he’s much more mild-mannered in person than his prolific blogging and busy conference schedule would suggest.

Oh, and he doesn’t work at Yahoo anymore, which one suspects he might have had an inkling about when we interviewed him there the other month. But what, he’s going to clue us in? We’re press.

One place where the name is firmly on the tin is in his know-how and grasp of the UX field. His popular design books, Site Seeing and Designing Web Forms, speak to that. He was kind enough to sit down with us in Yahoo’s Sunnyvale offices to talk about UX in general and web forms in particular—including how to get the guy in the corner office to throw money at redesigning them.

The Hard Truth About Web Forms

“Nobody wants to fill out web forms.” He admitted matter-of-factly. “What [users] want is something on the other side. They want to buy something. they want to communicate with their friends. They want to have their opinions heard…The form really sits at this lynch-pin point of engagement online.”

How much difference can a form re-design make? “It’s not uncommon for a web form redesign to move metrics up into the double digits, to reduce error rates something like 80%…At eBay, we were constantly tuning and optimizing the key forms. The business folks knew hands-down what kind of lever that was.”

Who else “gets it?” Luke cited YouTube, a site that gets around 150,000 videos uploaded per hour, all via–say it with us, class–“A web form! Those guys have redesigned that web form 10 times that I know of.”

Successful use cases like these also support WANT_001’s theme, “The Engineering of Want.” As Luke sees it, “One of the things that you can do to sort of increase desire is remove obstacles.” The easier you make that web form, the more easily a user can get what they came for.

It’s a Form. It’s a Home Page. It’s

Luke’s favorite example of a usable, want-able web form is from a lesser-known service: A social network based on family trees, and one of Time Magazine’s “50 Best Websites of 2008,” Geni’s home page is a form that makes you feel like you’ve gotten something back from the time you spent filling it out.

“Their front page looks like a little family tree. It says ‘your mom, your dad,’ and down below it says ‘you’…[the “you” field] has ‘first name,’ ‘last name,’ ‘email address,’ ‘go.’ So it’s technically a web form, but it’s designed around your explicit need, which is ‘I want to make a family tree.’ Super easy. Before you know it, you’ve created the scene and are engaged and you want to share and get it out there.”

Luke insists that a sense of progress is the driving factor of good form design. One of the questions he consistently fields is “How long should my web form be?” Which he tends to answer with another question: “Are [users] making forward progress towards what they actually want? If they are, then they’ll fill in 20 pages!”

Inside/Out Concepting Vs. Outside/In

Which brought our conversation to any UX-pert’s favorite subject: Do you review the company’s resources and abilities first, then try to fit those into the customer’s needs, or do you start with the customers’ needs and see how the company’s resources can fulfill them?

In this regard, Luke cites Lou Carbone as an influence. “One of the phrases that he uses is, ‘Think outside in.’ The vast majority of people building products and kind of running a business are thinking inside out.

“Inside/out thinking tends to be: ‘This is the database technology we have available. This is the easiest way to display a form on a web page to get the information that we need.’” And so on, with little thought about the customer’s needs and proclivities. Web forms, in particular, are so closely tied into a company’s database technologies that a customer-focused perspective is rare.

Which might explain Luke’s poor opinion of Web usability in general. “I think the vast majority of the web experiences out there are pretty terrible right now. They are defined through what they are versus what the people using them want to accomplish.”

Getting from GUI to NUI

When asked about the future of UX, his answer was similar to Don Norman’s: that the interface will disappear. Or in Luke’s words: “we’ve been removing more and more layers of abstraction between the person and the content in the tasks and activities they want to accomplish.”

Consider command-line coding–typing in commands and “if/then” statements to get the computer to do anything–a “fully abstracted” user experience. The creation of a GUI made the experience less abstract, with file folder systems and menus full of choices, but it still required unintuitive interactions like dragging discs to the trash can to eject them. Take, for example, photos: In the typical GUI, you’re still clicking and dragging icons of photos, not full graphic representations of the photos themselves.

Which brings us to the latest generation of UI, “Natural User Interfaces” (NUIs) that remove another crucial layer of abstraction. Luke, like most UX minds these days, cites the iPad as the most popular current representation of that.

“There is a lot of conversation around Apple’s iPad. It doesn’t really have a window system, doesn’t have any kind of control panel, it doesn’t have a hierarchical folder system…it doesn’t have all these layers of abstractions that keep you away from the content.”

Luke uses the iPad photo experience as an example.

“You are literally interacting with the content…You want the photo? there’s the photo. Move the photo, touch the photo, re-size the photo, spin the photo…”

He also pointed out that this kind of NUI is likely to catch on, due to Apple’s considerable touch-screen user-base, as well as pure economics. “Jeff Dachis said that everything that can be digital, will be digital, because it’s faster, easier and cheaper. It allows you to do so much more with it.”

A published author, it’s only natural that Luke would cite books as another example. “I love holding a book and flipping through it, but it sucks for searching. It’s terrible for sharing. It’s actually pretty bad for annotation and recall as well. It doesn’t take advantage of all these things that the digital realm can do to make it better. Which is why I think a lot of these new interfaces are so exciting; they bring that power.”

The Next Level of UX: You’re Soaking In It!

What’s next after touch-screen interfaces? The real world, of course. Luke has named the next wave of UX “first person user interfaces,” that reduce abstraction further by bringing digital materials into the real world via contextual interfaces like GPS and RFID.

“The devices you [already] have are sensor-rich enough that they understand the context of where you are. Mobile phones are an early indicator of this. They’ve got GPS, they have a compass, they know where you are and what direction you are facing, so they can remove all the things in between you and the space you are in and really bring information to you that’s relevant right then and there.

“[Let’s say] there’s something [nearby] that has an RFID tag. I can get information about that object without having to go through these layers of operating system.”

Author William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.” Luke Wroblewski sees a future where objects become open books, books become digital objects, and digital objects become easier to use than ever. And yes, it’s happening now. All in all, his take on the future is as interesting—and unexpected—as the man himself.


Thanks to David Gomez-Rosado for his assistance with this interview.