Peter Merholz: The Want Magazine Interview

An interview I conducted for the now-defunct Want Magazine, back in Spring of 2010.

Here’s the secret to a great interview: find a savvy subject, ask him or her the right questions, and stay out of the way. Lob in your pitches and let that person across from you swing for the fences.

Such was my interview with Peter Merholz, co-founder and co-president of Adaptive Path. Peter has the unique ability to speak in paragraphs—meaty ones, with continuity and coherence and a minimum of “um”s. Interviewing him saves on transcription because there are so few carriage returns.

It doesn’t hurt that Merholz has worked in interactive media since the early-90s CD-Rom days, served as a designer at the estimable Studio Archetype, and in 2001, co-founded Adaptive Path, arguably the first consultancy devoted to User Experience research, development, and training. Plus, legend has it he coined the term “blog.”

We ventured to ‘Path’s South Park offices to talk with Merholz about the dominance of Apple, the triumph of the Wii, what the next wave of Personal Computing might be, and much more.

Want Magazine: Adaptive Path has been around since about 2001. Would you consider yourself the first agency or provider of this type?

Peter Merholz: We were probably the first agency that specifically offered services around user experience. Other agencies had user experience as part of a larger set of capabilities they provided–Organic, Razorfish, Studio Archetype, where I worked during the first wave–but they were design firms, and user experience was a part of what they offered. Adaptive path was pretty much the first agency that focused on user experience and not just usability; that would be the other distinction. There were usability firms, but not really user experience firms.

When we began, we focused on customer research, then information architecture and interaction design. We’ve expanded to include product strategy. So [we’re] going earlier in the process to help clients. And then farther down the process, and to visual design, and prototype engineering.

The other thing that’s probably changed is in 2001, we were focused solely on the web. Now, we’ve worked in mobile. We work in embedded device software. We’ve even done retail environment design. So we’ve expanded the platforms on which we are doing this type of “experience design” work.

I noticed from your writing and from what I’ve seen on the Adaptive Path Blog is that one of the services Adaptive Path provides is “experience strategy.” How do you create a successful experience strategy?

One of the things that we found missing when we were working was a good understanding of why [our clients] were doing what it is they were doing. They would often have a set of functional requirements, some type of brief that they were meant to execute on…and we would start asking questions, and there weren’t answers to them. So we developed this capability or methodology around discovering an experience strategy.

An experience strategy is meant to be another way of thinking about product strategy. But instead of simply as a go-to-market strategy, or what are the market segments we’re trying to hit, and all that stuff, what is the experience we want to deliver? What is the feeling we want to create through the device? How are we articulating that? Is there an experience vision for the device, or service that we can be living up to? Experience strategy, for us, is defining and articulating the desired end-experience early on, so that your subsequent design work has a focus.

With an experience strategy, the way you solve those design problems are organized and coherent, because there’s an understood common objective towards what it is you’re trying to deliver.

It sounds like what you have is a way of building in or baking in the outside-in experience that I’ve heard user experience experts talk about.

Right. It’s very much a response to what is typical from strategy, which tends to be very inside-out: “Here’s who we are, and what we want to put out into the world. Here are the capabilities we have.” [For instance], a technology-driven company will have a very capabilities-driven strategy: “Here’s the features and functionality that we’ve developed. Let’s put it in a product and put it out in the world whether or not people want them.”

A more marketing-driven organization will have a more brand-driven strategy: “Here’s who we want to be seen as in the world,” and that will drive it.

The key difference with experience strategy is it begins by trying to understand what it is that customers want–what is it customers are asking for from this interaction with your company?–and use that to drive the strategy. Use that as the set of key touch points to think about how to organize the design work moving forward.

So it’s a way of insisting upon those learnings, making sure that that stuff is hard-wired into the product.

Exactly. Yeah. There’s a way of thinking about it, a visual way of thinking about it, at least when it comes to software that we use. A very simplified way of thinking about it. But if you think of software as a set of concentric circles. You’ve got at the outermost circle, user interface. The next circle is logic, the programming. And the core is data. And too often organizations focus on what they have at the core, and then just figure out how to express that out. They start with the technology.

What we argue is that customers don’t care about what’s in the center. All the customer sees is the interface. And everything else to them is magic. They shouldn’t expect to be expected to know how it works.

What we’re saying is because of that, you want to start with the customer as well, thinking about what is that experience that they’re looking for. And design from the outside in. Let the desired experience, and the desired interface drive the software and drive the data that you have, instead of doing it the other way.

Now this is something you referenced heavily in a book that you wrote for O’Reilly.

Yes. Four of us here at Adaptive Path wrote a book called Subject to Change: Creating Great Products and Services for an Uncertain World. That’s a mouthful in the subtitle. This book was really an attempt on our part to articulate our philosophy about how to do product and service design. It’s not a book of methods or step-by-step. It’s really trying to help impart a mindset that organizations can take in that helps them think about their problems in a way that we think will be successful in what we refer to as “an uncertain world.”

The idea that the world is getting smaller because of communication. The idea that you’ve got microchips embedded in everything, and products are getting much more complex. There’s a lot of confusion and craziness happening in industry. So an obvious one right now is media. The media industry is totally in an uproar. Whether it’s the music industry getting Napster-ized, whether it’s the newspaper industry getting all its revenues taken away by Craigslist. What’s happening now with publishing? Is the iPad going to save publishing? There’s the fact that you could consider Google a media company because it actually generates all of its money from advertising, which is a media revenue model.

So there’s confusion out there and things are changing really rapidly. We wrote the book to articulate how companies can react appropriately, which is to step back and, starting with the customer, figure out what it is people are trying to get down. Figuring out what it is that people want, and then gear the work that you’re doing to deliver on that.

Beyond the textbook definition, what is user experience to you?

Here at Adaptive Path, we’ve been shifting–to a certain degree–away from “User Experience,” and towards “Experience Design.”…We actually think of User Experience in the way that Don Norman [who coined the term] originally intended it, but which kind of got lost. User Experience became essentially a synonym for user interface. People didn’t realize that there was any difference between the two.

“Originally, Don’s conception of user experience was to think about the entire experience the user is having with the product, from the packaging, opening up the packaging, taking out the manual, reading the manual, turning on the machine, installing software…All of that he considered the user experience: not just the software interface, but every step in what you also now hear of as “The customer’s journey.” [It’s about] all of those steps–and thinking intentionally about delivering greatness at each of those steps.

This is something that Apple still does today. If you buy an Apple product, starting from going into an Apple store now…and the interactions you have with the people there, buying the product, taking it home. The famous Apple un-boxing experience that no one has been able to match. Opening up, let’s say it’s a laptop, turning it on. There’s a lot to guide you through the initial installation and setting up your user account, etc. Transferring stuff over from a prior machine, etc. All of that I would consider user experience.

Is it possible for, especially for architects of user experience, to manufacture WANT? To create desire in a product or service, either in the initial the purchase or conversion, or in the continued use of the product?

So you asked a yes-or-no question. The answer to which is yes. But I’ll try to expand further.

The thing that we can’t manufacture are needs. And I think it’s important to distinguish between needs and wants. Because I think from a more traditional marketing standpoint, there’s been a lot of belief that you could create needs.

You can’t create needs. You can influence how people respond to those needs. You can try to shape people’s approach to addressing those needs, but you can’t create needs. But I think you can, to a certain degree, manufacture want. I’m hesitant to use Apple as an example again, but they’re probably the best case of this. If you think about, particularly with their more consumer electronics devices, like the iPhone [or] iPad. They’ve created a want, right? People waited in line to buy an iPhone. And I think that’s a demonstration of an ability to create that want.

In Appreciation of the Wii

PM: I think with the Wii, Nintendo created a want, a desire that people might not have known is there. People have a need for play, for fun, and perhaps the other systems, the Xbox 360, the Sony Playstation weren’t tapping into it, because they’re too complex. But here’s this device, here’s this system, that allows you to tap into that need that you have in a way that feels right to you. And again, creates that want, whether it was the Wii itself, and the balance board, and all these types of tools.

For us, the Nintendo Wii is a remarkable case study of experience design realizing a whole new market. Realizing a whole new play space in the market, away from the hard core gamers, that had been simply ignored. No one thought those people wanted to play games. It turns out they did–they just didn’t want to play the hard core gamer games. They wanted to play lighter-weight, more casual games. Games that didn’t involve just sitting there and twiddling your thumbs. Games that maybe used your whole body. Games that encouraged social engagement in the room. That was an identification of want on Nintendo’s part that they met brilliantly.

Were they playing on the (relatively) universal needs of play and escape, and then creating want around those with this frictionless interface and the ease of use?

I think, yeah. Essentially they recognized–thinking about it more from an MBA standpoint here—they couldn’t compete in the product category in the way they had before. Both Microsoft and Sony had decided that the way they were going to compete was more technology, the latest technology, more polygons. Sony put a Blu-ray player in there. They were going to shove more crap in there.

Nintendo had actually lost the prior generation’s battle. The GameCube was a failure, compared to PlayStation 2 and the original Xbox. People thought Nintendo was an also-ran. And they decided, We’re going to try something radically different. Maybe it won’t work, but we’re going to try something radically different.

The hardware in the Wii is almost identical to the hardware in the GameCube. It’s just a bare leveling-up. But they recognized that there was this opportunity with a new controlling mechanism, with the accelerometer and the little camera in it, that they could have radically different game play. But the cost of goods for them was remarkably low, because the stuff in the Wii remote, an infrared camera and an accelerometer, aren’t that expensive. The hardware in the console itself is last generation’s hardware, so that’s not expensive.

So they were able to take essentially existing piece parts and bring them together in a really revolutionary way by thinking about how they could deliver a different experience for gamers–and realize a whole new market of, or tap into a previously untapped market of potential gamers. One of the things that we love about the Nintendo Wii case study as it were is that when the Xbox 360 launched, and when the Sony PlayStation 3 launched, both of them cost more to build than they were able to price them for. So both of them were loss leaders. And that was pretty typical in video games.

Sell the razor cheap and make it back on the blades.

Exactly. So the Xbox 360, they lost $125 per sale and Sony lost like $250 per sale thinking they were going to make it up with the licensing on the games on the other end. The Nintendo Wii actually made $100 profit per sale on the hardware alone, because they were using the last generation’s hardware. They were able to charge less: $250 compared to Xbox 360 and PlayStation, which were $400 and $500 [respectively]. They were able to charge less and still make a profit. And their insight was by creating a whole new experience we might be able to realize again, tap into this untapped market. And it proved true. It proved remarkably and wildly successful. The Wii has by far outsold Xbox 360 or the PlayStation 3.

Making The Product The Brand

Marketing and advertising are not what Adaptive Path does per se, but what’s your take on this: How does advertising and marketing contribute towards instilling want in a consumer?

I have a very mixed view of marketing and advertising. Because much marketing and advertising tries very hard to instill want, but deals with the service of a crappy product or a crappy service. So you might have great marketing and advertising, but if it’s handing you off to something lame, how meaningful was it? And all that might do is it might get somebody in the door, but then the product experience will be so bad that they just drop off. They never come back.

There are some interesting examples of tying marketing and advertising into a larger experience. Probably the best one I can think of involves the launch of the iPhone. If you remember, back after they announced iPhone at Macworld in January–but it didn’t launch until June–they had a set of ads. All the ads were was a shot of an iPhone and someone using it. And so what that’s doing is that is essentially serving as a manual of how to use this new technology. Because iPhone introduced some new interaction paradigms. There’s no buttons except for the home button. There’s swipe gestures. There’s multi-touch and pinch & zoom gestures. And so one of the things that Apple needed to do was get people comfortable with these ideas before they would start using them. And they ended up using these ads to do so.

Apple’s in a rarified position, because clearly all of this stuff, the advertising, marketing, product development, all rolls up to one man. But what it points out is marketing and advertising that isn’t being considered as part of this larger product development process is being given short shrift. Marketing and advertising needs to be considered at the same time as you’re developing the product.

That’s where for me the customer orientation from the outset is helpful, because it can also help the marketing and advertising better understand who it is that you’re trying to engage? What are the things they are concerned with? How can we communicate that to them meaningfully? I think when done well, marketing and advertising…can become that first touch-point in the customer journey. It introduces people to it, and then hands them off to, say a retail store where they can have some hands-on experience. And then they buy it. And then they have the un-boxing experience. And then they use it. But…that kinetic energy was built up with that initial impression that they got through a good advertising campaign that was germane to the whole product experience.

But too often, advertising is considered long after a product’s been developed: “Okay, now we need to market it.” And it’s considered separately from the product. It doesn’t really dovetail into that desired product experience.

Another company that is doing an interesting job in this regard is Southwest Airlines. I just flew Southwest recently. If you remember the Southwest Airline campaign, they use that “bing.” “You’re now free to move about the country,” which they get from inside the airplane’s “bing.” “You’re now free to move about the cabin.”

So, when you check in at the gate for Southwest Airlines, they run your boarding pass under their bar code scanner. It makes that same “bing” noise as you hear in the ad and as you hear on the plane. I thought that was really interesting. It’s pretty loud, so it’s very purposeful. It’s not just some computer beep. They’re making an attempt to tie together these different threads of the experience. Southwest is a company that I hold up as an exemplar of how to do experience design right. They figured out a lot of these elements. And so that’s clearly very purposeful, not accidental. So that’s another one where you’re tying together, again, not thinking about marketing and advertising as something separate, but just as the first step of a customer’s journey of engaging with your business.

It reminds me of what I experienced working in advertising, where every agency claimed to offer “360 degree branding.” For most ad agencies, that meant “We’ve got a TV division, we’ve got an interactive division. We’ve got this, that, and the other,” to extend your brand into every advertising medium. But it really should extend more towards customer management, customer service, and of course use of the products themselves.

The problem for me is that the marketers did it from this very brand[-driven] orientation–very inside-out…you might have the same logos and identities around, but that’s only part of the experience…We need to make sure that our brand is reflected appropriately on, in the marketing channels, at certain touch points, etc., without really an interest in the outside in orientation. What is it that customers want?

I want to get back to user experience vis-à-vis computing. in a recent post on the Adaptive Path blog, you suggested the iPad may be “the best computing interface for communication and consumption.” Can you elaborate on that?

Yes. If you look at the history of computing, it’s gone through stages. And it’s really the history of personal computing. I’ve been involved almost from the beginning in that I had an Apple 2e when I was a kid, the first commercially successful personal computer. And the Apple 2 used essentially a text-based, command-line interface. And text-based interfaces were fine. command line interfaces were fine, when computers were primarily used for Calculation (the first “C” of Merholz’s “Five C’s” of personal computing”).

But what happened is, [these computers] started going into people’s homes. People couldn’t spend thousands of dollars on a fancy calculator. So these computers were being asked to do other things. Word processing. Spreadsheets. Desktop publishing. And what you get is, instead of Calculation, you now have this new “C,” of Creation.

The problem is that the text-based interface we were using with Apple 2’s or IBM PCs is not really a good Creation interface. Because what you’re seeing on the screen isn’t what you’re getting if you say, print it out. So that led to the Graphical User Interface (GUI), made again commercially available by Apple through the Macintosh. This idea of WYSIWYG: What You See Is What You Get. So you now have a user interface tailored to how people were using the computer, which was to create things. Create documents, create banners in PrintShop, or in PhotoShop. It was about making stuff.

Then what happened is, these computers started getting on a network. Whether it was dial up or Ethernet, you started plugging them into a network and into the internet. And the uses shifted again, so people weren’t spending nearly as much time creating things on their computer as they were doing one of two things. Communicating, whether it was over email, instant messenger, or more recently things like Skype. Or Consumption. By Consumption, I mean consuming media. Reading web pages. Watching YouTube videos. Listening to music. So, if you were to look at your own use of a computer, at least outside of work, what are you doing with it? Most people are spending their time communicating or consuming.

The problem is, we’re using an interface paradigm that was designed for Creation. WYSIWIG isn’t all that meaningful in a Communication or Consumption mode. It’s a mismatch of paradigms. In fact, I think there’s something about what’s called the WIMP GUI (Windows Icons Menus Pointers) interface, that again was tailored well to Creation, and falls apart when you’re dealing with the flow of Communication, or the desired lack of interruption in Consumption.

That’s where I think the iPad is interesting.

iPad: The Consumption Engine

PM: [With the] iPad, you don’t have a mouse anymore. You don’t necessarily have the keyboard. There is a soft keyboard, but it’s a very direct experience that you’re now having with the device, which, from a consumption standpoint, it’s far and away the best. You have a fuller screen when it comes to video. You’ve got this almost ideal reading interface now. You can hold it one hand. You can use gestures to move around, swipe pages on a book, or whatever.

I think they’ve nailed the Consumption. Communication is something that it’s not clear to me they’ve hit. I think the tell-tale aspect there is–they recognized it but weren’t able to go all the way–with a front-facing video camera. It turns out that they have software hooks for a front-facing video camera. People have been mucking around in the developer code and saw that there were some plans there. And someone got some, looks like some type of initial prototype fabrication of an iPad, took it apart and saw that at the top above the screen there was a space for a camera.

But when they announced it in the event in January, none of that was mentioned. Not even addressed.

You wrote about this not long ago, and your take on it was price point.

Price point: this is another aspect of experience design that tends to not get considered. My guess–no one has said this–is that there is a mantra within Apple, probably Steve [Jobs]’s in particular, that they had to at least have an iPad they could sell for less than $500. That was a magic price point, in order to make it a truly mass-consumable good. And when they took out everything they needed to take, when they left in everything they needed to have in there–Wi-Fi connectivity, touch screen, certain video capabilities, and graphics chips or whatever it is that they had to have just to have the right base experience–they got to a point where they had maxed out what they could put in there and still keep it below a certain price.

So, my assumption is it got booted for that reason. I think they’re missing out on this huge opportunity to really make it a Communication device. You can use email on iPad. You can type on the thing. But email is a communication artifact of what computers could do. That was how you could communicate with a computer. I know in my personal experience, you don’t want to extrapolate too much from any individual’s experience, but we’re seeing, with Skype, both Skype audio and Skype video, these things are taking off.

We think of Communication in the prior paradigms of email or instant messaging, but that’s not necessarily how it’s going to be. And I think a Communication tool that addresses that appropriate flow of Communication and takes advantage of current technologies, such as a front-facing camera, will really be able to tap into this fifth “C” of computing, Communication (I actually left out one of the “C”s, which is Cataloging, databases and stuff. Probably not worth going into now).

And the iPad, there’s nothing better than this, but it didn’t quite get there. And the other thing that I find strange about iPad, and who knows, I might live to regret this interview, is how much effort they put into maintaining Creation. There’s document creation. They re-designed the whole Apple iWorks suite, Pages and Numbers, to work in iPad. And I don’t quite get it. Again, we’ve got a tool that does creation very well. It’s called the Personal Computer. Whether it’s a Mac or a PC. What we need is a tool that does Consumption and Communication really well. And the iPad is really damn close. It’s the closest thing out there. But it’s almost like they couldn’t quite let go of that legacy of creation. They couldn’t quite embrace what’s coming.

This might prove to be an interstitial product. [Maybe] iPad 2.0 gets that front facing camera. With the app store, you can have whatever apps, whether they’re Creation, etc. But I’m all but certain what people will actually do with it is consume media, whether it’s movies, TVs or reading. And communicate with people.

The other thing they’ll do is play games. Gaming is a whole separate parallel track when it comes to computing. What I realized as I was thinking about this is, no matter what you give people, whether it was a command line interface, a graphic GUI interface, or some iPad, iPhone interface, they will figure out how to make games from it. I think that just taps into that deep seeded human desire to play.

You have these five “C”s that you’ve just outlined. You’ve also gather those categories under three waves. There’s just about two “C”s per wave, if I remember correctly.

One to two.

You consider the iPad and its ilk as exemplary of the third wave.

[The iPad is] the first computing device that’s really addressing that third wave of Consumption and Communication.

What do you think the fourth wave will be?

I’m about to go to South by Southwest where I’m going to be monitoring a panel called “Beyond the Desktop: Embracing New Interaction Paradigms.” And in there, there might be some of the fourth wave stuff. One of the people speaking is a gentleman named David Merrill, who’s the creator of a technology called Siftables, which are these little computers. They’re about an inch square on an side. And the point is to have a lot of them. It’s like interactive Legos. They can talk to each other. They have screens on them. They have accelerometers. And they have infrared monitors.

And so what it is, they know where they are in relationship to one another. So you get this wholly different way of thinking about communicating. When you think about it very physical, small, and compiled. What happens when you’ve got 15 of these on a table talking to each other in strange ways? And it allows for social interaction: you can have five, and I can have five, and he can have five, and we could all be playing with these and interacting in new ways.

[Also speaking is] Johnny Lee, who became most famous for a set of YouTube videos he did around the Wii mote and hacking the Wii mote, create new interfaces with it. He’s at Microsoft now, working on Project Natal, which is about full body interfaces: Minority Report-type stuff, where you’re using your hands. It’s gesture-based, and it’s immersive. Something coming from that might be this fourth wave. I don’t know what that will be. Communication still tends to be one-to-one…You and I can’t easily engage with an iPad together.

We see with video game consoles, they’re creating something that multiple people can use the same thing at a time. But what we’re seeing now with this next set of computing paradigms, whether it’s things like siftables, or an immersive Minority Report-type of thing, allowing multiple people to engage with the same stuff simultaneously in the same space as opposed to across spaces and going back and forth. Where it’s not my computer anymore. It’s just a resource that we’re all engaging in and drawing from.


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