Dan Saffer: The Want Magazine Interview

Interview conducted for Want Magazine in Spring of 2010.

Dan Saffer is a man with strong opinions, varied interests, and quite possibly, a distaste for the term “User Experience.”

Mind you, Saffer is far from “anti-usability.” His track record as an Experience Design Director at Adaptive Path, a founder/principal of design consultancy Kicker Studio, and the writer of Designing Gestural Interfaces, should put paid to that. He merely feels the term, when applied to an industry, bites off more than it can chew.

We traveled to SF’s South Park neighborhood to interview him in Kicker Studio’s echo-rich, dog-friendly loft offices. It was late on a Friday, he’d had a crazy week and casually nursed a glass of Bourbon as we talked about UX, robotics, magazines on tablets, and how good usability should help us forget that computers areeverywhere.

User Experience, Defined

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

Dan Saffer: What is User Experience? Well, there’s a lot of different ways of thinking about it…User Experience for me is kind of the overall picture, what used to be called “creative direction” is now called User Experience, because it contains everything from architecture to industrial design to visual design to interactive design to sound design. A very kind of holistic umbrella term that encompasses all of those things under it.

All those disciplines to me are in service to an overall experience. To me there aren’t very many actual user experience designers. There are people who are doing different disciplines sometimes at different times under this user experience banner.

It sounds like what you’re talking about is it’s a much bigger tent than it used to be–so big that you don’t find people that have a skill set that encompasses it anymore. I think that’s definitely true. It’s very hard to be very good at disparate fields like architecture and content strategy. There’s a pretty broad range of skill sets in there depending on the kind of product that you’re building.

If it’s an interactive product, for instance, you may have an industrial designer, you may have service designers, sound designers, all kinds of things, or if it’s a website, you may have visual designers, architects, content strategists, copy writers, all those people. So it can be very different people working at very different kinds of ways, all under User Experience.

Robotics: Keeping Us Clean and Sane

DS: The next big wave after touch and gesture is probably going to be robotics. That’s my guess, anyway.

What are you seeing at the consumer level currently that is interesting?

Currently the one that’s really out that people just adore is Roomba. That’s the one that everyone loves, everyone names them, puts stickers on them, talks to them. They really think of them as being family members. And it’s just a really kind of fascinating item.

Certainly there are other cultures, Japan, Korea, that are far, far ahead of us. Korea has a whole department of robotics, like a Ministry of Robotics or something, where they want to put robots in everyone’s home by, I think it was like 2015…Because they are facing, as we are here, a glut of people who are becoming old, who are becoming elders. And in order to care for them, they see robotics as a real solution to that.

An automated solution.

Right—do small automated tasks that are difficult, or can help provide things like security and communication…and mobility tasks that become difficult for people as they get older. So I think there’s a real growth market there that’s untapped.

We were just at CES last month, and there was a really amazing, this robot seal that they had there. It was mostly for autistic kids. And it was really beautiful. I thought it was going to be really creepy, but it was actually this really great seal that they could hold, and it purred and it felt warm. As you stroked its fur, it had touch sensors so that it really woke up and responded in a very kind of real way, and they say that it’s really great for kids with autism. That they really start to respond to it. And for elder care. People who just need comfort.

How To Build “Want” Into an Experience

DS: If something’s not usable, it’s eventually not going to be desirable, certainly not for the kinds of tools that I make. For jewelry or something, all that matters is that it’s desirable, but for interactive products, eventually if it’s not useful, you’re not going to want it, eventually. It’s going to go away.

But how do you create that desire is a really tricky and hard question. And some of it is about creating products with personality. What is the personality of the product, and how does that personality manifest itself? And is that something I want, as a consumer, in my life? Does this somehow reflect me or who I want to be? Or is it simply appealing, something that I want to spend time with?

That was what was so great about the site Mint, was that it had this really conversational tone. It had a kind of friendly, appealing, easy to understand, jargon-free persona about it that was just refreshing when it came time to think about financial service. So it was like, “Oh, this is something new, something that I would want to spend time doing…” Other banking sites may be more useful or usable, but they’re certainly not more desirable, because it feels like spending time with them is spending time doing work. It’s a chore. To slog through them and put in your data and all those kinds of things. It’s not a pleasurable experience.

The Value of Advertising and Marketing

How much importance would you put on marketing and advertising towards achieving product infatuation?

Marketing and advertising plays a huge part…And as much as we try to, as designers, there’s this reflexive, “Oh, God. Marketing and advertising.” A lot of times it is a core component of what we’re trying to do. I think one of Apple’s secret weapons over the years has been its marketing and advertising. There’s no way that Apple would have had the success that it had with the iPod and the iPhone and stuff like that without its advertising partners.

It doesn’t matter really how usable or useful something is if no one’s using it! If no one can find it, or no one’s heard about it, you can have the greatest product in the world, and it may not matter. Sites like social media sites are a perfect example of this: Unless you have enough people to populate it, it just withers on the vine. You could create the next Facebook that is so much better (and some would argue that that wouldn’t be very hard to do). But if you don’t have that core group of people, then it just doesn’t matter. And I think that’s where marketing and advertising can play that key part.

Now, certainly, designers can make it easier on them by creating products that are beautiful and display their functions in a beautiful way and are approachable and all those good things that we really strive to do.

A lot of what we do here at Kicker are new technology [projects]. People come to us and say, “We’ve got this [brand new technology]. What can you do with this? What is the product here?”

And so some of that is figuring out: what is going to make people want this thing? What’s going to drive it? And for us [our priority is], what’s the personality of it? How is that going to make people want to even think about adopting it? How am I going to try this for the first time? With new products, especially with things like touch screens and gestures, which we do a lot of, there’s this hesitation, like, “Am I going to break this thing? I’m afraid to try it because I’m going to look stupid doing it.”

But [our job is] really to make [people think], “No, it’s really fine. Just try it. It’ll be okay.”

That’s really important with new technologies in particular. Because people come to it with expectations that may or may not be met and how you’re able to meet those expectations and hopefully exceed them. Or, when the expectations aren’t met how, do you fail in a way that’s not off-putting? Failure is really a chance to product personality.

Flickr does a great job of this. When something doesn’t work, it tells you why. It offers a suggestion, like, “Hey have you tried this?” There are ways that failure can be a place to show personality.

Is Usability for Conversion, or Retention?

Is the interaction designer’s job to influence initial adoption, and purchase, or is their job to make the user experience enjoyable for the long run?

It’s definitely some of both. Alan Cooper has a great thing about this, where he says, we spend way too much time on those initial moments when people first start using it, and then we neglect all the people, once they get past that, when they’re intermediate or advanced. It’s like we’ve given them no tools, and then the product seems too simplistic for them.

So it’s a hard balance to strike. How do you give enough meat for intermediate users, which is where most people end up being, while not being too intimidating for someone coming at the site for the first time?

You have to build up a product knowledge that leads people as rapidly as you can into being intermediates. But you still have to design those [adoption] hooks into the service.

I think one of the great things about Blogger back when it started 5 or 6 years ago;  it seemed just like this FTP service. “What is this thing?” And when Jeff Veen and some of the guys at Adaptive Path [took it on], they said, okay. It’s three things. And they really aligned it, you do one step, two step, three step. And they made it so very straightforward that all of a sudden adoption just took off. Because there was this three simple steps that led you into becoming a blogger. And I think that was brilliant.

You can do those kinds of things that are basically little attractors…that really get people hooked in. And the history of that goes back ages and ages. Think about old video arcade [games]—they would tease you as you walked by the video game. It would be playing a little movie. And you’d be like, “Hey, that looks interesting. I can put a quarter in and start to shoot or move the joystick around.” That little attraction affordance to draw people in is an important piece to design.

Building for “The Long Wow”

DS: Now certainly that’s not all you should design. Then you get into the meat of, “Okay, now you’re here, you’ve got all this. You have tasks that you need to do.”…No matter how entertaining it is, you still have to get stuff done.

One of the things that interaction designers can do is what Brandon Schauer calls “The Long Wow,” where over time, you keep building in these things that you discover, not your first time using it, but your fiftieth time using it, your hundredth time using it. Those things that are really important over time, so you keep getting reinvested in the service, because they keep giving you something. They keep rewarding you for being a long time user. If you can think about them and really design them in from the beginning, It’s a really great thing.

I mean, obviously, some of that stuff comes after people have used the product for a long time…People start to suggest things: “Why don’t you have ‘x’?” Or, “This would be really helpful,”…which is of course it’s own danger. And then you start adding stuff, and the product can drift away from what it was originally done for.

The “long wow” you just described is very similar to what makes a good multi-level game. Everything from the shelf appeal to the hooks that you’re talking about. I think there’s so much that interaction designers can learn from game designers. There’s always that idea of a reward. What am I leveling up to? Or, what am I resourcing here? In some cases it might be money. In some cases it’s time. In some cases it’s effort…It’s interesting.

Because…the things game designers think about first are the emotion, and “What is the aesthetic appeal of this?” And then they say, “What are the game mechanics that can cause that?”…More thinking like a game designer, thinking, “What’s the aesthetic appeal? What’s the emotional appeal that we’re trying to do, and then how can we start to structure the product to achieve those goals?” Is an interesting way to start thinking about designing products.

On Mag+ and Touch-Screen Magazines

There’s a project that you guys have worked on recently, the Mag+ demo. That is something that we’re particularly interested in, especially because we’re a magazine entity, and we’re interested in moving to a format like that.

Mag+ is a really interesting project. It’s with the magazine publisher Bonnier, who are Swedish and they do every kind of magazine you can think of, from cooking magazines to Field and Stream, to PhotographyPopular Science…this pretty wide range of magazines.

They worked with our friends in London, a company called BERG, and they did kind of a concept video of how magazines might work in this kind of new world of e-readers. But they didn’t want the [usual] kind of e-reader experience. And they didn’t want the .pdf experience. They really wanted to capture what it was like to read an actual magazine. Because magazines have evolved over the last 250 years, 300 years, something like that.

Actually one of the first things I did when we got the product was actually go back and read the first magazine.


Yeah, that was the first thing. And surprisingly, there were a lot of the same things. There was still a table of contents, there was still an appendix. There were still lots of short articles, those kinds of things.

So…our job was actually to take that concept and really prototype it and make it into something that would actually work. That would actually go ahead and would eventually be built and that had buy in from all the magazine’s editorial staffs at these magazines and from readers. That it was something people actually wanted to sit down and curl up and read these magazines like they would a normal magazine, a physical paper magazine right now.

That’s why right now currently our walls in the studio are just covered with magazines that are torn all to bits. It looks like a magazine stand has exploded in here or something like that. But [we’re] looking at all the content types that we needed to support. Everything from table of contents to long articles to short articles to timelines to graphics to advertising to classified ads. All different kinds of content that we really had to support.

And then we had to say, what are some of the–what’s it like to actually do page turning in this kind of digital world. Do we still have to have a physical page turn? How can you tell when you’re done reading an article?…We really wanted to keep some of the structure of magazines. And so some of that was finding out what that structure was.

One of our mandates was that it didn’t feel like a piece of software. It wasn’t something that you booted up and had to download and read this whole thing. It wasn’t a chore. It was a magazine. It was something that you’re going to flip through as you’re killing time, or you just want a little bit of information, you want to immerse yourself in it. You don’t want to think about all the parts of it, or how do I then flip a page, how do I do all these…You just want to read the magazine.

It’s really kind of a fascinating project. How do you turn something that was previously, I don’t want to say dumb, but without the digital intelligence, and how do you turn that into something with a kind of intelligence—but not ruin the experience? How do you translate the experience in a way that doesn’t feel wrong, that doesn’t feel like work, it doesn’t feel like I’m reading a .pdf.

So that’s been the real challenge with it. And we’re just finishing up prototyping right now. So I imagine by the time people hear this… Bonnier will have released it.

What’s the next step for it? Would Bonnier offer it as hardware? Would they offer it as an app for the iPad, or…

I think they’re figuring that out. My guess is, from what I know…that it’s something that will be delivered on various platforms as some kind of pay in service.

That being said, there certainly could be [opportunities] where they could sell their own reader…maybe there [should be] a special Bon Air reader…that’s customized for magazine reading specifically. That maybe has things like, it can get wet! We found that an amazing number of people read in the bathtub.

On His Book, Designing Gestural Interfaces

I read an interview where you said that you wrote Designing Gestural Interfaces because at the time, there was no substantial resource on this particular subject.

Right. Because I started writing it, probably…two-and-a-half, three years ago…Prior to that I had mostly done web work. But I suddenly started finding myself doing a lot more touch screen work…So I started trying to research the subject, and was finding it very difficult to get good solid information about it…just the basic stuff. Like, how big should the touch target be on the screen for someone to reasonably tap. And I couldn’t find it.

So I said, “There’s clearly this hole in the market.” And I just set about writing the book. Because I knew that if I didn’t write it, someone else would.

The Rise of Touch Screens

DS: It’s an interesting time because we’re definitely in an interaction revolution…A lot of the paradigms that we’ve used for 40 years now, things like cut-and-paste, we still have them around. The laptop’s not going anywhere quite yet. But now we have this new language on top of it that is the language of gestures and the language of touch.

So projects like Mag+, a couple of years ago, would have been totally different. You would have had buttons on the side like you did on the early version of the Kindle. And that’s how you would be flipping pages. You couldn’t just swipe and flip a page. You just, it wasn’t going to happen. And now it just seems like a natural thing.

I mean, granted, touch screens have been around for almost 40 years at this point, but it’s really taken that long for the technology and the market to mature to the point where—getting back to that desirability thing—where people really want them. They see the value in it and can then say, “Wow. I want that in my stuff.”

And now we’ve almost gone overboard with it. Now it’s like, “Let’s put touch screens in everything. Your toilet now has a touch screen on it.” Someone actually called me about having a touch screen in a shower.

The less said about it the better. But it’s interesting to think you can have computing power in places where you never had it before. And that’s both good and bad, of course. Why does my shower have to be invaded by my email? It doesn’t. I like that five minutes in the shower where I don’t have to think about anything.

Fear of a Blank Tablet

DS: [With touch-screens], there is this kind of like, “As soon as I’m touching it, I’m already doing something. Oh wow. I didn’t have to click on it. I’m touching it. Now something’s happening.” Which is both good and bad.

There is definitely this odd fear factor, and it’s kind of a physiological one. Some research figured out that people are actually afraid of being electrocuted as they touch electrical objects. It’s like a fight-or-flight thing. And getting people over that is a major concern. Which is why that really nice slide to unlock thing on the iPhone is really nice. It’s this really simple thing like, “If I can do that…” “Oh! It unlocks!” and “Oh, there’s some other stuff here I can touch…”

UX: The Front Line of Modern Life

Do you think that in this heyday of touch screens, with the iPad coming out, with Microsoft Surface, is this heralding a new era in user experience?

Yeah. It is an interesting turning point in time. Because all of a sudden, computing power is so cheap it can be disseminated everywhere. It’s on surfaces, on walls, on tables. It’s in our pockets. We’re just surrounded by it all the time.

And user experience and interaction design is playing a big role in that introduction of this new technology, what we can do with it, and how it can hopefully make our lives better—and not make our lives suddenly overburdened or crushed by information.

All those things that really could happen. We could lose all of our privacy. We could lose all these things that we now take for granted, but could easily be taken away from us, thanks to the technology that we’re trying to get people to buy.

So it’s an interesting time. And really, I kind of see user experience people being on the front line of keeping technology, and what it can do for us, really making it for human beings. And I think that the good that we can do for the world, is really make this stuff useful, usable, desirable, and not overburden us—and treat us with the dignity and respect that we should get as human beings.

It’s kind of a hard thing to [realize] when you’re in the middle of a project, and you’re cranking out these deliverables and doing your wire frames or your site map, your CAD drawings…But this stuff goes out in the world and it makes a huge difference to people. That’s why I do it, really.


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

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.

Anarchy in the UX: Engineering Desire the Malcolm McLaren Way (From Want Magazine)

An essay I wrote for the now-defunct Want Magazine. Published July 20, 2010

It feels serendipitous that, while closing our first release of Want Magazine, “The Engineering of Desire,” international attention turned towards one of its canniest practitioners.

Malcolm McLaren departed this world in April 2010, leaving behind more than just The Sex Pistols, Bow Wow Wow, and the proto-hip-hop single “Buffalo Gals.” He left a legacy that we as designers, marketers, and other UX acolytes would do well to examine.

No, seriously.

Malcolm McLaren portrait

Photo with permission by © Eva Tuerb

McLaren as UX Practitioner? “We Mean it, Man”

I can hear the flame war already. What can the life of the man who allegedly invented punk rock and brought hip-hop to Britain and suburban America teach we who design smart phone apps and touch-screen PCs?

More than you’d think. McLaren took a startup venture—consisting of four pimply youths who frequented his London fetish shop–and guided it to international recognition and a social impact that popular culture continues to reel from.

He did it by applying a fascinating mix of strategies–some, like denying customers access to his product, would lose today’s UX experts their jobs. Others, like conducting user testing and enforcing a focused product strategy, UX’s leading lights follow every day.

French Marxism Meets Kings Road Retail

From the beginning of his career, McLaren had a talent for picking up existing cultures and philosophies and re-framing them to create something new.

The latter skill came from his late-60s art-school education, where he discovered the political movement, Situationism. Founded by Marxist philosopher Guy DeBord, the Situationists advocated provocative, even absurd actions both as political statement and performance art. McLaren would eventually apply Situationist ideals to sales, management, and eventually, product strategy.

He began his career in retail. In 1972, McLaren and then-girlfriend Vivienne Westwood opened up a clothing store in London’s trendy Kings Road district called Let It Rock, selling Teddy-Boy-style-apparel like leather jackets and skin-tight trousers. Then, during a trip to New York, he discovered the DIY culture of punk rock and the hardware-heavy fashion of S/M fetish culture.

This influenced McLaren and Westwood to change the name of their store to Sex and sell leather and vinyl bondage gear. McLaren would later tell Vice Magazine, “I wanted to sell things that were normally sold in brown paper bags under the table. People were afraid to come in. It was fantastic.”

The store served as his Situationist comment on retail: “A shop in which nothing in it was for sale. I liked the contradictions of that. It turned our shop into a place that people found impossible to leave.” [Swindle Magazine]

Selling such disreputable items in a Kings Road boutique created the political volatility on which McLaren thrived. “We were raided twice by the police and went to court, but I didn’t give a damn…all the kids thought, ‘This is the coolest place on earth.’” [Vice Magazine]

The store failed to cultivate a customer base–but it built a hungry audience. McLaren would leverage this audience for his other products–not the least of which was a band, consisting of four of his most loyal non-customers.

“Cash From Chaos”

As he moved into the music industry with the Sex Pistols, McLaren continued to leverage his Situationist tendencies. He made sure every piece of media the band actually released had some element of inaccessibility–the beginnings of an anti-marketing strategy he would dub “Cash from Chaos.”

This strategy, unheard of today, had dual positive outcomes. One outcome was the creation of publicity.

The record, “Anarchy in the UK,” needed to create an eruption. After all, it was just a record and somehow that didn’t seem to be enough. I refused to put a pretty picture of a band on a cover. Instead, I instructed the marketing department to produce a plain black cover with no hole in the middle, no name, no title, no record label. Nothing. [The Guardian]

The other outcome was a targeted, passionate audience, much like the one he cultivated among the kids at his store.

EMI were not happy. How, they asked, will anyone find the record? They didn’t understand that I didn’t want just anybody to find it. I wanted only those who cared. [The Guardian]

But the chaos—and the cash—had only begun to accrue.

Sex Pistols: God Save the Queen

God Save the Queen (and the Band’s Reputation)

McLaren made it a point to keep the band away from its fans and the press—partly to maintain that sense of mystery and exclusivity; partly because the Sex Pistols were actually terrible musicians.

Creating an inflammatory image helped. The Pistols lobbed f-bombs on national television—unheard of at the time. Most infamously, during the twenty-fifth anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne, McLaren rented a boat and had the band float up and down the Thames performing “God Save the Queen” and “Anarchy in the UK.”

This offense on the media actually allowed him to keep his product under wraps, making the idea of the band more popular than their music ever could have been.

Instead of having the band play, I had them judge beauty contests. Town councilors were conducting press interviews. Whole towns and cities across the nation formed vigilante squads, not only to ban the group from playing but to prevent them from entering the city. Congregations were praying they just might self-destruct. The national debate was on. [The Guardian]

Creating this firestorm around the band, as he did with Sex, did the trick. “The fact that (people) couldn’t be at the event made the event an enigma that could never be resolved.” He told the musician Momus in 2002. “And that’s what kept the Sex Pistols on the top of the media pile for eighteen months.”

Shared Experience: Four UX Rules McLaren Followed

Keeping one’s product away from prospective buyers rarely leads to platinum sales, as it did with Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. But looking at the techniques and opinions of some of the leading minds in UX–specifically, those interviewed in Want Magazine’s Release 001–McLaren might not have been all that off-base after all.

1. Have a tightly-focused product strategy.

Take Luke Wroblewski’s interview, wherein he praises the efficacy of the single-focus product strategy:

Many times that (drive) comes from an entrepreneur who has that very, very strong desire. That personal drive to bring something to the world…is an incredibly strong focus point. I think this is why a lot of early-stage companies can deliver something new to the world.

2. Don’t Listen to your users. Watch them.

McLaren relied on user testing–or at least his version of it. He founded punk style by observing the clientele of Sex, his Kings Road boutique. He noted the ones who most frequented the store bought very little, but rather, hung out for the scene, for the style. Malcolm described them in an interview as “The dispossessed fans of David Bowie, Roxy Music, et cetra, who were looking for something of their own.”

3. Find your user’s unmet needs or wants—and meet them.

In our interview with Cordell Ratzlaff, Cisco’s Director of User-Centered Design, he mentions that “A lot of the emotional connection that people have with products goes back to satisfying a need that they didn’t even know that they had.”

As McLaren developed an understanding of what his audience wanted—even before they themselves did–he created ways to capitalize on them without compromising his product’s authenticity. Volatile publicity stunts like the Queens’ Jubilee boat trip resulted in “God Save the Queen” reaching #1 on the British pop charts–building the band’s anti-authoritarian image and moving units at the same time.

4. Cover flaws with an overall enjoyable User Experience.

The cleverest UX strategy applied by McLaren is one referenced by none other than Don Norman. In Norman’s Want interview, Norman applies it to the most un-counterculture experience around: amusement park lines. Norman points out that amusement parks can do little about the lines for their rides, and so try to make every other aspect of the park experience pleasurable.

By making the total experience a great one, people are willing to overlook the minor problems of boredom and standing in line…When something is really good and pleasurable, we do overlook the minor faults.

Which, of course is exactly what McLaren did—i.e., use a publicity smokescreen to hide the fact that the experience of watching the Sex Pistols play was actually unpleasant. While this is a strategy Norman acknowledges, it’s not one he’d have recommended.

I would hate to have that used, though, as a way of deliberately allowing ourselves to have faults and making up for it by some other thing, say by the packaging or styling.

As such, it’s unlikely that Don Norman would approve of the Sex Pistols.

Steve, Malcolm. Malcolm, Steve

McLaren melded disparate elements of culture and politics as a UX designer or strategist does with metaphors and design patterns. He knew how to create ideas at the big-picture level, and shape and lead a team that could execute on them.

Was his ability to combine fringe cultures of late-70s New York City with fashion retail to create a million-selling rock band terribly unlike today’s product innovators? Is it so different from Steve Jobs, who looked at a hotel concierge desk and thought “Genius Bar,” or Jonathan Abrams, who took a Match.com profile as his inspiration for Friendster? Can’t innovation come from anywhere, into any industry, provided it’s sufficiently fueled by passion and imagination?

If Malcolm McLaren’s career is any indication, of course it can. Part P.T. Barnum, part Fagin-esque entrepreneur, he spent his life trusting his gut and failing as often as he succeeded. Yet his successes influenced design and technology in ways most of today’s innovators can only dream of–all with a minimum of cash and resources; mostly wit, drive, and an eye for talent.

Perhaps it’s that path to DIY success where McLaren truly resonates with us in the UX field. His work permeated our culture in a way that today’s tech start-ups aspire. “If you play your cards right,” He ranted in the film The Great Rock N Roll Swindle, “You can capture the imagination of the entire world.”

by Ken Grobe Managing Editor, wantmag.com

Ken Grobe is a UI writer, editor, and award-winning copywriter. When he’s not helping Want Magazine to increase the general profile of User Experience, he writes comedy for San Francisco’s Killing My Lobster.


Thanks to David Gomez Rosado for procuring the McLaren Photo.

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 Geni.com

Luke’s favorite example of a usable, want-able web form is from a lesser-known service: Geni.com. 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.

Bill Scott: The Want Magazine Interview

Interview conducted for the April 2010 issue of Want Magazine

Yessir, there’s nothing like working for a quarterly publication in today’s fast-and-loose online media environment. The best part? Interviewing someone like Bill Scott about his company, Netflix, and then finding out three weeks before press time that he doesn’t work for Netflix anymore. Bill Scott. Yep.

Fortunately, Scott’s career and influence doesn’t start and stop with Netflix, nor even with his current position at Meebo. He’s a published author, an in-demand UX lecturer, and a heck of a nice guy. He sat down with us at the end of a busy day to talk about the evolution of UX, bidding adieu to the scroll bar, and why happy employees make better products. And yes, he did give us a look under Netflix’s big red hood. Want Magazine: So, Bill. What’s your definition of User Experience?

Bill Scott: I’ll cop out and give a couple. Because if you’re doing something that’s much more entertainment–an engaging game–then it’s much more about fun, defined in a sense of thrill and fear, and all those emotions, and you’re always climbing that ladder of challenge and success and challenge and success.

“But there’s another kind of fun—[as applied to] productivity apps…if you can get the flow, and the tool becomes transparent and visible to you and there’s a transparency to it and you get your stuff done and you feel smarter, then that’s a good user experience.

And then, in [Netflix’s] situation a good user experience is, you found a movie that you enjoyed that you didn’t know that you were going to enjoy. So…games: more directly fun. And then productivity apps are all the way out here, where it’s more like “I’m very invisible.” And [the Netflix UX] is a little bit more in-between.

Let’s talk a bit about your job at Netflix. I was surprised to hear that there are in fact two UX departments in Netflix. One is User Interface Engineering (of which you’re the director), but there’s also a UX department, where you have a director of User Experience.

Yes. Rochelle King is my counterpart. Wonderful person to work with. And [her] team is the actual UX design team. And my team is what a lot of people call the front-end engineers, the engineers that are actually putting the website together. So their skills range from, usually HTML, XML, CSS and Java script. Although I like to have people in the team that also have design sensibilities.

So why is the author of Designing Web Interfaces heading up an Engineering department?

It’s actually an interesting role, because User Experience is valued here highly at Netflix, and they like to hire people who bring a hybrid of skills. So while someone like myself could do the User Experience side, I do the User Engineering, that’s where I put my focus, but I can easily brainstorm with Rochelle. I don’t try to run the design team. She does a great job of that.

When I was at Yahoo!, I was [the Ajax Evangelist], and so it involved both the design side and the engineering side. At first I was in the core design team, and then when I launched the Yahoo! pattern library, that was design assets. But then I went over and became engineering manager for a while for a product called Yahoo! for Teachers. So I’m kind of one of those odd birds that jump back and forth between engineering and design. And I like that. I enjoy the back and forth.

We Don’t Own Red, But…” The Psychology of Creating “Want”

Can one manufacture “want” into a product or service? I think you can…One can have the right motive in doing that…persuasive experience is what we would call it.

If you understand human psychology…you can persuade a little bit better. For example, people want a big set of choices, [but] if the Paradox of Choice theory is correct, people are actually happier with fewer choices.

If you know that generally things you put up first, people are going to have a higher take on, you can manufacture a little bit of want and desire there. You can say that something’s free—and that creates this good feeling. People are drawn to that. So there are certainly things you can do.

A good book I would recommend to people is Susan Weinschenk’s book, Neuro Web Design, a very good book. She’s got some YouTube web videos also. And she talks about these things like fear of loss and other things like the paradox of choice and some experiments with that.

I think it’s like most things in life, though. If you try too hard to do something, say, superficial like that, then it becomes too apparent and it falls apart…You could really try to manipulate people with the fear and scarcity and the last minute deal, [but] it goes overboard. Because you’re just focused on that. You’re a one-trick pony.

How much importance do you think marketing and advertising have towards creating this kind of want and desire for a product? I think a lot. A lot of the success we have had [at Netflix] is because we have a great marketing group that’s got the Netflix brand out. The red envelope has been huge. It’s like this symbol of happiness people have when they get it. It’s huge for us now.

Of course, you have to envision some day in the future, [Netflix will focus more on] streaming. And…we won’t have red envelopes, which will be a sad day.

But yeah, it creates a tone. Our brand team, we don’t own red. Obviously. Nobody owns red. But we do have a red color that people do recognize as us, and we try to bring that forward.

The Responsibilities Of the Interaction Designer

What is the Interaction Designer’s job: to influence conversion or extended use? What is the interaction designer’s job, whether it’s an engineer, whether it’s a designer? Is it to make a product desirable for adoption–to influence purchaser adoption? Or is it to make it consistently enjoyable over use?

There’s kind of a tension between pure design, aesthetics, and business concerns it seems like you’re kind of getting at there. Really, at the end of the day, you can blend the two together. What we try to find is the intersection point between what’s a good user experience and also what helps the business.

Between conversions and reuse. There’s some things you can [do], surface certain things in the site…People tend to enjoy it more if you can find hidden gems and things that are more of a treasure. We don’t have hard data on that, but we have a pretty good hunch based on some data.

Then it’s a good experience–and it’s not bad for business either.

Designing Constraints

BS: From a designer, the challenge you know in hiring a design team at pretty much any web company that’s going to be successful, they can’t just be about design. The team as a whole has to be thinking about the business.

But I think [this is] one of the challenges in the design team, and I work with Rochelle on this. When she hires, I interview the designers too and I’m part of her process.

You have to find designers and engineers who enjoy living in constraints. Some designers want all the freedom, and they want to be artists really and not designers. Designers have to design for solutions. And so you have to mentally prepare people in a team to say, this is actually fun. This is a challenge. Here are the constraints that you have. Yeah, you want to fill this experience, but to win at this game, these business metrics need to move. And it’s an objective. It can be read wrong. It can be misused. But it’s an objective measure, and you can go against that.

“Happy People Design Happy Products”

But how does that affect the quality of the product and/or service that we’re talking about here? It affects it because happy people design happy products.

I heard this one company recently where they were telling me the product managers were cussing out the designers and just lambasting the engineers. This is in the valley here. What a bunch of nonsense. We all have to go home, and we have families, and live civilly. It affects our work. But if you have teams that, if the reward structure of the whole organization is around moving the business forward, everybody gets the value of that.

People that enjoy their work are going to be more creative. I just believe that. That book Driven that just came out recently talks about motivation of creatives. It’s not about the stick-and-carrot approach. It’s really about being driven by the desire to create. Now, we temper that because we have the numbers that drive the business.

It sounds like what you’re saying is that having a cohesive team or teams is the best way to create a product that people want. I think it’s a strong ingredient. I think without that ingredient, you can fall apart pretty quickly. It certainly wouldn’t stand on its own if we didn’t have the [shared] passion towards simplicity, to not just add a bunch of features. No feature is actually sacred. It can be taken away if it’s not something that’s valuable. A resource that’s not really helping our members. The objective is of the measures, business measures…web analytics is a really important part of it. Well, it’s only one piece of the puzzle, I should say, but very important.

The Future of UX

Do you see the field of UX evolving past the point we’re at now? Yeah. I really do. We’re definitely at a change point. For the last 26 years, we’ve had the mouse, we’ve had a lot of things that go with that.

It’s interesting. I was thinking about this the other day. My first introduction to the mouse and the scroll bar was a Mac in 1984…and I was ecstatic that I could actually scroll back and forth and see my Mac Basic program and not just roll off the window. I could actually scroll back and forth.

And I thought it was quite appropriate that if anybody took the scroll bar away from me, it would be Apple because they gave it to me to begin with. I guess 26 years seemed kind of poetic.

They giveth, and finally they taketh away. [Now], you just flick with your finger.

We’re at kind of one of those watershed moments. Just like the iPhone ushered in a lot of stuff, I think the iPad will too. If it’s not the iPad itself that just takes off and sells zillions of units, it will definitely be devices like that. And I think because it changes the game around the input device.

I’m not saying touch takes over everything. But certainly as we move that way, it begins to change a lot of the way we think about things. And if you design an interface, you would never design an interface with a lot of scrolled areas, because the scrollbar can get to be really ugly. Visually dense. But you can actually have lots of sliding panels in a touch space. And, so, it just changes a bunch of things around. The physicality. The iPad’s going to [change things] a lot.

Whenever you change the assumptions like that, it’s great for all of us, because we rethink things. And even if we don’t end up where we thought we would end up by doing that, even if it’s not the iPad, the thing that changes the world, it certainly starts changing the direction.

So these are really interesting times. Because we’re getting interfaces into lots of places they haven’t been. Mobile space, even phones.

Are you talking strictly about gestural interfaces? I’m talking about gestural, the natural user interfaces, but I’m also talking about even on the TV–it’s left-right-up-down, so that’s not a great interface yet.

Netflix’s “Secret Sauce” (Ingredients: 2)

BS: It’s interesting. The secret sauce to the user experience here is two things that people don’t think of. Well, one of them they probably do. One of them that most people don’t think of [is that] the goodness of the user experience has more to do with the service than the site. Because if you become a member of Netflix, and you get a movie that you enjoy, you have love in your heart for Netflix.

And it’s true! When I first came to Netflix…and I started going out and speaking, I got a lot more love. I got love [when I would speak] for Yahoo!…but I got a lot more gushing [with Netflix].

And it was like, okay, wait a minute. I know the warts of our site, so I’m like, “It’s not perfect or anything. There’s things that can be better.” But because the service is good, the whole experience is good, then it transfers some goodness to the site, even if it may not be there. So that’s one.

The other is, the devotion to the analytical side of usability. I come from the Alan Cooper kind of world, not quite as extreme as Alan. I don’t believe that. “Good design is self-evident,” he would say.

One of the things that drew me to Netflix was because I was always a design-by-hunch kind of guy, I had a knack for design. I wanted to bring [numbers] into it.

Around here, our metrics’ are simply around acquisition—membership. getting people in. But, thinking of the member side, how do you measure retention? You can’t, until it’s too late. So you measure it by leading indicators.

Those leading indicators can be things like consumption. You can know if somebody added something. And now you can [measure] plays [of streaming media]. And so we’ve got metrics around that. And then there’s also “taste input”—star rating. If you rate something, that’s an important metric. And those things all tie together.

Because when you get into the consumer world, most people out there are not like us. I don’t know if you’ve seen that Google video, “What is a browser?” If you haven’t, check it out. The Google Chrome team goes out and surveys people in Times Square, and I think it’s 8% of the people surveyed that day could articulate what a browser is. “Oh, it’s Google, it’s search, it’s whatever.” And that’s who we’re building websites for.

Cordell Ratzlaff: The Want Magazine Interview

From the now-defunct Want Magazine. Article Published May 14, 2010.

If all Cordell Ratzlaff had done was design the interface for Apple’s OSX, he’d still have a place in the pantheon of UX luminaries. But in the ten years since that ground-breaking design, he’s gone on to high-profile positions at Frog Design, a variety of independent projects, and most recently, Director of User-Centered design at Cisco.

Ratzlaff stands about 6’4”, with a square jaw and deep-set eyes that convey intensity even during polite conversation. It’s easy to imagine losing an argument to him. His long track record illustrates his success in getting testy engineers and egotistical designers to play nicely at some of this industry’s most successful companies. And in his three-years-and-counting at Cisco, they’ve gone from a company that focused more on ship dates than user experience, to one that recently won a design award for their WebEx Meeting Center.

He gave us a couple of hours of his day to chat about User Experience, how to make a product desirable, and how to teach a 65,000-person company to appreciate user-centered design.

User Experience: A Big (And Broad) Deal

When it comes to the concept of User Experience, Cordell takes a very broad view of usability—well, maybe not broad so much as expansive.

“I think it encompasses the entire relationship that a person has with the device or product or application that they’re using. That includes the functionality of the device. It includes the physical relationship between the person and the product. And it includes the emotional relationship.

“It also encompasses every touch point between the person and the product. From the time somebody’s aware of a need that they have for a product, to the research that they do to understand what product is going to meet that need, to the purchasing process, to the use process, to the upgrade and disposal process.”

Creating Want From the Ground Up

Coming from the product side of design, Cordell agrees with us here at WantMag that desire can be engineered into a product. It starts with discovering the desire(s) of the audience.

“I think it goes back to doing the research. And I think a lot of the emotional connection that people have with products goes back to satisfying–in many cases, satisfying a need that they didn’t even know that they had.”

“But if you can surprise people in a way that unexpectedly delights them, it creates a tremendous bond between a person and a product.”

Having the resources of a Cisco at one’s disposal certainly helps.

“I have a couple of researches on my team who spend a lot of their time out in the wild with our customers, or people who would like to be our customers, really understanding. In our case, we’re building communication, collaboration products. So we’re understanding how people work together.

“We spend a lot of time just watching people in their environment and looking for ways that we can help them work together better. A lot of times, we draw insights based on what we see that would cover a need that people themselves don’t even realize. And that spurs ideas for how we could build either an entire product or a feature for a product that would help them accomplish what they wanted to do.”

Discovering Desire, Disregarding Dialogue

As Jakob Nielsen and other UX experts expressed in our interviews, simply asking people what they want isn’t enough. Instead, Ratzlaff advises, “Watch them.”

“I’ve been doing this long enough to know that a lot of times people won’t tell you what they want, for a couple of reasons. One thing is they don’t want to. They may be embarrassed. But a lot of times, they just can’t articulate what they want. It doesn’t even register to them. They’re used to doing something the same way…so they don’t think that there’s any other way to do it.”

Customers First, Technology Second

Ratzlaff says that his chosen philosophy for making a desirable product doesn’t sync with that of most companies’ product design strategies. He believes most companies look at what they can do with their existing technology, then build the interface and experience on top of that.

“But…if you look at companies like Nintendo, or companies like Apple, what they’re doing is they’re looking at what the experience should be. And in many cases, the technology doesn’t exist to support that. That’s where they really innovate. And that’s where you can really gain market leadership.”

“Human Middleware” Discovered

Cordell provided a great example of when research uncovered those unrealized needs. In his pre-Cisco days, while developing an online travel reservation site, Ratzlaff’s team discovered some unusual behavior, universal among those with a specific job title: Executive Assistants. Research revealed that his particular group would check flights, then write all the information down—despite having the information onscreen. Why this unusual behavior?

“They weren’t necessarily the decision maker for the trip,” Ratzlaff revealed. “They would have to write [all the flight options] on a tablet. Once they had done all of their research, they would go to the person that they were making the reservations for, and they would show all the options. The person would look through it. And they would decide, ‘This is the one I want.’ Then [the assistant] would go back to the site and actually book the ticket.

“It’s essentially putting a human into the loop…you’ve got information in digital form, and you’re asking a human to translate it into another format. What we call that is ‘human middleware.’ And once you start looking for that, you start seeing it every place.”

Once Ratzlaff and this team identified this audience of power users, they were able to create a clipboard function that met the needs of this audience.

The Irrational Million-Dollar Purchase

We asked Ratzlaff if emotion played a role in the purchase of a product. He suggested it plays a bigger role than most people think—even with Enterprise products.

“I think the larger the purchase, the more emotion plays a role. You would think that would be the opposite. Think at the corporate level. You’re spending millions of dollars for something. You would think that people would be rational. They would run through all the numbers and make a decision. It doesn’t matter if it’s a corporate IT expenditure, or if it’s you purchasing a home.

“So, back to the days when I was working in the design agency. We would get…in some cases CEOs, and need to explain to them why they should be spending a million dollars on this design project.…You could go in and with all the ROI analyses, all the justification based on the Excel spreadsheets you came up with. And a lot of times…even if you could justify it, people would question the numbers.

“But if you went in with just an amazing demo, of ‘Here’s what your product would look like. This is the way that your customers would react to this product,’ And you could hook them with that, [the numbers] wouldn’t matter. You could always find some way to justify the financials…And again, that wasn’t just talking about buying a toaster oven. This was making a major expenditure.

“So I have found that approach just to be much more successful; appealing to somebody’s emotion rather than appealing to their logic.”

Culture Change at Cisco: Taking Products From “Shippable” to “Usable”

Successful insights like these brought Ratzlaff to the attention of Cisco in 2006. After working for more design- and usability-driven organizations, he saw an opportunity to work for a company that was just discovering the need for user-centric design.

According to Ratzlaff, that need had been conveyed to Cisco by its customers, in the form of user feedback and lost sales. Advances in technology brought down the cost of VOIP and telephony products—Cisco’s stock-in-trade. Increased productivity—achieved by making their products more usable—became the last value-add a company of its size could offer. But they were being “out-UXed” in certain markets by Microsoft, Apple, Google, and other companies who’d been in the usability game—largely for consumer audiences—longer.

“So,” Ratzlaff continued, “The opportunity for me was, ‘Come in here and tell us how to do it—with all of the resources that we have available.’…It wasn’t necessarily an opportunity to come in and design great products, but an opportunity to change the culture. Because I think in order to design great products, you need to have the culture in place.”

The Enterprise User Doesn’t Exist

Central to that culture change was a dispelling of the myth of the “Enterprise” user. “There is no such thing.” Ratzlaff insists. “We’re all people. When we walk in the door in the morning at work, our expectations, our skills, our values don’t change…At the end of the day, we go home to our Sony PlayStations, and our iPhones, and our Nintendo Wii’s. And we should expect to have the same types of great experience with the tools that we use at work as we do at home.”

This change in thinking also comes from the simple fact that, until recently, only enterprises could afford technology. “It used to be [that] the most reliable, the most feature-rich, the best products, always came out first in business. And then eventually, as the cost came down, that technology found its way into the consumer market…Now what you’re seeing is more and more companies focusing their innovation on the consumer market—first.”

In an era when people carry around between 1-3 computers on their person (phone, MP3 player, tablet/e-reader, laptop), the expectations for usable, enjoyable technology have been raised higher.

A First Victory in the War on Company Culture

So, Cisco had a clear and present need for a sharper focus on UX. Changing the culture of a $9.8 billion company? Not easy.

“Yeah…” Ratzlaff offered, thinking about his first weeks at Cisco. “So one of the things that happened when I got here was, there were a number of reactions within the company. One was, ‘We hired this guy. He’s going to focus on user experience and problem solved. We’ll just go back to doing things the way we used to do.’”

So, okay, tough climb. As Ratzlaff discovered, sometimes drastic measures must be taken.

“Anytime you are attempting to go through a culture change,” He explained, “There’s a point where you almost have to whack somebody on a head with a 2×4 just to get their attention. Just the inertia of doing things, particularly in a large company, over and over again, is very hard to change.

“One of the first things I did was look at all the different products that were going on. And I noticed that there had been a lot of great work being done. A lot of great research. I started thumbing through the design specs. ‘This all looks great.’”

Okay, more promising…

“Then I’d look at the products, and [think], ‘What happened here?’”


“Something went missing from the time somebody designed this to the time it actually got out in the market place.”

Ratzlaff Gets Out The 2×4

As with any number of Enterprise products, features were often scrapped to guarantee on-time shipment—usability occasionally being one of those. Ratzlaff decided to take a stand on one particular product rollout.

“One of the products I started looking at…at the tail end [of its production process]…was a very simple product. It basically allowed our customers to change the desktop pattern and ringtones on their phones. Not an earth-shaking product, not something that every mobile device manufacturer doesn’t have for their products as well.

“But I looked at this, and this was [complex enough to be] designed for an IT manager. It was really bad. It was embarrassing…It was the typical story you hear a lot in companies: “’We’ve got this event coming up, we want to announce this…We don’t have enough resources to do it right. We’re just trying to get along. We’ll fix it in the next phase.’

“[At Cisco], you always shipped your products on time. You went through the process. And then it went out. And then you dealt with it later. I looked at this and I said, ‘No. We can’t go out this way.’”

Ratzlaff sat down with the General Manager of that particular business unit and convinced him to kill the project—despite the fact that the product was mere months from shipping.

“We killed the project.” He told us. “We made a big announcement, sent a note out to the entire organization, saying, ‘We killed this project because it wasn’t good enough. We’re going to start over with a different team and get it.’

As expected, a decisive move like that helped him draw a distinct line in the sand regarding Cisco’s UX. “We looked at this as a great opportunity to really send a message to the whole organization that we’re serious about user experience.”

“It wasn’t a big revenue impact to us.” Ratzlaff recalled. “But it certainly had a big impact in terms of getting people’s attention.”

The lesson learned: “Anytime you’re going [to a new company], find an opportunity like that as soon as you can, and take advantage of it. Don’t let it go. Don’t wait too long. Because things just start going along and then you just become part of the normal process, normal way of doing things.”

Culture Change, Rewarded

Cut to 2009, when Cisco won Best Of Show at the MacWorld Expo for their WebEx Meeting Center suite. “Going from when I started here at Cisco…winning a Best Of Show award at MacWorld, was even more than I thought we could accomplish. But I think it’s a great testament to some of the things that have changed here.”

The story behind the Meeting Center’s iPhone app is a triumph of the kind of culture change Ratlzaff strives for at Cisco—not least of which because, as per Ratzlaff’s definition of UX, it started with research.

Their studies showed that more and more people were taking conference calls from remote locations—mostly via mobile phone. What’s more, most of the people on mobiles were going not just from one location to another, but from one device to another.

“Maybe they’re driving into work,” Ratzlaff suggested. “They get into their office, and now they’ve got a nice, high audio quality desk phone sitting on their desk, but they’re participating in a conference call on their mobile device. They want to move the call from their mobile device to their desk phone. The only way to do that is you’ve got to disconnect from one device and call back in…It was disruptive to the meeting…It’s a hassle for the person that’s doing it.”

Given that, as a WebEx conference call, the audio was handled over IP, and that the system recognized all the devices, Ratzlaff and his team saw an opportunity to improve that user experience. “We figured, ‘There’s got to be a better way to make that seamless.’” He explained. “We have smart engineers who figured out a way to do that.”

And figure they did, but not with the solution you’d expect.

“We could have done a way where you’ve got a button on your phone. And when you’re ready to switch the call, you go through a menu, and move the device over, move the call from one device. You have to locate the other device. Which works, but it’s still kind of clunky.”

(Spoiler alert: The WebEx app lets you shake your iPhone at the desk phone to transfer the call.)

“[WebEx knows] your mobile device, [and] your desk phone. Through Bluetooth …and the iPhone’s accelerometer, you can just shake your mobile phone at your desk phone…the audio can go to your desk phone, the video can go to your PC, so now you’ve got all it up here on a nice, large monitor.

“So there was really no interface at all, other than the shaking of the phone. It’s reducing that gesture to its lowest or simplest form.”

Interface-less call transfer: it ain’t the Polio vaccine–but did the Polio vaccine surprise or delight thousands of enterprise customers? No one looked at the nurse sticking a needle in their arm and said, “Cool.”

“When people ask, ‘How did you do that? It’s like magic,’ Ratzlaff recalls. “That’s a good gauge of when you’ve hit the mark.”

The Creation of “Cool Factor:” Ideas First

The “cool factor” of such an intuitive interaction is a given. But what’s equally impressive on Ratzlaff’s part is the way he managed to push this little innovation through the challenging Cisco culture. “We defined what we wanted the experience to be first,” he sums up. “And then figured out how to build the technology to accomplish that.” As if it were that simple.

“We built a prototype. It was actually a Flash prototype, just to get the idea across: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if people could do this?’…I remember showing that at a fairly large meeting…I remember hearing people in the back, engineers in the back room laughing, ‘That’s science fiction. There’s no way you can do that.’”

“But we had a couple of engineers who saw that and took that as a challenge to make it work. So three weeks after we showed that, I had two engineers in my office saying, ‘You remember that demo you showed? We actually got it working.’”

Inspiring innovation in engineers: That’s one way to change a company’s culture.

“The technology for doing that was really, really hard, and required some really smart people to figure it out. But it was the type of thing where…we defined what we wanted the experience to be first, and then figured out how to build the technology to accomplish that.”

“I think the truth is, just coming up with ideas for how things should work, that’s the easy part. It’s actually the execution part [that’s difficult]…Apple gets a lot of props for great design, but I think where they make that happen is in having really smart engineers that can figure out how to do that.”

Continuing the Shift at Cisco

Which isn’t to say that Ratzlaff doesn’t still have his work cut out for him. “It is becoming easier,” he says about the culture shift at Cisco, “But that job is never done.” With an award under their belts, a design department that has gone from 2 to 30 employees in three years, and a solid set of values about what makes products usable, he’s well on his way.


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

Jakob Nielsen: The Want Magazine Interview

Interview conducted via Skype for the April issue of Want Magazine.

I can list several reasons why my Editor-In-Chief and I high-fived each other after our interview with Dr. Jakob Nielsen. Granted, Nielsen is one of the few “celebrities” of the Usability trade, that rare author/expert known outside the UX community who is interviewed by mainstream publications and even called “The guru of Web page usability” by no less an authority than the New York Times.

The fact that he was kind enough to talk to us three times longer than the time span he allotted for us didn’t hurt either. But I’d say the high-five largely came from an appreciation of Nielsen’s ability to look at the field of UX with a scope of knowledge and understanding matched by few.

Nielsen started his career as a usability engineer pre-Web, in 1983, to be exact. We asked him how the field of UX—and its older brother, Human Computer Interaction (HCI)—has changed in that span of time. Once again, He went the extra mile for us, outlining the history of the field by splitting it into two cycles: product focus and sheer growth.

Cycle One: From Applications to Apps

Nielsen charted one cycle of interface design from the 1940s, with the design of airplane cockpits and nuclear power plant control panels–—essentially, interface design for applications. When Nielsen started his career almost three decades ago, application interfaces—albeit for computer software—remained the discipline.

Fast-forward to the 90s and early 2000s, when web design gave us new interfaces to contend with, forcing the need to create and design new idioms and paradigms for navigation and use.

Less than a decade later, as our digital use strays from the desktop computer to mobile devices, the need for application design has returned to the forefront. “It’s really come full circle.” Nielsen explains. “With ad campaigns preaching that ‘There’s an app for that,’ comes a need for people who know how to make them usable.”

Cycle Two: From Handfuls to Crowds of Experts

In the second cycle, Nielsen charts the demand for UX talent—which has never been greater. “There’s been a very linear path in the influence and the size and the magnitude of usability work [and] of serious business attention to user experience.

“Going back to my early career, there were just a handful of people like myself in the world–—several hundred [at most]. Most projects proceeded without any user testing–—without even the minimal amount of usability work. The design was done by the programmers as kind of a side effect of the implementation. Which, we know, leads to bad software, but that’s how it was done.

“Today, we have tens of thousands of usability professionals, people who specialize purely in the research aspect of finding out what users need. We have hundreds of thousands of professional interface designers. But there’s still a lot of [interfaces] done just as a side effect of the implementation…by the programmers. Websites are [often] designed by sort of an HTML-coder kind of person or even a so-called interface designer who doesn’t really understand interaction design.

“So, we’re not there, but the growth path has been immense. This field has grown by at least a factor of 1,000 in the time I’ve been doing this job.”

UX: Growing By The Day

The demand for usability continues to rise. “More and more,” Jacob assures us, “It’s the differentiating factor between different products and different websites.”

That factor makes sense, given the amount of competition out there. By Nielsen’s rough (but probably conservative) estimates, “There are, I think, about 300 million websites in the world, several hundred thousand software applications, and a handful of mobile phone companies, and so forth.” Lump in the amount of companies that build interface-dependent products (phones or consumer electronics, anyone?) and you have a lot of demand for a user interface that shifts units.

Can Usability Buy Happiness?

While that’s good news for professional UX-perts and magazines looking to appeal to that audience (ahem), it’s even better news for consumers—as Nielsen points out from his own experience:

“I just bought a camera, and the first thing that happens when opening the box? It says, ‘Stop. If you cannot figure out how to use this camera, do not return it. Call our customer support line.’

“They know their camera is bad.” Nielsen says, shaking his head in disbelief. “Theyknow consumers can’t use it. And then they have a high cost of return product and a high cost of support calls. They could just hire a few usability people and make it easy instead.”

The Rise Of The Amateur

Nielsen also anticipates an increase in “amateur” usability, a phrase he does not see as derogatory. Rather, he defines it as people for whom usability is only a part of their skill set and/or paycheck.

“Designers,” He uses as an example, “Should do a lot of their own usability. Same for a lot of market research and business managers, and so forth.”

And they’ll have plenty to keep them busy: “There’s not going to be enough full-time professionals–really seasoned, experienced people–to cover all these websites and hundreds of thousands of complex applications and all of that.”

With more and more daily-use objects becoming digital, increased focus on better UX comes not a moment too soon. While books, music and photos come first to mind, Nielsen gave us an example of a physical, industrial product with a renewed need for interface design: cars.

“BMW, for many years, received consistently bad reviews for a control device, called the iDrive, that was very difficult to use. That’s software design, it’s screen design, it’s interaction design–it’s not just car design. [BMW] can’t just take people who are good at building fast cars and assume that those guys can make a great complex menu hierarchy.”

The Engineering Of Want

We asked Nielsen the question on which we’ve based this issue’s theme: How can “want” be one engineered “want” into a product or service. Ever a numbers-over-instinct man, he refused to buy into the idea that an audience’s “want” can be gauged by anything other than methodical testing.

“Let me first say what I do not do, and that’s to just ask people what they want…people don’t know what they want. What they say and what they do are very often different things.

“The average person’s great ability is that they are the average person—they are the customer; they are the user—what they do rules, but only what they do, not what they say they do.”

How to instill want? In the mind of Jakob Nielsen, you figure out what your audience wants, and design towards that. As advice goes, it doesn’t get much more user-friendly than that.


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

Don Norman: The Want Magazine Interview

One of the interviews I conducted for Want Magazine. Published May 14, 2010

The ability to explain complex academic theories in palatable layman’s’ terms is the mark of a good teacher—and Don Norman is certainly that. “Don,” Adaptive Path founder Peter Merholz warned us, “likes to take people to school.”

He is, of course, much more than a professor. Often called “The father of User Experience,” Norman coined the phrase some two decades ago. He’s the co-director of the dual-degree MBA and Engineering program at Northwestern University. Professor. Author. Ground-breaking usability theorist. Being taken to school by someone in his league, I can deal with.

I arrived at his Palo Alto home with pad, pen, and camera crew to chat with him about the “Engineering of Want,” the theme of our maiden issue. I left with a surprisingly environmentalist critique of product design, a preview of his new book, Living with Complexity, and the idea that the ultimate state of UX is for it to disappear. Oh, and he accused me of being a marketer.

HCI & UX: Re-Framing the Big Picture

Norman began our lesson as soon as I asked him our first interview question: “What were the fields of User Experience and HCI like when you started?” He chuckled and pointed out that, back in 1989 (when he wrote the seminal The Design of Everyday Things), there was no HCI. “My research group and I had been looking at the problems of Unix and the problems with these clunky terminals. We didn’t yet have graphic displays.”

These early days of (non-)UX were marked by a lack of decent user interfaces. “In the beginning,” Don explained, “We really had to think about usability because the early computers, and for that matter almost all early products that used computers, were unworkable, unusable, not understandable—because they had tended to be [designed] by engineers, who were much more concerned with ‘Could we even get the thing to work?’…And we had done the book called User Centered System Design, which, I guess, you could say was the early days of HCI.”

Norman agrees that the field of UX has come a long way since then—in our thinking, if not in execution. “Now, lots of products are still unusable, but the principles of how we should make them usable are very well known, and they’re really not changing.”

“I think that we no longer need to focus. The usability people really have to focus on doing best practices or making sure that what we know, how we know to do things should be applied.”

Norman’s take is that we, as an industry, should agree on UX best practices and move on. To where, we wondered? He was glad we asked.

“The Real Focus is System.”

Norman’s impending new book, Living With Complexity, covers what he feels is the next level of usability—being part of a system. Lest you suspect that the author of The Design of Everyday Things has joined the Borg, he provided an example from everyday life. For a taste of his teaching style, here’s a short transcript:

Don Norman: Look at the iPod. Why is it successful? Is it a great music player? Yeah, but is it much different than the other music players? No.

Want: One might suggest it’s a more elegant interface design.

Don Norman: Barely. The others are easy to use. They’re often less expensive. They often have more memory. The basic player is not why the iPod is successful.

Want: iTunes?

Don Norman: Well, no, but you’re in the right direction. You may remember that in the really old days, it was hard to get music, and on top of that, it was illegal to do so. You really had to be pretty technical. Apple was the first company to do the licensing. So, first of all, they made it legal; second of all, they made the price sensible. Then they took a big database, an SAP database, and they made it usable, and that became iTunes. They made it easy to go there and find the music you wanted. They made the download effortless. You plug the iPod in and without doing anything, your iPod is up to date. And they also allowed other people, third parties, to build all sorts of accessories like external speakers. Those people are part of the ecosystem that Apple provided.

“So,” Norman said, summing up his definition, “We have a system that, under the surface, is incredibly complex, but at all touchpoints, is easy and enjoyable to use—from the licensing on the one end of music, to the licensing on the other end of third parties who are providing all of the accessories that expand the utility of the iPod. And everything is effortless.”

So Complex, It’s Easy.

Complex under the surface, but easy to use: that’s the future of products and services, according to Living With Complexity. “People think the opposite of complexity is simplicity, but it’s not.” Don explained. “People who say, ‘I want it simple,’ want it understandable and usable.”

Norman’s new book argues that just because a product is complex, doesn’t mean it has to be difficult to use. “The problem with complexity,” he says with his trademark grin, “is that it often leads to being complicated. ‘Complicated’ is in the head. If we can make a complex thing that is understandable, then, in fact, we like it, because it gives us a lot more power.”

What is key to understandability? Good design plays a big part, by helping to make things modular. “You do that,” he suggests, “by providing a good, cohesive model so there’s a conceptual model; you do that by adding structure; and you do that by also learning it in small hunks.”

Your product or service should provide a simple return from basic comprehension, and offer greater returns the more you learn it. Take iTunes: playing a song on it is easy. But as you learn each of its features, like playlists, the Genius function, syncing it with a portable device, you get more enjoyment out of it.

Norman cited cars and cell phones as other examples of this—but the one that he kept coming back to was cooking.

“You learn cooking slowly, over time. You start off by making, I don’t know, boiled eggs, and you slowly learn how to make scrambled eggs and omelets, and so on. You work your way up.

“Every little tool that we use in cooking is pretty simple. Cooking itself is made up of many simple steps, but the large number of simple steps, and the need for proper timing and the need for knowing what goes together, makes it a complex activity.”

Are the “Engineers of Want” the Enemy?

Keeping with our theme for Release 001, we asked him if it was possible to engineer “want” into a product or service.

“It’s interesting,” he remarked after a thoughtful silence, “that what we’re doing is sort of moving the user experience and design world into the world of advertising.”

And so the interview took a fascinating turn. The single question gave him plenty of reason to opine about consumer industry and its drive to iterate constantly in order to drive sales. Don, ever the academic, believes that advertising and marketing “create desires and wants and needs that never existed before.”

“Think about the environmental mess that we have…Is it really necessary to discard your cell phone every six months or every year or even every two years? Is it because the advertising community has figured out ways of, oh, wow, giving you some new feature you can’t live without? So maybe it’s not a good thing that we create these wonderful desires for something new that we don’t have.”

“Remember,” he advised, “the design world and the advertising world are not that far apart.”

Lest my Editor-in-Chief and I (both marketers at points in our careers) feel completely to blame, Don let us off the hook by tracing the origins of this iterate-to-sell point of view.

“It came from automobiles: deliberate styling to make your automobile obsolescent in one to two years. So there would be a model change every year in automobiles and every three or four years there’ll be a big change. And then the advertisers made it feel that you were evil—out of date—if you didn’t have the latest version.

“But is that any different than, ‘See, you have one of those old, clunky iPhones or one of those old, clunky iPods?’…The new ones are prettier and smaller, but the music sounds the same.”

“See,” Don offered with a wide grin, “The user experience community thinks they’re pure.

“’No, no, no!’” He added, lightly mocking product designers and usability experts everywhere. “’We don’t do that evil advertising stuff. We’re not doing evil marketing. We’re simply finding what people really want, and we’re providing it for them.’ Every six months, though, we provide new wants. Come on, what’s the distinction between that and what marketing does and what advertisers do?”

The Computer Becomes Invisible

Norman does concede that product line evolutions can offer significant leaps, rather than wasteful stylistic iterations: going from cell phones to smart phones, for instance. In fact, that’s the direction he sees the future of computing heading.

“What I’ve always advocated…and I think is happening, is that the computer disappears. [Take for example] the book reader, the specialized device just for reading books. Inside, it’s a computer, but who cares? A music player–a specialized device for listening to music–is a computer.”

iPad: Makes Great Fries!

Does this mean that we’ll see more products containing PC-level computers? Norman believes so, for better…and for worse. I mentioned the debut of a new line of microwave ovens with web-browsing ability, which amused him to no end.

“Too many times the technologists say, ‘Oh, gee, we could make a microwave oven that browses the Internet.’ Well, what for? ‘Oh, you could look up recipes on it.’ But if you actually think about the way people work, they don’t want to stand in front of their microwave looking for recipes.”

Which brought up a computer that he did consider a helpful device in the kitchen: The iPad.

“Suppose I’m thinking, oh, let’s have something different for dinner tonight. How do I do it? First of all, I peruse my memory and my knowledge of cooking and also my knowledge of what we have in the house to figure out what we might do. But I might turn to my cookbooks. I have a row of cookbooks there, and I might pull one out and read it.

“But why not…a portable reading device? It’s convenient to use. I don’t have to go to my office and sit under my desk. I can go to my couch, or I can sit here at the table. The new Apple iPad…would allow me to find recipes, maybe browse the Internet for cooking sites and see pictures, or if I’m not sure how to do the preparation, there’s a little video…People will start writing cookbooks not with photographs of the food, but with videos.

“But the nice thing is…not that suddenly the Internet gives us information—it already does. It’s that it gives it to me in the way I want to think about cooking. That’s what I think is going to be so powerful. These devices now will fit our lifestyles instead of us changing the way we work.

“When we look at the way things will come together, it’s going to be based around people’s activities, not because the technology suddenly makes it possible for your refrigerator to show TV programs,” he added with a professorial smirk.

Good Design is…Well, Advertising

And yet, we still hadn’t gotten Norman to address “the engineering of want” to the level we, well, wanted. Perhaps we never would. But it was worth another try.

We decided to address it from an angle he had established in his book, Emotional Design. There, he outlines three levels at which people process the products they buy and use: visceral (styling & perception), behavioral (look & feel) and reflective (one’s self-image that comes from the owning/using of the product).

Then we asked him how one could use those levels of emotion to instill want or desire into the creation of a product…and then he went off on a bit of a rant. But just a bit.

“Hmmm, here we go again. Doesn’t that make designers somewhat into advertisers or marketing people because we’re asking, ‘How do we make it so people should enjoy the product?’ Now, that’s not entirely fair, because why not make it so people really enjoy the products?”

A fair question.

“But yeah, make it attractive. Make it so it really feels good. That’s why we like precision tools. That’s why as a cook, I really like a well-balanced knife and good tools for cooking.”

“The question is the balance. We don’t want to sell things simply because we figured out how we can sell things: ‘Whether or not people care about it or need it, we’re going to make them care about it.’

“But if you can sell things that people really need, that really do make their lives better and do not destroy the environment, then sure, the distinction between designers and marketers, I think, is very small. Both of us are trying to do what the customer wants. The goal of marketing is to understand what people are willing to buy, and the goal of designers is to try to understand what people really need, and these groups really ought to be working closely together.”

All edifying and fine food for thought. But we still wanted to find that secret sauce. I pressed the issue from yet another angle:

Want: You’ve also written about how emotional attachments trump practicality. How much of that can be an exploitable trait when seducing audiences, when creating customers and of course the making of successful products?

Don Norman: Gee. You really are a marketing person, aren’t you?

Want: How did you know?

Don Norman: How much of that could be used to seduce the customers, to have them buy this, or have them overlook the horrible flaws we have on this side because this part is so wonderful and attractive?

Marketing as Damage Control

Which brought up an interesting point: How much of marketing and advertising is about promoting a product’s good points—and how much of it is about covering up flaws?

“You know, it’s interesting that all of this can be used to exploit people. Because…when something is really good and pleasurable, we do overlook the minor faults…We recognize that we can’t make everything perfect, and so we try to make a total great experience.

“One of the standard stories I tell is going to, say, a Disney theme park. I ask people what they hate; invariably they hate the lines. ‘[But] would you go back?’ Yes, most people would go back.

“The point is, the lines from Disney’s point of view are unavoidable. There’s no way they can prevent the lines because the only way really to prevent the lines is either have the rides be shorter or have more rides. But rides are very expensive: $10 million, $20 million a ride. They can’t put in many more rides. So here’s a case where all that I’m saying works: by making the total experience a great one, people are willing to overlook the minor problems of, you know, boredom and standing in line. But they didn’t deliberately put a negative in. They didn’t know how to get rid of the negative, so they made the surrounding experience positive. That’s what I like.”

“And so, with all of our products, which may have some unavoidable negative components, yeah, make it good, but I wouldn’t seduce them by saying, you know, we actually know this part is crap, so we’ll make this part really wonderful and maybe they won’t notice.”

“I would hate to have that used, though, as a way of deliberately allowing ourselves to have faults and making up for it by some other thing, say, by the packaging or by the styling or something else. I would hope that we do our very best.”

Finishing Up (at Northwestern)

Recently, Norman announced that he’d be retiring from his position at Northwestern University later this Summer–which, as he writes on his website, “…will let me do more consulting, travel more, stay longer, and be more spontaneous (but I’m booked until early 2011).”

Even after three-plus decades of ground-breaking work, Don Norman is by no means slowing down. Anyone who might suggest that he’ll be teaching less has not had the pleasure of interviewing him.


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