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.