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  • October 20, 2011

Jared Spool: The Cognition Interview

Jared Spool is one of the most influential design research professionals working in the field of user experience design today. Decorative Illustration I first saw Jared speak about his work at the SXSW Interactive conference five years ago, and I haven’t thought about my work the same way since. I’ve seen him speak at dozens of events and I find myself rapt with attention every single time. His brilliant insights have transformed the way many think about designing digital experiences and his ideas always seem to occupy a jovial environment that balances sound research with a sharp wit. He is a one of a kind mix of entertainer, academic, and pragmatist. I’m incredibly grateful for his contributions to the field and consider myself very fortunate to enjoy his company from time to time.

During the past year, Jared has been kind enough to invite me to share my thoughts and techniques for designing better meetings at a number of events put on by his company User Interface Engineering (UIE), including the User Interface 16 (UI16) Conference taking place November 7, 8, and 9 2011 in Boston, MA (look for the discount code at the end of this article!). It seemed like a great opportunity to ask him some questions I’ve had about design, how we interface with information and devices, and staying relevant in a rapidly evolving field.

Hey, Jared, UIE has been in business for more than 20 years. Congratulations! What contributions are you most proud of in that time?

When we started, we set out with an objective to eliminate all of the bad design from the world, so that the only designs left were those that delighted their users. We wanted to understand what it takes to create a great design and why that doesn’t happen as often as it should. We started by doing something nobody was doing: analyzing the great designs out there and learn how they came about.

Since those early days, we’ve learned a lot. I think I’m most proud of how far we’ve come in our understanding of great design. We now know what makes a design intuitive. We know processes that lead to great design and traps teams fall into that force them into building a crappy design.

I’m really proud that our research has found its way into so many designs. The work we did on website usability, prototyping techniques, usability testing, and design processes are now commonplace. Most designers today don’t remember a time when you didn’t think about these things, but it wasn’t that long ago.

We still have a long way to go in both our understanding and in getting what we know out there. We’ve built a set of conferences and seminars to spread our knowledge and share the wisdom of all the experts we’ve come across in our work. Next year, we’re launching some new programs that we think will push good design even further.

This is all very exciting for us and we love all the great new stuff that’s coming out. We still have a lot to learn. Even though we know so much more today than we did 20 years ago, it’s awesome to think there’s more to discover.

When you set out to eliminate all bad design from the world, the keyboard and mouse interface was the dominant mode of human computer interaction. Consumer touch interfaces are merely four years old and will evolve in ways we can’t imagine. Apple just introduced a new voice-based interface. What hallmarks of good design thinking, strategy, and execution will never change?

One of the things we’ve learned in all our research is that there are two basic rules:

  1. People rarely change their behaviors, and
  2. People are very adaptable.

At first, these rules seem to contradict themselves; but, in fact, they work together in harmony.

The first rule comes from how we are built. While we think we are in control of what we do, almost all of our behaviors come from our primal programming. How we perceive color and sounds, how we control our limbs, how we think and breathe—all of that comes from who we are as humans. We can’t decide tomorrow to see the color red as a different color or to start typing with our knees. What we do and how we do it is basically static and has been for half a million years or so.

Yet, at the same time, we are very adaptable. We can build tools to make our lives easier and then adapt our movements and thoughts to work those tools. The QWERTY keyboard was an invention to help us communicate language with mechanical and digital devices. It’s a brilliant invention, yet it takes a lot of training to learn to use efficiently. We adapt ourselves to typing by learning how to do it.

Touch gestures are another adaptation. We’d like to think of them as natural, but they aren’t. You still need to learn about them. For example, there’s nothing natural about the pull-to-refresh gesture now common in a lot of touch apps; yet, once you learn it, it feels like the right thing to do.

Even what seems natural about Siri’s voice recognition is still learned. Users will adapt to speaking at the right speed, with the right accentuations. They’ll learn what Siri handles well and where she can’t complete their objective.

Design is all about tradeoffs. As we create new technologies that overcome the limitations of the previous generations, we make decisions about how we can accommodate those basic unchanging traits of people while looking at what we ask our users to adapt to.

The best design teams think about people at the center of their process. They look to where things are a natural fit for the user while minimizing the effort for adaptation.

Some might argue that standardization of (insert anything here) can make things easier to use. The continued evolution of web standards has simplified the workflow of designers and developers while also improving the experience for users. But Apple and others have redefined how we experience our world with new, innovative approaches. What force has played a greater role in the improving of user experience: standardization or innovation?

Oh, innovation for sure. Look at the iOS5 operating system and compare it to the operating systems of the 70s (CPM, OS/360, Vax/VMS, Unix) and make two lists: one of all the standards that have been brought forward and the other of the innovations that have happened. It’s clear to see that in the 40 years of individual computing, innovations far outweigh standards.

I’d go so far as to argue that standards, at best, are a short term innovation. By taking advantage of what someone has already bothered to learn (such as the positions of the letters in an QWERTY keyboard), you can innovate in other directions.

However, most standards are hacks. They are a fixation on something to reduce costs: costs of manufacturing, costs of design, costs of learning, or costs of maintaining. In many cases, they are not an optimal solution. (Look at those labels on your QWERTY keyboard and tell me why they need to be in that arrangement.)

Again, good design is about tradeoffs. We often buy into standardization to give us a chance to focus our efforts elsewhere. So, we’ll always have standardization. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that standardization is good for design in the long term.

What are some of the presentations and ideas taking place at the UI16 conference that will play a significant role in continuing the ongoing dialogue about the experience design?

I think we have some really interesting aspects of UX all converging. There are topics on leadership and innovation, kicking projects off the right way, and choosing the design patterns to match the tough problems of complex applications.

I’m particularly excited by Steve Portigal’s workshop on field techniques, where we’re taking the attendees to South Station to conduct a field study and then coming back to analyze the results. Field research is a great way to discover what users need and where innovative ideas emerge quickly.

I’m also really looking forward to your session on effective kickoff meetings. In our research, I’ve seen what happens when a team starts their projects off right and it’s pretty amazing. We never talk about how to design great meetings, and then we complain about how we dislike the undesigned meetings we have to suffer through.

Thanks for the great interview. It was fun!

Thank you, Jared. It was my pleasure.

If you’d like to register for UI16, be sure to use the discount code KEVINH to save yourself some money!

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