Jared M. Spool is the founder of User Interface Engineering and a co-founder of Center Centre.
If you’ve ever seen Jared speak about user experience design, you know that he’s probably the most effective and knowledgeable communicator on the subject today. He’s been working in the field of usability and experience design since 1978, before the term “usability” was ever associated with computers.
Jared spends his time working with the research teams at the User Interface Engineering, helps clients understand how to solve their design problems, explains to reporters and industry analysts what the current state of design is all about, and is a top-rated speaker at more than 20 conferences every year.
With Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he is starting a new school in Chattanooga, TN, to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. In 2014, the school, under the nickname of the Unicorn Institute, launched a Kickstarter project that successfully raised more that 600% of its initial goal.
He is also the conference chair and keynote speaker at the annual UI Conference and UX Immersion Conference, and manages to squeeze in a fair amount of writing time. He is author of the book Web Usability: A Designer’s Guide and co-author of Web Anatomy: Interaction Design Frameworks that Work.
J Cornelius: The design of everyday things like water meters and insurance forms isn’t sexy but it can impact millions of people and even help prevent disasters. Today, we talk to Jared Spool about the massive impact of applying great design to unsexy things can have on all kinds of businesses.
Intro: This is Design Driven, the podcast about using design thinking to build great products and lasting companies. Whether you’re running a startup or trying something new inside a Fortune 1000, the tools, methods, and insights we talk about will help you create things people love. And now, your host J Cornelius.
J: I’ve got to say, I’m super excited to have today’s guest on the show. We have Jared Spool. He is the founder of UIE and the co-founder of Center Centre. Jared, welcome to the show. How are you today?
Jared Spool: I am fantastic. How are you?
J: I’m doing really good. The weather here is a little bit gloomy today but it’s not bringing me down too much. Things are rolling along just fine.
Jared: It’s good. We’ve had a rainy week up here. It was in the 40's for most of the week and it’s really weird because two weeks ago, it was 84 degrees and then the week before that it was snowing. Fortunately, we no longer need science.
J: Your weather has a personality disorder, too.
Jared: Yes, it does.
J: For a lot of people who are listening, you probably don’t need much of an introduction. I mean, you are pretty well known in the world of helping people make their apps, and services, and products, and stuff better in the world of user experience, but for those of you out there who don’t know Jared, Jared, give us an introduction to who you are and what you’re up to.
Jared: I’m a short dude who lives outside Boston, Massachusetts and I am the founder of UIE and co-founder of Center Centre. UIE is a research company that studies how organizations create a competitive advantage through great design and Center Centre is a school in Chattanooga, Tennessee to create the next generation of industry ready UX designers. That’s-
J: That’s it in a nutshell, right?
Jared: Yeah, I think so.
J: I mean, UIE has been around awhile and over the years you’ve probably seen the industry change quite a bit but the core principles probably have remained unchanged. Can you tell us a little bit about the work that you’re doing and who you’re doing it for and what kind of results you’re seeing. Walk us through a day in a life of Jared Spool.
Jared: Most of my days are on airplanes somewhere. Basically, what we do these days is we spend time really trying to understand what makes an organization succeed through great design. It has come about in the last… We’ve been around for almost 30 years and in the last decade, design has really come in to the forefront. It’s appeared on the front of Time Magazine and Harvard Business Review. It is now something that companies pay attention to thanks to organizations like Apple, Tesla, and Disney.
J: We finally got a seat at the table, so to speak.
Jared: The thing we found was that there actually was no table. That was the secret. Design is now something that companies realize they have to pay attention to and companies that are not conventionally in businesses and industries where design played a big role are suddenly finding themselves deep in design like GE, who is realizing that their energy business is all about being able to make sure that the devices are as efficient.
The turbines are as efficient as possible, they’re not offline for longer than they need to be for repair , and that the way they can do that is through big data analytics that have to be presented to repair supervisors to make sure that someone is out there doing corrective repairs before the problem gets too bad and the thing goes offline for weeks. Those types of issues now have design and their focus because everybody is looking at how effective, how efficient, how useful, how productive can they make their equipment. That’s changed everything, right?
Jared: I was talking to a company in Alabama that makes water meters, these devices that plug into your house that tells the city or town how much water you’ve used. Up until five years ago, seven years ago, these things were always mechanical devices with little spinning wheels and the city would send you a form to fill out or they’d send somebody into your house to read this thing. You’d have to mark down what the reading is on this thing, you send it back, and that’s how they calculate your water bill.
The first companies figured out, “What if we made those displays digital?” Now, they have software in these devices and then somebody said, “What if we actually put a little radio transmitter in them and that way the town or the city can just drive by and read it from their van and not have to go into the house to read it. What if we have this talk to a mesh network that spread throughout the city, the city doesn’t have to send anybody out, it’s always reporting, and we can give you up to the minute water usage data.
What if we actually put an email that was tied to this device that sends you the house, renter or owner a message saying, “Hey, your water usage has spiked. Do you have a leak somewhere or is something going on? Were you expecting this?” Suddenly, you’ve got all this design involved that was never in the water meter business before. They are wholly ill equipped to be competitive in this space. What happens is, companies like Nest show up and take over industries that they were never in before from market leaders like Honeywell and Honeywell is completely left holding the bag because they never thought design was important.
J: They never saw it coming.
Jared: They never saw it coming. Now everybody is looking for it, everybody is looking for it.
J: What’s interesting about that example you just gave is because those iterative improvements happened over years and perhaps decades so that the pace of innovation was so slow that when somebody comes along who actually pays attention to design and pays attention to how it can yield greater results or faster results or whatever, they’re just appended. They’re just completely tossed aside because somebody just blows right past them.
Jared: For years, everybody thought design was make it pretty. They didn’t realize design was actually solve problems in new ways that actually change the game. Now, they believe that. Now, they get that. Sometimes they call it design thinking which is-
J: The smart companies do.
Jared: Yeah. People are realizing it. I mean, every industry is affected by this even once that felt as far away from consumers as you could get like the water meter business.
J: Exactly, like the water meter because it’s not something you think about in the course of your day to day life. It's how well-designed is my water meter and what kind of impact can that have on my quality of life as a whole but then when they get that email from the city saying, “Hey, your water usage is above normal. Do you have some kind of leak?” Then they go outside and find that somebody left the hose dripping. That’s a huge benefit to everybody.
Jared: Exactly. No new homeowner is giving a tour to their house and saying, “I got to show you the water meter. This is the coolest part of the house.” No one is ever going to say that but yet that is what this company has to deal with now is they have to be, in their minds, the coolest part of the house.
J: That thing rolls up into something you would say about a house that it’s lead certified or highly energy efficient or something along those lines which is obvious a value proposition as somebody who is buying a home.
Jared: Exactly. All of these things are now becoming basic expectations and that’s really fascinating but we need more designers than we’ve ever needed before because all these industries are getting into this in a way that have never needed to think about this before.
J: I’m so glad that you brought up an example of something that isn’t software, that isn’t a mobile app that helps you get a burrito delivered to your office. Those are trivialities when you think about the impact that something as boring as a water meter might have across an entire population, right?
Jared: Yeah. Except for the fact that California just came out of two years of amazing drought and smarter water meters would have actually been really helpful for doing that and there were people going without water. That could have been prevented in many ways. You can say, “A water meter is not software,” but what I learned in Alabama was that these water meters are actually now more than 50% software.
This is that sort of software that’s eating the world thing. I mean, it’s infiltrating every corner of every business and here’s the other thing, that water meter had damn well better be secure because if it’s not secure someone is going to figure out a way to use it as a robot zombie bot of some sort and the next thing you know, your water meter is shutting down Twitter.
J: I forget who said it but somewhere recently someone said, “The internet of things…” It may have been you said, “The internet of things is just other people’s computers in your house.”
Jared: It’s exactly what it is. Yeah, that was me.
J: I think there’s a good articulation in the problem is all types of industries, even the ones where you might least expect it, are now having these really interesting design challenges that have never been framed as design challenges before. They’re starting to realize the importance of thinking through things that are very early stage and thinking things in a way that’s very iterative and very human centered if you will. You’re thinking about how do we solve this problem in a way that benefits both sides of the transaction? What else are you seeing out there that might be a good example of how as a relatively simple design exercise or maybe just taking the time to think through the problem has yielded a pretty surprising result?
Jared: There is a lot of work that’s being done. I’ve spent a lot of time recently with insurance companies that are trying to figure out how they get people to understand what they’re purchasing in insurance. Insurance is this complex world of coverages, deductibles, waivers, and all these things that use this language, that nobody in life uses on a day-to-day basis and really what people want to know is… because all insurance is a gamble.
The insurance companies don’t like to say this but you’re gambling. What you’re saying is, “I’m going to pay out a little bit of money because I’m going to expect something bad to happen and I’m hoping it doesn’t happen. But when it does happen, I’ll win because the insurance will cover it whereas if I don’t pay it out, I’m taking the bet that, that bad thing is not going to happen but if it does happen, I’m screwed because now I have to put out of my own pocket.”
People understand that part and then they get into deductibles, waivers, premiums, and coverages. They don’t know what they’re getting. Is $50,000 bodily injury coverage better than $100,000 bodily injury coverage? I am the least qualified person on the planet to make that decision yet you are asking me to pick which one I want.
What insurance companies are realizing is if they can be helpful in a human way, they can get people to make that decision better and then they’re not feeling like, “What am I paying insurance for if you don’t cover this thing? What do you mean I have a $5,000 deductible? Why am I doing that? What does that actually mean? What do you mean I don’t get… My car got this major thing but because it costs $4,000 to repair it and I have a $5,000 deductible, I have to pay for it. What am I paying insurance for?”
They don’t understand that they made a decision upfront not knowing what the language meant, not knowing what they were buying and not realizing, “Hey, if you have a $5,000 deductible, that means you’re going to pay a much less premium but you should probably keep $5,000 somewhere because the first $5,000 you’re responsible for.” It’s a good thing if you have these in savings but if you don’t have these in savings, maybe you don’t want a $5,000 deductible.
The thing is that the insurance company, they’re the house in the casino. They’re playing the odds. They can give you a lower rate because they think the odds of you going over $5,000 is slim and the odds of you going substantially over $5,000 is slimmer so they’re going to give you a lower rate. They can actually tell you what they expect your accident to be. Here’s what’s going to happen if you have an accident. Here’s what we think about that.
Now, they can start to share that information in an intelligent way that actually gets you on their side saying, “Hey, you’re a safe driver and you haven’t had much risk. We could charge you a lot of money and frankly, if you want the peace of mind and a small deductible, we will continue to charge you a lot of money. You could actually take the money you give us every month and put it into this little fund and you would save up enough money to cover your own thing. What if you did that? What if we actually worked with you on that? What if we actually combined insurance with a savings plan and overtime, in addition to putting money every month away in our insurance, you’re also putting some percentage of it away in a savings plan?
When that savings plan gets to a certain point, we’re actually going to reduce your premium and increase your savings and now I’ve got insurance that I understand am I’m beginning to get my head around this and they can give me charts and information saying this is what’s going to happen. Now, let's say you have an accident three years from now and this is how much it cost, this is the impact that’s going to be on you.
Suddenly people can get smarter but you can do it in a way that actually helps people see what they’re buying and suddenly when you show them that kind of compassion, people are more interested in doing business with you and it creates more loyalty, it creates more stuff. Now, we’re seeing this caring approach coming to industries that traditionally have not been caring. You need design to pull that off. There’s no way you can do that without having a sophisticated designed approach to what is it that we're really selling.
Not, we sell an insurance policy but we really sell peace of mind. I mean that’s what our marketing keeps telling us, that’s what we’re selling but does our product represent peace of mind? No. It actually makes us scared because it has all these words and coverages and deductibles and constraints and limitations. None of that delivers peace of mind.
J: It only confuses things.
Jared: Right. How do we deliver peace of mind in our insurance packaging? That suddenly changes the ball game for companies that again conventionally have not thought of design and they’re like, “This is the way we’ve done business for a hundred years.” Yes, it is.
J: That’s why you need to change.
J: Yeah, exactly. When we were talking last week on this topic of insurance companies, you mentioned something that I found pretty interesting, which is: do something that was pretty mundane, pretty boring like update a form or make something easier to use. It has far reaching impact for not just efficiency of the people working there but the happiness of the people working there. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Jared: Oh, yeah. One of the debates that’s going around right now is customer experience versus user experience and to me the primary difference is not all users are customers. Some of the users are the employees and if the employees don’t like their job, they take it out on their customers. You see this time and time again. Businesses where the employees are not happy are more brusque, are more cold to their customers. They’re less able to help them solve problems, they feel less empowered. This is a plague inside the airline industry.
J: Ergo, the airline that you spend a lot of time on.
J: Just as an aside, if anybody doesn’t already followed Jared on Twitter, you should because his ongoing commentary about United is absolutely hysterical.
Jared: I’m glad you think so. I always wonder how many Twitter followers I lose over my constant nagging.
J: I’m sure it’s not hysterical to you at the time but to the idle onlooker, just the level of incompetence that they display on a continuing basis is astounding.
Jared: The back story of that is that I wanted to… I read this article six, seven years ago when Twitter was just first coming out about airlines like Delta and Jet Blue that were making a concerted effort to use Twitter to provide better customer service. I wanted to see how much that really was true. How much that actually was key and so I started… At the time, I was flying on United, I think at the time I was what they call 1K, which means I somehow mismanaged my years to actually fly more than 100,000 miles on a single airline.
I never understood why it’s 1K, which is 1,000 when you have to fly 100,000 miles to qualify for. I started seeing if I could actually make my flights better by tweeting and at first I was, “Hey, your flight is late. What can we do about that?” or like, “We’re sorry. We are sorry for your inconvenience.” I started paying attention to their language and I started calling them on it. Being sorry for my inconvenience is not actually fixing the problem.
J: At all.
Jared: How do we fix the problem? Overtime, I’ve created this dialogue to see how much I can get the attention of United social media people and not just United, I do the same thing on every airline I fly. I just fly United the most. American the second most so these days they get the wrath of that. Occasionally, other airlines. The idea was to see if actually paying attention to them and really keeping them to the promises they’re making would actually change anything.
In the process, I started studying how the airline worked. This brings me back to what we were talking about before which is United Airlines is a network of very unhappy employees. They have unhappy flight attendants, unhappy pilots, unhappy gate agents. They are happier today than they were two years ago but two years ago, they were miserable and the main reason was because of the United-Continental merger.
In the process of the merger, they require concessions from all the unions that they require that they work more hours for less pay. They got really unhappy. This is not a surprise and as a result, they would take it out on their customers in all sorts of small different ways like only doing exactly what’s asked of them by the contract and not doing anymore. If the customer asks for something because they need some help like an older woman is confused about the Chicago Airport and asked flight attendant how to get to her next plain, the flight attendant will say, “I’m sorry. I’m not responsible for that. You need to talk to a gate agent at the top of the jet ramp.”
The older woman makes her way to the top of the jet ramp and finds there’s no gate agent there, what she’s supposed to do. This thing happens all the time across the network. I started calling them on it and saying, “Look, why are you letting this happen?” I would get this innocuous, “Yeah, there’s nothing we can do about it type responses. This is part of the problem because they’re not thinking… United basically has an attitude that as long as the plane takes off and lands close to when it’s supposed to, they’ve succeeded.
That’s not the customer's approach. The customer's approach is if my vacation goes without me having to think about my flight, maybe that’s a success. If my vacation goes such that from the moment I start planning my vacation to the time I get on the plane, the time I get off the plane, the time I enjoy my vacation, the time I’m coming back, United consistently exceeds my expectations, then I’ve got an experience that I’m happy about. If they just do the minimum they need to do honor the ticket and in some cases like what we saw in Chicago a few weeks ago where they beat somebody for not leaving the seat where they decided they weren’t going to honor his ticket, I’d like to say that’s an isolated thing.
Certainly, getting police to drag someone off a plane is an unusual thing but I have seen that scenario play out in so many different ways-including to me-that this is a common thing that happens on United. They will tell you that they are not going to honor the promise that they made to you.
J: When you purchased a ticket.
Jared: They charge me a lot of money. I give them hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and they don’t treat me any different than they treat that guy or anybody else. That easily could have been me. In fact, people were checking up to make sure I was okay after the incident happened because they thought it could’ve been me.
J: You were the first person I thought of.
Jared: So many people have told me that.
J: I expected who knows where you are in any given day and so I have expected- I halfway expected that you were on that plane or in the terminal or something.
Jared: I think Facebook is going to create a little special thing for me that says whenever something happens on United, they’re going to check to see that I’m okay and I can notify-
J: Right. That was a fun little tangent but back to the insurance form thing because that was super interesting.
Jared: An insurance company has forms that users fill out on their website. They also have forms that employees fill out. Make those things easier to use. Making a form easier to use seems a trivial thing, but there’s so much that goes into designing a quality form that it’s not trivial at all. It is actually really hard to do and the skills required are really important. Most forms are poorly designed because of that and as a result, they’re frustrated. People don’t understand what they’re being asked for. Pick from these numbers what level of coverage you want. How am I supposed to decide?
J: Without context, right?
Jared: Exactly. I don’t have your knowledge. I used to do this presentation where I would put up a picture of President Taft and I’d ask the audience without saying this is President Taft. I’d say, “Who is this? Anybody here know who this is,” and nobody would answer. “Somebody must know who this is. I’ll give you a hint. He was a president.” Still no answer. Then I’d say, “We’re not going to continue with the presentation until you can me this answer.” Then I would just sit down. They’d be looking around like, “What the hell is going on?” I’m like, “This is how most forms are designed. We ask the user a question they don’t know the answer to and we won’t let them go forward unless they know the answer.” What are they supposed to do? Why is that acceptable there but not acceptable in this context?
J: Right. What’s the big difference? You’re basically forcing somebody to go look elsewhere to try to figure out what they should put in to that little box to be able to get to the next step.
Jared: Right. The form that pops up from a company I do business with every week that pretends that I’ve never done business with them before and ask me the same information over, and over, and over, and over. It’s not just name and address. I buy a ticket from an airline every week because that’s my job. Every week, that airline site asks me if I wanted insurance for my flight and every week I say, “No. That’s not going to change in the future. Why do you keep asking me?” I mean I know damn well why you keep asking me. I know damn well why you make the default be yes because you make an extra $10 on my ticket if I say yes even if I say yes accidentally.
J: Sometimes they use some kind of dark pattern to get you to accidentally click yes so they can make their $10.
Jared: My favorite one now was one that … One of the airlines-I can’t remember which one was playing with… Where the yes is, “Yes, I want to pay,” and then in big bold numbers, “$31.29 to make sure my vacation is uninterrupted,” and then the no was, “No, I will risk my $427.47 fare if my vacation gets interrupted.” If you just look at the bold numbers, the second option has a bigger number than the first one so you’re going to choose the first one. Like, “Wow, that’s deviously bad.” Shaping and making it look like a higher number, bad, bad, bad.
J: The funny thing is they put just as much effort into being devious as they could have in to making it a better experience and actually building some trust and some loyalty with the customer.
Jared: Right. This is a product manager who thinks, “We can get them to buy insurance they don’t need.” That’s that whole same mentality of we’re designing the interface but we’re not designing the overall experience.
J: I think that goes back to a short-term revenue metric that they’re trying to beat, right?
J: The revenue office says, “We need to increase our ancillary revenue by X percent in the next quarter.” That’s what drives those decisions as opposed to looking at what type of revenue increase you could gain from customer loyalty or from providing some better experience for somebody so they recommend somebody else or they actually book more flights with you because they enjoyed the last one.
J: It’s pretty myopic and short-sighted way of looking at things.
Jared: It absolutely is. You know what, in some industries right now, that’s where the money is, right?
Jared: The airline industry is recording record profits and a lot of those profits are coming from those short-term revenue goals of, “We’re going to charge you for bags. We’re going to charge you for sitting in seats that have two more inches of leg room. We’re going to charge you for a meal in a cardboard box that’s crackers and cheese. We’re going to charge you for each of these things. We’re going to nickel and dime you to death,” and report that those things bring in billions of dollars in revenue and you’re going to love us for it because we’re going to pretend that this is keeping fares well when in fact fares are based in demand. They’re not any lower than they were a decade ago.
J: Meanwhile, they ignore the models of Southwest who is not doing those things and still has record profits.
J: It’s pretty interesting to see how those things play out. Earlier in the chat, you mentioned that we need more designers than ever because more companies are recognizing the importance of looking at things through the lens of problem solving and call it design thinking, human center design, or whatever you want to call it. It’s essentially solving a problem in a creative way, right?
J: You’re a co-founder of a school that helps train those designers. Tell us a little bit about that and how that works.
Jared: Leslie Jensen-Inman and I five years ago now, down this path-
J: Has it been that long?
Jared: Yeah. It’s been that long. Isn’t that crazy?
J: It is, yeah.
Jared: We started down this path from different places. She was a professor at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga teaching design to students who are coming through their art program and was frustrated that the design curriculum she was working with weren’t preparing people to work in industry and weren’t preparing them to go do good in the world helping community. They just weren’t getting the skills. They were focusing on the wrong things. She went to get her doctorate in education and her dissertation was on how do we create a modern 21st century trading mechanism for designers.
Particularly she was focused on web designers at the time. I was on the other side of the country thinking about the problems my clients were having so I was focused on helping companies be better at getting products out that delighted customers. It was clear that design was now going to play a big role, the world needed more designers, and we were not producing them at the right tech companies that were demanding them. I was trying to figure out how to get more designers into the world. A friend of ours who I think you know, Dan Rubin. You know Dan Rubin?
J: Yeah, I know Dan. We were just talking about Dan last night, actually.
Jared: Dan is one of these people who comes up in small batches. I find myself not talking about him for a while and then talking about him a lot and I miss him. Hey, Dan. I miss you.
J: Come back to the states, Dan.
Jared: Exactly. We need you. We need smart people like you. I was talking to Dan at the time and I was talking about this problem and he says, “Have you talked to Leslie?” I’ve known Leslie for a long time but I hadn’t realized what she had been doing. I’m like, “No.” He starts telling me what she’s working on. I’m like, "Oh, wow." Then two days later, I see a tweet from Leslie that says, “I have just turned in my resignation at University of Tennessee. I don’t know what my future will hold but I’m sure it will be a great adventure.”
I send her a DM on Twitter and I said, “Hey, we should talk. Dan says we should talk.” Half an hour later, we’re on the phone and next thing you know, we’re starting a school. That was the start of it. The first thing we did was we went out. We talk to all these companies that were looking to hire designers about what they were looking for and what they need and all this stuff. We ended up building a school that’s based completely on what these folks need. We built it from the ground up because we’re not affiliated with the University or any existing education program.
We could take what Leslie knew from her doctorate degree in building an education program. We could build on that but we didn’t have to have all the restrictions of doing it inside of a conventional university system and build something that was completely geared at creating designers for industry. Four-and-a-half years later, last fall, we got our first students. It’s a two-year program in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and they are six months in and they are doing fantastic. They are way ahead of where we thought they were going to be. In fact, we’re having trouble keeping up with them which is fantastic problem to have.
They are learning design at an amazing pace and creating work. They spend two-thirds of their time doing real world projects. That’s one of the things that makes us completely different from a conventional school is that you’re actually gaining work experience while you’re learning because-
J: You partnered with actual companies and doing work on real problems for real companies, right?
Jared: Yeah. Companies like insurance companies give us projects to work on, they may be projects like redesign this form but that form is a hard problem to solve, and the students have to learn about it, they have to understand the problem. They have to come up with alternative solutions. They have to get the company to buy in to it and then the company actually will… If they like the design that students do, they give us development resources and now our students are working with real developers, they’re seeing the thing built, and then they try it out with real users and they see the users actually interact with it and they make changes based on what they’re learning.
It’s a total integrated design process and that integrated design process teaches the students how to solve problems and take them all the way through deployment, which was one of the things the hiring managers told us that they were really missing from folks coming out of school. In school, you learned a lot about the theory of design, you learn a lot about solving big problems but a form is not a big problem. It’s a ton of little problems and solving those little problems, that’s not a sexy class to teach so they don’t teach that class.
Jared: We teach a bunch of classes around that but we also teach how to take apart the problems and see the really sexiness within them and that changes everything.
J: Instead of looking at it as one big problem, you’re curing the paper cuts and preventing people from dying from paper cuts.
Jared: Right. That very much focuses the students on really the skills that are necessary to be a good designer starting out in a company and really getting to understand them. One of the things is because they work with five to eight different companies in their two years with the program. They learned how different companies work.
This is another thing that the hiring companies told us was that students come in from these programs believing that there’s one right way to do design and when they find out that no company does the one right way, when they find out that the company they came to are like, ”What are we? Not capable of doing it right? Why aren’t we doing it right?” We’re not teaching them that there’s one right way to do anything. In fact, one of the constant conversations we have is in the design world, we use the same terms to mean different things.
J: All the time. It is painful.
Jared: It is. We’re teaching them to love with that ambiguity and to say, “Hey, when someone says we build personas, ask them what they actually build because when somebody says that, there’s five different ways you can build personas and some of them are effective and some of them are not effective. Some of them are more effective on the marketing side. Some of them are more effective on the design side. Which version are they using? We’re actually asking them to ask the question and not just assume that if someone says personas like, “Oh, I learn that in my second semester. I know what that s.”
No, you don’t necessarily know what that is. You need to ask what does the persona actually say and how could it be helpful to me and where will it actually not be helpful because they don’t do it the way that I need for this particular project.
J: It’s those foundational questions. What do we know and how did we learn what we know because sometimes that has a great influence on the way that you perceive the knowledge that you have.
Jared: It’s funny that you mention that because I’ve been doing this little thing in workshops and talks that I give. I have people write down the major accomplishments that they did over the last week. I have them open up a piece of paper, bring up a file on their phone and jot in there what are the major things you accomplished last week. Think of three to 10 things that you got done. Then next to each of those things, I want you to write down the percentage of that thing that you learned how to do in school.
J: How many of them are above 10%?
Jared: Very rarely that you get anybody above 25% with anything on their list. I’m like, “If you didn’t learn it school, where did you learn how to do that?” You just had a successful week, you did a bunch of stuff. Where did you learn how to do all those things?” Everybody goes, “Well, I guess on the job.” I’m like, “Okay. If I’m building a school, I need to build a school that helps people learn on the job, not a school that’s going to pretend to teach you everything and send you into the world and then disappoint you when you get out to the world, and more importantly disappoint the people who hired you, who think you can do the work that you’re supposed to be doing.”
We basically are teaching students to learn because we can give them principles, we can give them foundation but more importantly, we can teach them how to detect that something is not the way they expect and work with that.
J: You’re teaching them how to ask smart questions and how to work with other people to create a solution, right?
J: Which ultimately is the thing that they’re going to be doing when they get out into the workforce because that book you had in your first semester is not going to be relevant anymore.
Jared: Right. By teaching them to be flexible and by teaching them how to find resources. This is one of the ways we’ve constructed it. Instead of giving them a textbook and telling to read pages 54 through 65 tonight, we give them a bunch of things that they need to prove to us they know. It could be for the user research course.
It’s like tell me how you recruit participants? Tell me what the process for recruiting a participant is? That’s what we’re going to grade you on. Then we’ll give you a list of starter resources that we have curated that could have these answers but we actually don’t tell you which ones have the answers. Then we say, “Don’t limit yourself to just these things.” What happens is, is that our students get very good at going to the web and looking things up and finding that there’s multiple answers and dealing with the fact that, “Hey, I found three different ways to recruit participants for usable studies.”
Each one said they were the best way. How do I know which is the best way? That’s a good question. What would you use to measure that? This is what real life is like. School doesn’t say there’s only one best way. I know the answer and until you can tell me what it is, you have failed. You have to gather all the information and put together the big picture and see how this works in its entirety.
J: In my practice, we typically say that we’re looking for that Venn diagram that has business values and user value and where do those things overlap and how do we make that overlap as much as possible. Ultimately, we’re training people to identify that and giving them the skills to do the critical thinking and whether that be the scientific method or whatever you’re going to call it. To do that and to essentially teaching them to be a problem solver.
Jared: Exactly. Problem solving is the number one skill that we’re focusing on, continuous learning and being a life-long learner is key to problem solving. That’s where we're focusing our efforts and we are being completely upfront with our students saying, “What we are going to teach you in this school is going to be outdated in some way by the time you leave here.” We’re going to be honest about that. We’re going to constantly go back to the well. This is why we have this real life focus.
Every few months, they’re starting a new project from a new company and in that project, they’re going to go back to basics and they start asking the questions. What do they need? What do they want? We’re going to send them off and say, “Remember what you learned about typography? Here’s the reality that this client works in and how typography is going to deal with for them.” We didn’t teach you that before you need to go figure that out now. How does what you learned before going to fit in to this world where these people are on this platform where the number of typefaces is limited and they only get 16 fonts because they’re doing this specialized thing and that’s all they can do.
How do you work with that? We didn’t teach you how to deal with that constraint before? These guys are an entity that can’t use any fee based font kits. They need only royalty free funds. How do you work with that? We didn’t talk about that in class before but now you have to learn about it and we’re not going to tell you how to do it, you have to figure it out and figure out how it fits into your world.
Introducing those types of constraints gets them thinking about I can handle anything a client throws at me. I just need to have a toolbox that lets me answer the questions, ask the right questions, and figure out where the edge of the constraint is and can I go right up to it without going over.
J: Giving them a tool kit to know how to ask smart questions and how to drive into problem in a way that helps to reveal the best practical solution for that particular problem at that point in time for that audience.
Jared: This is why this program takes two years. There’s so many programs popping up that are short, they’re 12 weeks, eight weeks. I saw one that was becoming a UX designer in three-and-a-half weeks. I’m like, “Really?”
Jared: I look at the list of things that they do and it’s crazy. One of our projects is five times the length of their program, we’re going to do five to eight of those projects in the two years, and that’s not including classroom time. That’s insane. You can’t be good at what you do in three-and-a-half weeks.
J: Yeah. There’s no industry where that’s possible, zero.
Jared: The average project in a conventional design school. Students are expected to spend 30 hours outside of class working on the project and that sounds like a lot when you have a class that’s going to be a total of 18 or 24 hours. An additional 30 hours on top of it. That’s more than twice the length of the class or doubles the length of class in terms of the amount of effort you’re going to put in but in the workplace, we have a name for the 30-hour point in a project. We call it Thursday. No projects are four days long. Projects are weeks long, months long, sometimes years long.
Where do we prepare students to work on projects that are actually deep and you iterate and you spend a lot of time thinking about how you’re going to solve problems only to find out that you solved the wrong problem and now you have to go back and start again. That’s what we need to teach students to be able to deal with and we need longer projects.
J: Practically, that’s the stuff they’re going to be dealing with when they get out into the real world. I mean those are the things that we see every day. Somebody comes with an assumption and the first thing we have to do is validate that assumption and that’s wrong so now we’re back at the drawing board. We’re going to start completely over in what they thought might take a few days or weeks of stretching into weeks and months and you have to be equipped for that. You have to be able to have the tenacity and the mental fortitude to know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and have the tools to find it.
Jared: Yeah, absolutely.
J: We’re just about out of time. I want to be respectful of your time. In closing, what are your thoughts around the state of where things are going and if you’re a product owner or you’re doing a startup or whatever, what are the things you need to be paying attention to and maybe some good resources for learning more?
Jared: Of course, we are always publishing what we’re learning at UIE. We have great thought of the day newsletter and regular articles and podcast and things that we produced that delve into design problems and understanding how teams work. At Center Centre we’re always updating what’s happening with the school. We're looking for new students so if you know someone who design might be a good place for them, send then our way plus we’re looking for companies to give us projects so if you think you’d like to potentially hire our students and would like to be part of our students education, then let us know. We’d love to talk to you about that.
We also do conferences. In May we have our UX emerging conference in Portland and then this fall we’re going to have our UI 22. It’s our 22nd year of the user interface conference. Can you believe that?
J: Wow. Congratulations. It’s a long run.
Jared: Started in 1996. We’re just going to keep doing it until we get it right. We’re just putting the line up together for that. It’s going to be fantastic. That’s in Boston. November 13th through 15th and you can find out more about that at ui22.com or uiconf.com. I’m trying to think what else. I think those are big things. We have our all you can learn library which is this lovely… We’ve collected up hundreds of experts, presentations, seminars and things and put them into the library and they’re all available. This is part of the curriculum that we’ve developed for the schools. Any topic you want to know that’s related to UX. We’ve got multiple things on in the library.
J: That’s a great resource.
J: If somebody wants to get in touch with you, what’s the best way to do it? Is it Twitter or something else?
Jared: Twitter, and my email is email@example.com. If you work on design and we’re not connected on LinkedIn, by all means connect up with me on LinkedIn. I love talking to people through LinkedIn. It gives me a chance to answer their questions. I like LinkedIn because when someone pops me a question that I’ve never talk to them before, I can quickly look at their background and say, “Oh, they’re in this industry. Cool.” I can tailor my answer to that.
J: Yeah. It gives you a little bit of context.
Jared: Yeah. It gives me a sense of where they’re coming from and then I can ask them questions like, “Hey, what’s it been like working in that industry.” We get to know each other. It’s really nice. I actually like the messaging. They’ve redone messaging on LinkedIn and I’ve gotten used to the new messaging thing. It’s this weird hybrid between instant messenger and email. It almost works but it’s idiosyncratic. LinkedIn is Microsoft’s way of reminding us that understanding users is actually important to the design process.
J: We just actually had Nate from LinkedIn on the show couple of weeks ago and he was talking about their use of design systems and how they’re using some of these tools to make that entire experience better across the entire platform. That’s a good conversation.
Jared: I haven’t quite gotten to that episode yet. I will now pump that up to my queue and make sure I go listen to that.
J: I think they’re doing good work over there. Nate was pretty insightful into some of their process and their backend systems. Jared, again, massive thanks for being on the show. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you. I’d like to get you back on the show at some point in the future and get an update on all things UIE and Center Centre and just explore some of these topics in more detail so we’ll get that on the calendar at some point.
Jared: I love that. I absolutely love that.
J: We’ll have to rendezvous in Chattanooga.
Jared: We should talk about you. I did all the talking this time. Sometime we should talk about how you’re doing and what you’re up to.
J: Yeah. We can do that. Maybe I’ll come on to your podcast.
Jared: That would be good.
J: We’ll look in setting that up and rendezvous in Chattanooga at some point would be fantastic.
Jared: If people want to come by and see the school, just pop us a note. We would love to have you.
J: What’s the URL to the school?
J: We’ll put that in the show notes.
Jared: We would love to have you come and visit. Every time someone comes in and visit, we introduce them to students, we have them talk a little bit about their work, we have them give the students a chance to ask questions about what it’s like so they learn the difference. They learn how people… Everybody does something different. What they look for in new people, what it’s like to work there, what the big challenges are, what the little challenges are, all those sorts of things.
J: Cool. Thanks again. We will be in touch again real soon.
Jared: That sounds fantastic. Take care, J.
J: All right. Take care, Jared.
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