KD: Mark, tell me about your background in the software industry.
MV: I have an M.S. from MIT, where I did research in the Media Lab. I started out in engineering and management roles at Intel, Borland, Red Pepper, and then PeopleSoft, after they bought Red Pepper. At Borland the user interface design team reported to my section of the R&D organization. I moved into venture capital and mergers and acquisitions and worked at Matrix Partners and helped found Pagemill Partners. My latest work is with Scale Advisors, where I help very new companies get started. I also help bigger companies figure out how to move forward more quicklyyou can almost think of that as outsourced corporate development. And I work with companies who are stuck in some way, helping the management team or the investors figure out how to get it unstuck, or whether to even bother to get it unstuck.
KD: Were you ever a user experience skeptic?
MV: No. I have always said that computers should be like telephones. No one seemed to ever have a problem using the phone, but using a computer just freaked them out. I thought it should be just as easy to use as the telephone, except you can do a lot more with it.
KD: When you worked in product development, how did you justify the value of user experience to the organization?
MV: Initially, the research I did at MIT was funded by defense agencies, which needed to help people manage immense amounts of data. Later, when I was at Intel, I worked on a multiwindowed, computer-aided design system when the idea of having two windows was almost unheard of. I wrote a paper on using color in the interface and why using color would be helpful: It made it a lot easier to recognize and manage large amounts of data. It was very obvious that as soon as you put effort into the user interface, you would get pretty good results. People recognized intuitively that it was more useful, and when we studied users, it was clear that it allowed them to process more information, be more productive, and have a better job experience.
"One thing you don't want to do is tell engineers that they don't know what they are talking about, that they should just listen to you. It is much better to work toward compromise."
KD: What makes a user experience team successful from the executive sponsor perspective?
MV: First, the manager who owns user experience has to have the vision for how UX can add to the products. It can't be an afterthought, because doing it that way doesn't work, and the people on the user experience team end up leaving because it's not fulfilling. When it's integrated into the process, and the executive who owns it also has a vision for it, then you can be really successful and people feel like they are working on a team. A trap some groups get into is trying to measure the value of user experiencethat is, why you should spend time on it. This is very hard to measure. By the time you quantify it, it's too late, because you are not spending that time designing the products.
KD: When you were in the position of running UI groups or being their sponsor, in what ways did they function that you found were more successful and effective long term?
MV: There are a number of things. You need an entrepreneurial spirit, a vision for how addressing the UI can improve the products. And you need people on the team who can be persuasive that the UI is as important as the functionality. On the team itself, you have to have the right mix of skills, both technical and design. In terms of the actual design of the products, you have to know your users well, and this is increasingly important as more and more kinds of people use software for more and more purposes. You also have to brand your products well by making the UIs consistent, so that they look like they come from one company.
One thing you don't want to do is tell engineers that they don't know what they are talking about, that they should just listen to you. It is much better to work toward compromise. I think this is going to be a persistent problem, because everybody creates content now. There is a whole generation of people who are not user experience professionals who think they know when something looks good. Working it out in the lab before you work it out in the marketplace is very important.
KD: What are some of the new challenges user experience professionals are facing?
MV: There are two of them. One challenge is that you have to make sure you understand exactly who you are designing for and make sure you have a layered approach to the design. If you take a look at the Yahoos and Googles of the world, they are very polished interfaces, but they are only a subset of what you can do, so there are opportunities for people to differentiate.
The other challenge is that there is a new world of users out there. The trend is user-generated content. MySpace takes website design back ten years. Just because you can use 10 colors and 15 fonts doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. But also, if you look at MySpace, you see that it's partly a creative canvas, like art. How do you design products and services for people who have gotten the value out of expressing themselves and feel they should? How do you design products that anybody can change whenever they want?
KD: It implies to me that one of the things we should do with kids, maybe even in high school, in addition to teaching them a lot of the computer skills we teach them right now, is teach them the basics of good user interface design.
MV: I think it would be great for kids to have more of an understanding of good design. And maybe not just the user interface, but all the skills that are required to communicate. When is a picture better than words? Since it's so easy to do, what's the right way to do it?
KD: In enterprise software, we are still designing for a work force that is composed mostly of people who grew up before MySpace. But the MySpace people are coming, and they will have an impact on the kinds of UIs we create.
MV: The UI problem is that people want to personalize how they receive and send information. Compared with what they are used to, they will find traditional environments incredibly stifling.
KD: What are some things that user experience professionals could do to promote their work and better build their work into the development process?
MV: With enterprise software, rarely do people say, "We are going to make a product that looks like this." They say, "We are going to make a product that does this." If user interface is a critical part of the design, you have to talk about what it's going to look like and how it's going to be used. You will get into trouble if you are focused completely on the functionality and then afterward say, "Oh yeah, we have to make it look good." If you think of industrial design and most consumer products, how it feels and looks is as important as what it does. Take a car, for example. More time is spent discussing what the car looks like than what the engine does. That's not to say they don't have engineers working on the engines, but the look and the mood and the brand are what sells the car. You have to take this approach if user interface is going to reach that same level.
KD: Do you have advice for UX professionals working in an organization where UX is new?
MV: The key is that the UI is as important as the functionality, and if that's not part of the discussion from day one, it's very hard to make it work. You can reengineer it, but all you are then doing is making what's there pretty. You are not going to be able to take it to the next level. To truly make something elegant, which is what people want from consumer products today, you have to marry the interface and the functionality. Look at the difference between today's cell phones and Apple's iPod. It is impossible to easily use cell phones right now. They have more and more features, and it requires a 100-page manual to figure them out. Apple took the MP3 player, which had been around for a while, and made the iPod really pretty and easy to use; it dominates the market, a market that should be more open.
KD: How can people be more effective at turning their development colleagues into partners? Rather than, as sometimes happens, the "us versus them" mentality?
MV: Sometimes, it's easier if you can test things in the lab. Show the engineer, who thinks that his way is the way to do it, that users in fact can't do it that way. Then, instead of saying "I told you so," say "How can we make this better?" You have to marry the form and the function. Both sides need to be focused on the end user and what the end user is trying to do. When you do this, there is a much higher likelihood of success.
About the Author
Kristin Desmond is a user experience architect at Oracle. In the 11-plus years that she has worked at Oracle, Kristen has designed products across a range of areas, including server technology, applications, and business intelligence. She has also managed user experience teams in the customer relationship management, supply chain, and human resources spaces. She has a bachelor's degree in architecture from UC Berkeley.
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