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Interface design, 2002: Interviews

IX.2 March 2002
Page: 123
Digital Citation

Perspectives on user interface design training by Scott Berkun


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Scott Berkun studied computer science, philosophy, and interaction design at Carnegie Mellon University. He has worked on Internet Explorer 1.0 through 5.0, designing or managing the development of many features of its user interface. He worked as a lead program manager for Consumer Windows before becoming the training manager for design and usability at Microsoft in 2000. He writes frequently about Web and interaction design at www.uiweb.com and http://msdn.microsoft.com/ui.

EADE: Tell us about your background and how you arrived at Microsoft.

SCOTT: I studied computer science, philosophy, design, and HCI at Carnegie Mellon University. Microsoft hired me in 1994 to work on Internet Explorer 1.0 as a usability engineer. I was the 30th or so usability engineer in the company. I worked on that project through Internet Explorer 5.0, changing positions along the way to work as a program manager, leading the design and engineering effort for many of the user interface features. After the IE5.0 release, I spent a year working on interface design research for the Windows division.

EADE: And now?

SCOTT: I'm currently the one and only training manager for design and usability at Microsoft. I'm responsible for courses, talks, and events that focus on teaching Web design, interaction design, and usability engineering. It's my job to both evangelize interaction design, as well as to lead targeted training efforts within the company. As you might guess, we emphasize pragmatism, and learning through experience. For anyone in a product design or usability engineering position, we expect that they have a strong formal background before they get here. My job is to help them to transfer those formalisms and methods into real impact on the Web and product designs that go out the door. There are many factors involved in cultivating the right kinds of experiences to grow as an individual in design, and my job is to try and make those experiences happen for our employees.

EADE: Tell us more about how things are done at Microsoft; how is design done in such a large company?

SCOTT: Design processes vary from group to group. The corporate philosophy is empowered small teams. Groups create their own processes to fit the types of users, markets, and technologies they're working with. Since Web, game, software and hardware design all deserve different considerations, a single monolithic model wouldn't be in the best interest of anyone. Many techniques and methods are shared and reused, but it's more organic than enforced. Most teams include interaction designers and usability engineers, and they are integrated into the development team. They are expected to contribute from day one of the project, all the way through the moment the last bits are propped to the Web or put on the CD. They drive the user research process, create and iterate on design concepts, and bring design specifications and supporting data to the team. Throughout the project, they continually provide crafted ideas and user data, integrating their knowledge into the engineering decisions. Of course some teams manage this process better than others, but this general framework is common.

EADE: So how does this affect or change how you approach training? Does the diversity make it more difficult?

SCOTT: I think the diversity helps remind me how broad the design skill set is, and how much can be learned by examining how different disciplines do it. I spend a lot of time pulling examples from Web design, software design, or even architecture and film, to help developers or managers recognize how fundamental some of their problems with design process and project decision making are. Consulting with these different teams around the company helps me to gather material and experiences from lots of different domains. I think the diversity is an asset, not a liability. To help balance my time, though, I am working on a foundation series of courses to provide a basic framework. Once that is in place, I'll be able to invest more time on specialized interface design and usability topics from around the company.

EADE: How do designers and usability engineers interact with developers and the technical team?

SCOTT: Most of the time there is a natural partnership between design, usability, and the programmers and program managers. If everyone has the same goal of making the best Web site or product for customers, then the synergy of each discipline's contributions are welcomed by everyone. Everyone working on the same area of Web site or product is something of a virtual team or feature team and may have their own small meetings, e-mail lists, or Web pages. Typically their offices are in the same hallway, and they have easy access to each other, which goes a long way in enabling good cross-discipline work. Program managers often act as facilitators for the virtual team and can help provide more structure if necessary. They make trade-offs across the product or Web site, ensure that everyone has the information and resources they need to do their best work, and set the higher level vision for the entire Web site or feature.

In terms of day-to-day interaction, it's pretty straightforward. Lots of time is spent in front of whiteboards, or looking at prototypes, and working together to create ideas or make decisions. There is a sort of pendulum that swings back and forth between design and development. Design may create some great prototypes and challenge development to figure out the details of how it might be built, or what constraints there are given the schedule and technological limitations. Then development may come back to design, and ask for more details on how things will behave and for more clarity on the details. Usability is in there answering questions, finding data, and running studies, influencing the design choices and making sure everyone is as informed as possible. Program management sets the pace, and the scope, and makes sure decisions are made when they're supposed to. The interactions are often informal, with the occasional review meeting or specification review to formalize decisions and communicate with the larger team.

EADE: What would you personally like to achieve as a design and usability training manager?

SCOTT: I'd like to see us use design and usability more effectively as a strategic asset. We've had significant impact in many places, with many teams from Windows, to Office, to MSN, to mobile devices, using design and usability as key players in the entire development process, but we still have room for growth. There are several hundred designers and usability engineers in the company, and I'd like to help them to amplify their value. Many interface design problems are artifacts of higher level decisions, and we need to broaden our spheres of influence to have an impact on them. Some problems can't be solved tactically and require a broader view and approach. I think that strategic usability and strategic design are currently weak spots in our industry. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to change this.

EADE: At CHI2000, you organized the first Interactionary, a team-based, real-time design competition. It was repeated at CHI2001 and, in a different format, at CHI2002. Can you tell us how this got started? What did you want to accomplish? What made you want to do it?

SCOTT: In my experience, the best learning happens by doing—or at least by watching good people do what they do. In this respect, the paper, panel, tutorial formats that most conferences use seemed ripe for some new explorations. So I tried to think how I could use a 90-minute session to do something educational but active and engaging. As the organizer, it seemed like a great way for me to learn about how other people view design: nothing draws out people's opinions more than getting up on stage and taking chances. I also had the major benefit of Debbie Cargile, Christopher Konrad (Mr. Las Vegas himself) and Sarah Zuberec, three friends from Microsoft that partnered with me in making this happen. I expect there are more fun and crazy things in my future if I'm fortunate enough to work with them again.

EADE: And? Did it succeed as an educational format? Did the Interactionary have an impact on your work, on your thinking?

SCOTT: I think it did. I'm totally convinced now that education should engage the students or the audience. We received high scores in the audience surveys for how useful, informative, and entertaining the sessions were. They wanted more. We'd like to see it happen too, and that's why we put the details of both events with lots of photos—and a guide for running your own interactionary—up on www.uiweb.com. Running the events also helped confirm many suspicions I had about design and designers. As much as we like to focus on process and methods, design will always be driven by creativity and inspiration, and we spend much more time documenting the former than the latter. I think we could do an event like this every year, and as long as we had different teams involved, it would always be interesting and educational. So much of what makes a good designer are the things we don't know how to capture, things that are beyond the methods. Interactionary was one way to expose some of that essence that we seem to forget. I'm sure there are other ways, and I'd like to find them.

I think it's interesting to try and apply our own methods to ourselves. Are our conferences well designed? What are the real needs of the design and HCI community, and are they being met? What user research or prototyping are we doing to try and capture what's missing? I think we can learn a lot about our own successes and failures if we take our own skills for understanding and designing things and apply them to our jobs, organizations, or communities.

The other major thing I learned was that events like this require much planning. The panel co-chairs that allowed us to do this were great and very supportive, but we had to do extraordinary planning to make the format work. We basically designed a game show, including the logistics for the judges, the MCs, getting teams of people on and off stage, and had to figure out how to fit into 90 minutes. I don't think anything this elaborate, with so many people, had been done at CHI before. I guess I learned that designing events is its own special kind of design problem.

EADE: What other ideas have you been cooking up for CHI conferences? Will you do an Interactionary again?

SCOTT: I think after two years of Interactionary, the CHI folks have had enough of me (laughs). I've stepped down, but CHI 2002 is running an extended interactionary as part of the conference, which should be an interesting variation on the basic ideas. I'm glad to see someone else doing some explorations. For myself, I'm planning on leading two workshops, which are by far my favorite format. One is on Web navigation design, the other on teaching interaction design.

EADE: Can you say more about the workshops you're running?

SCOTT: The Web navigation workshop is sort of a clinic for experts in Web navigation design. Workshops are great because they allow peer discussion around some topic, and for this one I want people to bring their toughest problems. Things that they've seen or are working on, that is forcing them to stretch their limits. We'll work on those problems as a group, and then individually, leading to discussions of the different approaches and alternatives that work well. We'll see how our ideas and methods compare and contrast with each other. I plan to document whatever we do up on my Web site, and maybe we can get more contributions from other people online.

The other workshop is on design education. Teaching design is tough. What makes it particularly hard is how few resources there are on how to do it well. So my goal here is to get some good people together who do it for a living and lay down some different methods and philosophies we've each used that work well. If we can exchange and document some good thinking, it'd be another great resource for the entire CHI community.

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Scott Berkun

Design and Usability Training Manager
Microsoft Corporation

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UF1Figure. Scott Berkun

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©2002 ACM  1072-5220/02/0300  $5.00

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