Becoming Jared Spool - Jared Spool, UIE
Jared Spool is one of the most influential voices in UX. After a brief stint as an engineer, Jared went on to found User Interface Engineering in 1988, a leading consulting firm that specializes in website and product usability. Jared is a prolific writer, speaker, and advocate for UX with the ambition goal of ridding the world of all bad design. He's also more recently taken on the challenge of starting his own school to create the next generation of UX professionals. This episode focuses on finding out a bit more about how Jared built the enviable career he's now so well know for and what's inspired him to do it.
Aryel Cianflone: I thought that we could start today with just a brief introduction, so if you want to maybe just speak a little bit briefly about your career, what you're doing now.
Jared Spool: Oh, I'm not good at introducing myself, other than to say "Hi, I'm Jared." Well you know I'm the co-CEO and co-founder of Center Centre and founder of UIE. I've been doing this for 29 years. Before that I was a software engineer and my work is all around trying to figure out how to eliminate all the bad design from the world.
Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. Not an ambitious goal at all.
Jared Spool: Yep. I figure it's a 100 year mission and that I'm probably 30% into it. It just means I have to live a really long time.
Aryel Cianflone: I love that goal. That's a great goal. I think if your goal isn't going to be ambitious I'm not sure it's worth having. That's a great introduction. Obviously you're leaving out that you're one of the most influential voices in UX and as you've said you've had this long and amazing career. One of the things as I was thinking about having this conversation with you, that there's so many things that we could talk about and I just wanted to kind of start with what got you interested in this work. You know you started out as an engineer. There's so many different directions that you could have gone, so yeah, how did it kind of start for you?
Jared Spool: Yeah I don't know how influential I am. I mean every time I hear myself talk it always feels like things I've heard before. It doesn't seem that new or novel, but other people seem to like it. What got me started initially was I was mostly interested in, I was designing software and I was just sort of in the right place in the right time. I was working on personal computers designing software for sort of the first generation of personal computers. We were trying to figure out well if you're going to have a computer on your desk, what does it need to have on it. Right? There was a time when there were no desktop computers and so the things that we think of today of having an email client, or having a spreadsheet or even having a desktop, those things didn't exist because you didn't need them when you had other types of computers, but you did need them for a desktop computer, and they weren't obvious.
I mean there were lots of attempts to do this and I was involved in a whole bunch of those designs and spent a lot of time studying what other people were doing. At the time we were making systems that were really built by engineers for engineers and it was expected you would read manuals. It was expected you would go to training and that you would never use something without having done a lot of preparation before you sat down and started to use it. The idea that you would sit down and just be able to figure it out by looking at it was a novel idea. This idea that you would go and sit down and use it, we didn't know anything about how to do that, I mean nothing, and we were all figuring that out and that really intrigued me. It was such a radical idea. Nobody thought it was possible at the time because no one had ever done it.
Aryel Cianflone: Yeah.
Jared Spool: And just figuring out what the methods are for figuring that out was fascinating.
Aryel Cianflone: Yeah, so how did you get from that to the goal that you just stated of eliminating all bad design from the world?
Jared Spool: So we've been plugging away at that, and we'd been plugging away at that for about 10 years and at that point I had this tragedy in my life. My first wife passed away, and she wasn't supposed to die. She had at the time, and for many years before, she had multiple sclerosis, which is a debilitating disease, but it doesn't kill you. It just makes you miserable for much of your life, but she had gotten complications due to that, and part of the reason that she had gotten complications was that a computer system failed. Because she had a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, she had been maintaining her quality of life with regular physical therapy and occupational therapy and those were expensive, difficult sessions and the insurance company looked at them and the computer decided that multiple sclerosis is a disease that can't be cured, so therefore it doesn't make sense to keep paying for these things. It just started rejecting payments and we didn't know it for months. In addition to having racked up unreimbursed claims for months that we didn't know we were supposed to be paying for, we had to stop that stuff and it stopped for about a year and a half.
In that year in a half, her mobility dropped tremendously to the point where she struggled to just do basic things that you and I take for granted, like getting out of bed, getting on and off the toilet, things like that. When your mobility drops and you spend a lot of time in a wheelchair, you end up getting rashes in parts of your body that come in contact with the chair and those rashes develop, if they get bad enough, they develop into open sores and then in one of those open sores a bacterial infection crept in and that killed her. The really sad thing was, was that about a month before she contracted the infection and died 24 hours later, a month before that we had convinced the insurance company to assign us a human case representative. They looked at what the computer had decided, decided that it was wrong, and reestablished the occupational therapy and the physical therapy, but it was too late.
At that point, or at a very short point after that, I came to the conclusion that it was poorly designed computer systems that had killed my wife. And it wasn't the only story I'd heard about that, I mean I heard this story from lots of people very similar things happening and realized that we had to rid the world of all the badly designed things.
Aryel Cianflone: Yeah, that's an incredibly powerful story. I mean I feel like that kind of even changes the way that I think about you and your career, because it's just such an incredible and such a powerful personal way to start a career like this.
Jared Spool: Yeah, I mean it's, in some ways it wasn't the start of my career. I'd been 20 years into it at that point, but it definitely reframed why and how we were doing what we were doing and it gave us whole new meaning. Up until that point UIE, the company that I started in 1988, my wife died in 1996, so up until that point the company was basically just a design services firm. We did usability testing and some design work and things like that, but after that point our mission became much more clear and it's not just about doing any usability design. It was all about how do we figure out what the bad design in the world is and then how do we start to eliminate it. We knew at the time that this was probably an impossible thing to do, but we decided what the hell.
Aryel Cianflone: Yeah, all of that kind of, you really did just kind of articulate a little bit of what your conception of UX was at the beginning of your career and how it changed, but I would love to kind of hear you speak about that specifically because I think one of the things that's so valuable and so interesting for someone like me talking to someone like you is, you just have this different perspective, right? Like you have had the benefit of seeing the industry change so much and have a lot of experience. I would love to hear you kind of say a little bit about what your conception of UX was when you were starting and then now as someone who's 30 years in, how you think about that.
Jared Spool: Well we didn't think of UX when I was starting. That was not even a term that we thought about. The word usability didn't even really come in to common use for ... you know I started in 1976, so you know it's not unusual for me to be standing in front of audiences that weren't even born then. In fact there are projects that I worked on that are older than many of the people I speak in front of these days.
At the time it was called software human factors, and it was an extension of the human factors works that had started in the, really coming into form in the 50's and 60's and early 70's, which was in the 70's there was a big push towards ergonomics. Everybody was now sitting in chairs all day long. Before that you were up and moving around all the time and doing physical work, but in the 70's a large number of knowledge workers were now sitting in chairs and if you had the wrong chair you would be temporarily or permanently damaged, so people were working on physical ergonomics. What's the best way to sit in a chair? So in that period we started working on software ergonomics and software human factors and trying to understand how do you make software that accommodates the form of the human just like we're making physical things that accommodated the form of the human.
It was a branch of sort of cognitive psychology though at that time. Cognitive psychology had not thought about design. So this was all fascinating right, because there was no where you could go to study this. There were no programs. There were no schools. I ended up studying social psychology because social psychology was the best place to learn experimental design and I was interested in the experimental design portion of it. Could we iterate over designs and change something based on a series of experiments and that fascinated me. That's where I got started was there, but you had to go into social sciences and social psychology, which at the time all the studies and experiment design was could you design an experiment that would predict heart failure. Could you figure out what medications actually improve longevity in life. There was a lot of work done around pain and around the perception of pain.
There was a lot of work done because of, well it's a popular topic these days because of the Nazi's basically, to figure out how do people become those people. A lot of that was done by this notion of nature versus nurture. Are you genetically inclined to be an evil person or is that something that you're ...
Aryel Cianflone: Socialized.
Jared Spool: You're socialized into. And you get into things like the Milgrim studies and all sorts of things. That's where all the experiments were being done. When I studied experimental psychology I was studying Milgram studies and how did they actually conduct the experiments to come up with the results and what is the science and the math behind that. Then I was turning around and applying that to my work and saying how do I apply this stuff to designing software. Nobody knew how to do that. We were inventing it. I was in the very first usability tests that were ever done on computer software.
Aryel Cianflone: That's amazing.
Jared Spool: Yeah. It's weird to think of it. Oh yeah, I just happened to be in the room. I was one of five people who were involved in that project.
Aryel Cianflone: No big deal.
Jared Spool: Yeah. At the time it was no big deal, right? It was just a bunch of us in a corner not knowing that this was going to become an industry. We didn't think this is, like we have to get this right whatever we do here, it's the first thing. It's like I don't know, the whole attitude was hey, what if we did this to the point where the first usability lab for software ever built was an air conditioning closet, which had a big, giant air conditioner in it and we had to shut the air conditioner off in order to conduct the usability tests.
Aryel Cianflone: Oh my gosh. I love stories like that because I mean that's the reality of experimentation and discovery and exploration is like typically you don't know that you're participating in this moment in history so often, so it's amazing to hear someone talking about that moment and just being in an air conditioning closet.
Jared Spool: Exactly, right. We had no idea. We didn't know that what we were doing ... it's really funny, so that building was in Maynard, Massachusets and about 20 years later I got invited to speak in that building but by then it had been completely refurbished and the floor that the lab was on was now run by monster.com. That was their offices.
Aryel Cianflone: How funny.
Jared Spool: Part of the meeting that I was at where I was speaking, they had just build this beautiful usability lab and before I went to speak they offered to give everybody who was coming to the meeting a tour of their usability lab. So they gave this tour and it was a lovely lab and it was way bigger than what we ever had. And I turned to the person who had built it and I said, "You do know that the very first usability lab was built on this floor just down the hall from here." He goes, "No." I said, "Yeah the very first one it was right here," and so we went down, it turns out that space now is a kitchen. That's where the company kitchen was and I said, "We're standing in the usability lab, except it's this corner of the kitchen."
Aryel Cianflone: You're like we need to get a plaque or something.
Jared Spool: Yeah, this is a historic spot. This kitchen used to be the first usability lab ever built.
Aryel Cianflone: That's got to be so amazing for someone like you who was there at the inception of this to see how much its grown. Like all these usability labs, all of these professionals, really like this whole community that started with just this little teenie group in a little teenie closet.
Jared Spool: Yeah, it is. In some ways it's very weird. It's a very strange thing to think that something we were doing that from our perspective was just this hack turned out to be so important and so big.
Aryel Cianflone: Yeah so you talking about that story, which is so fun to hear as someone whose kind of the beneficiary of that work that you were doing and that experiment that you were doing, yeah, maybe talk a little bit now from your perspective like I don't know, I guess I'm curious to hear where do you see all of this going next or what are you most excited about from what is happening right now. I'm curious because it's just such a unique perspective to have been one of the people in the small closet to now being one of the voices of this community that's really leading this community. What are you excited about? Where's the next experiment and the next place that you want this community to go?
Jared Spool: Oh yeah, when you said I was one of the people in the small closet, I actually have never heard it phrased that way and it makes me feel like somehow I came out of the closet, which I'm perfectly happy to have done. At some point I emerged from the closet.
I want to point out that there were a lot of people who are really smart who were in that project who became really fundamental. It wasn't just me. I've gone my path. They've all gone theirs, but there was a woman named Sandy Jones who basically invented contextual design along with a guy named John Whiteside who really taught us everything we knew about psychology at the time. He built the team. There's a guy named Bill Zimmer who is the manager of that group that had the foresight, he had no idea what were doing, but he had the foresight to let a bunch of smart people do really smart things. Dennis [Wixon 00:25:52] went on to become the head of UX for Microsoft games and invented the RITE method and did this magical stuff around iterative design. Jim Burrows, there's a whole bunch of really great people. The second generation included people like Karen Holtzblatt, who sort of popularized contextual design, Sandy's original work. There's some really wonderful people who were involved in that. I was just a, at the time I think I was 20 years old, so I was just this child amongst all these amazing people. I just happened to be there.
Aryel Cianflone: Right time, right place.
Jared Spool: Yeah. To answer your question about where it's going and stuff, for me the thing that's most interesting is this idea of bringing everyone into the design process. It went from software human factors to usability work to user experience work and now it goes under the moniker of UX design. Design sort of got molded into this process because we realized that just evaluating things all the time is not good enough. You actually have to change something at some point and so you've got this idea of a UX designer and that became this sort of career path for the longest time and however that path of being a UX designer, I think is a numbered idea that everybody is at some level a UX designer.
Aryel Cianflone: What do you mean by that?
Jared Spool: Well the clearest example is when I would be hanging around places with Dana Chisnell and I would introduce her to people when she was back working at the White House in the US Digital Service, I would introduce her as the highest placed user experience designer in the federal government. And she would always snicker at that and then correct me, and she would say, "No, I'm not. My boss's boss is the highest placed user experience designer." Her boss's boss was the President at the time for her work in the White House. At the time I thought, "Oh, that's cute," but now that that guy is no longer president and we have another president, I actually believe her right? I mean the whole user experience of interacting with government has changed since November 2016 and that person is designing the experience of being part of this country, whether intentionally or unintentionally. That happens all the time right?
When the person from legal comes in and says you have to change the screen to put this check box up that says, "I agree to the terms and conditions," or worse they say, "We have to present the terms and conditions and make the user scroll all the way to the bottom before we let them use the software." They're designing, and because they're designing, they are now also a designer, yet they're designing very poorly just like for decades we've had lots of designers designing very poorly. They're no different than any of them and the way we've always gotten from poor design to good design to great design is through learning about design. If we could help that person from compliance understand that they're designing, understand the difference between good design and bad design, understand how to predictably get good design outcomes and then understand how to go from good design outcomes to great design outcomes, they will design something that's a much better experience. That accomplishes the goal, because that's what design is.
Design is the rendering of intent and they have this intent that the person understand that there are rules to using this thing, but have they rendered that intent the best way by forcing them to scroll to the bottom before they can use the software. Design, that's design. Design is the rendering of intent. How do we help them be designers. This recognition that designers aren't just the people who HR has given the official title of designer to. Everybody who has any influence over the product is doing design. They need to understand how design works to do a good job of that because when you don't understand design, the odds of accidentally coming up with a good design are very slim. The odds are against you.
Aryel Cianflone: Yeah and it's interesting hearing you talk about this particular subject because I feel like your career, and please correct me if I'm wrong, but I feel like your career really demonstrates a desire to help everyone become a designer. You're one the most prolific writers that I've come in contact with in this field and I wonder if that's partially because, well I should ask you, like what has made you so prolific in terms of the content that you're putting that you're putting out there for people and is that related to this idea of empowering everyone to become a great designer, a great user experience designer.
Jared Spool: Well it goes back to the mission right? Right now there are not enough designers to help all the products and services in the world have great design. There's no where near enough of them. We either have to make more or we have to take people who aren't designers and turn them into designers. If we're going to eliminate all the bad design from the world, then we have to create more designers and the only way to do that is to make people more aware of what design is about. I mean to me it just seems like, I mean I don't have any other way to do it. I got this mission and this is how we're going to complete the mission. I have no clue how to do it any other way.
Aryel Cianflone: Yeah, and I think that's such a great segway into one of your most recent projects, which is Center Center, and I would love to maybe have you just give a brief description of that for people who are unfamiliar and then talk a little bit about what you're doing with it and why.
Jared Spool: It's a school. It's a school in Chattanooga Tennessee, a bricks and mortar school. It takes two years to complete your degree. You get a diploma in UX design and technology, and the whole purpose is to create designers and our goal, our ambitious goal, is to within five years have 500 students in the school and to be graduating students every six to eight weeks. And basically what we're trying to do is for all the products and services that don't have designers today, we're trying to create an army of designers to serve their needs.
To do that we had to design a curriculum and we had to design a whole program. We built the school from the ground up and to do that, to figure out what that needed be, we went out and we did a ton of research with hiring managers and asked them what do you look for when you hire designers and have you tried hiring students and what's gotten in your way. What do you wish designers knew that they don't know when they come into your business? From that we got a deep understanding that hiring managers are very frustrated in general and they're particularly frustrated around students and recent graduates because they are not ready to work. They don't know how to do design work in their company.
Many organizations that bring in more junior designers have to build this incredible infrastructure around taking a junior designer that's this very rough individual and turning them into this finely cut jewel that can execute effectively to the point where some companies like IBM have built an internal school. In the case of IBM it started at 6 months, they've got it down to three followed by a three month internship where they take people right out of design school and they put them in this program and for the first three months all they're doing is teaching you how to work at IBM, except there's only about three weeks of material in that three month period that's actually specific to IBM. The rest of it is just like how to sit in a meeting and how to write emails and how to think about a design process and how to present your work and all of these things that you need to know but aren't taught in school.
Then the next three months are just putting those things into practice. So we looked at that, we talked to the folks at IBM and we talked the folks at about 40 other companies and we compiled a list of what we call competencies that define what it would take for someone to come out of school and be what we call 'industry ready.' Could they come out of a program and be ready to start work in a program and then we went from there and designed a program to teach students how to be competent, proficient at those competencies. That's what Center Centre's become.
Aryel Cianflone: Yeah, first of all I think it's amazing as I was mentioning before, just the resources that you've created for this community because there's Center Centre. There's also the All You Can Learn Library. I'm curious who you would say Center Centre is meant for versus the All You Can Learn Library versus maybe a more traditional masters program like Carnegie Mellon's, HCI, or something like that. Who would you refer to each of those resources and why?
Jared Spool: Right, so the more traditional universities are just, they're academic schools. Even though some of them have more practice oriented programs, they are still built on an academic model and the academic model hasn't changed since the first university that was started by St. Ignatius back in the 13th century, 14th century right? The Ignatius of Loyola. It was started in 1500's is when he started this school and Loyola was intended to just teach people to teach the teachings of the Pope. Its entire purpose was to spread the gospel of Jesuits. It was set up to create teachers because what they needed at the time was to be able to help have more teachers in the world. They had the same problem with teachers that we have with designers. There weren't enough teachers to teach everybody. They knew that the only way they were going to survive is if they could make people understand not just religion but just life in general.
Aryel Cianflone: Yeah, get the word out.
Jared Spool: Exactly. In order to actually read scripture, you have to be able to read and you have to have a mastery of language and in order to expand on the scripture and to be able to explain it, you have to have an understanding of philosophy and you have to have an understanding of the human psyche, and so all the of what we now call the humanities sort of started out of that program and programs today all come from how we teach the humanities and that hasn't changed since 1539. The basic process of we're going to open your head and pour a bunch of knowledge in and then seal it up, give you a test to make sure you've got it in there safely and then send you on your way. That method hasn't changed and frankly it doesn't work. It doesn't work for the humanities and it doesn't work for engineering and developing and designing and all the things.
I go around I give these talks and one of the talks I ask people to write down all the things they accomplished in the last week. I say "Take out a piece of paper. Write down all the things you accomplished." Then I suggest that they then next to each of the things that they accomplished I say, "Okay I want you to write down a number between zero and a hundred that represents the percentage of the skills that were needed to do that job that you learned in school. What percentage of that work did you learn how to do in school?" And hardly anybody ever has more than a 25 as their highest number for all the things they did last week. The reality is is that most of the time, most of the work we do, we don't learn in school, we learn on the job and we don't train people to learn on the job. We don't train people to be good at that. We don't create our workplaces to be good at learning on the job. If we're going to create workplaces that allow us to be better at working on the job, we need to change the way we think about learning. All You Can Learn is our first attempt at this.
Aryel Cianflone: And maybe say a little bit about what that is for people who aren't familiar with the All You Can Learn Library.
Jared Spool: So All You Can Learn is, we do these conferences, for people who couldn't come to the conferences we started doing online webinars. We call them virtual seminars, and every time we did one we recorded so it became this repository, so it's this library and it's got more than 300 UX presentations from industry experts all over the world. We highly curate it so it is basically the best experts talking about really important topics and we spend a lot of time working to make sure the topics they're doing are in fact the most important things and they're at the state of the art. So they're not just any random presentation. They're all high quality stuff.
We have them all in there and they become this resource for people. We've got thousands of people now who are using these things on a regular basis and we have all this stuff. We've been doing that for about 8 years and no, we've been doing since 2007, so we've been doing it for 10 years. All You Can Learn is 10 years now. Well that's not true, All You Can Learn, the first version of it came out in 2010 so it is seven years old, but the webinars and the recordings go back 10 years. Gosh this is making me feel old today.
Aryel Cianflone: We appreciate your experience.
Jared Spool: Well that's good. That's what we've been working on is these 10 year old things. That's what that is and it's an attempt to help people get that education into the workplace and work there. Center Centre is not following the model of the conventional Loyola descendant university, but instead is completely designed from the ground up. For example, we don't have semesters and you only take one course at a time. Each course is three weeks long and you take it from 8:30 in the morning to 5:00 at night. You'll take 30 of those courses to graduate. You don't get summers off because it turns out that that's a horrible idea for education because people lose much of what they learn in the previous year when they take a break at summer for six or eight weeks. So instead we give you six weeks off, but we spread them out through the calendar year more like a job. Very few jobs allow you to take six weeks off at a shot every year.
We're trying to prepare people for the workplace, which is exactly what the hiring managers told us. They told us that students coming out of programs, big universities, things like that, develop bad habits like thinking that if you can sit still for 90 minutes you then can go out and play Frisbee for a couple hours. That's what university life is like, but that's not what the workplace is like. You have to learn how to be productive for an entire day and that's a learned skill. You don't learn that at school, so that means that the company has to teach you how to sit and work for an entire day and managers don't like having to teach that. They really resent it. That's sort of our job and we take that on. We teach people to be able to work for an eight hour day, five days a week, just like you would in the workplace.
More importantly we teach you to work on teams so the students are always working on teamwork and the teamwork is led by a seasoned project leader not by another student who's never project led anything. Therefore, the project is led haphazardly but no one ever critiques the project leadership, which is how team projects are often done in conventional schools. Our projects, you work on five to eight big projects while you're at Center Centre. They run 10 to 14 weeks long over a five month period, five to six month period. Those projects get in depth. When you have 14 weeks with a six person project team, you can do a tremendous amount of work that you can't do in a conventional school project where if you do group work it might be a team of three students and you're expected to put 30 hours into it. Right?
The standard for design programs for out of class projects is 30 hours of work outside of classwork is what you're expected to put in. Which when your classwork is about 18 to 24 hours, it doesn't seem like an unreasonable amount. I mean 30 hours on top of 24 hours of classroom time more than doubles the time you're going to spend on that class. But in industry, we have a name for the 30 hour point in a project, we have a name for the 30 hour point in a project, we call it Thursday. No projects are four days long in real life. Right? You need projects that go on for weeks. You need projects where you spend a couple weeks on discovery, and a couple weeks on initial design ideas, and a couple weeks refining those design ideas, and a couple weeks prototyping, and a couple weeks evaluating. That's a real project.
Our projects are much more in depth and the courses are only three weeks long but the projects are fourteen weeks long, which means instead of having little projects inside bigger courses, we actually have bigger projects and smaller courses. You're coming into the project with having learned something new in your classroom work. The way it works is you take one week of classroom work and then two weeks of project, and then one week of classroom work and another two weeks sprint a project, and we do that five times, or six times or seven times to get to 14 weeks of project. You're learning.
Our students for example are working on a project right now where they're redesigning the marketing and communications website for Marquette University. They've been working on it, they're in their, they're halfway through their second and a half sprint and last week they took their ethnography course. This week they're applying what they learned in their ethnography methods course to the project. They'll do this for two weeks and then they'll take their information design course, this is the first cohort.
They'll take their information design course. Information design is how do you take large amounts of design and represent them in charts and graphs and tables. It's all the stuff that Tufte talks about and Stephen Few and Brian Suda. And they take that course, and then they'll come back and they'll work on the next thing and there'll probably be some information design aspect of the project by then and they'll have to figure out how to design it. They're always integrating what they learn in the course work right back into project work, which is very much like what my education was like when I was going to school and studying social psychology at night and then asking the question, well how do I apply this to my software development during the day.
Aryel Cianflone: Yeah, you know and I'm so glad that you called that out. I feel like when I hear the story of your work and your career, it seems like there's this common thread of learning something and applying it. Learning something and sharing it. Learning something and creating a school to teach it to other people and it makes me, just kind of as I'm reflecting on your career, it makes me wonder you have been so, when I'm looking into the industry and I'm looking at all of the most influential voices I feel like you have been so, so skilled at sharing and really creating community and I wonder what has been most crucial to your success doing that and just in general.
Jared Spool: Tenacity. I think to some extent it's just about sticking with something and trying and if it doesn't quite come out the way I wanted it to, trying again. Being very tenacious in that regard is been key. That's my sort of quick answer to that.
Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. Well what would be an example of that?
Jared Spool: I definitely don't always get things right the first time. Here's the thing, for the longest time we thought the web was one thing. We thought the web worked a certain way and then as we did more work we realized, no we were wrong. That wasn't quite right. This has happened many, many times in my career where something we thought, here's an example, there's this perception that with something like a usability test, you only need to test a small number of users in order to be able to see enough results that you can just say yes, we've seen all the big problems. If we test five users or eight users, that's all we need. We don't need anything more than that.
It turns out that everything we thought about that was not true. That was all done back in the 1980's and 1990's when computers were far less sophisticated than they are now, when there was no notion of being social online. When applications at best would be considered a hit if they had 10,000 users. Whereas now, we've got websites and services with billions of users. There's no way that five people will predict all of the major problems that a billion users will have. It just sounds stupid when you say it out loud, but this is still being taught. This is still out there.
Years ago we published research that showed how, sure five users is all you needed or eight users was all you needed, and then we tested our first ecommerce website and we realized, oh my gosh we just found out major showstopping problems on user 41 and we should have never found that out on user 41. We should have seen it way before then. Why didn't we see it? It turned out that we didn't see it because we didn't have enough people and we didn't have the right people and we didn't know how to recruit people and all these variables that we were not taking into account.
The first time we saw it was on a site that sold CD's. The first 40 users that we tested were all interested in pop music and user 41 was the first user we'd come in contact with that was interested in classical music. It turned out while the site was pretty good for popular music, it was horrible for classical music. You have this notion of an artist, but what does an artist mean in classical music? You could look up Beethoven, but people who search for classical music, actually don't, Beethoven is the easy part, it's which recording of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony that you want because there's seven million of those. How do you say, "Well what I really want is the London Symphony Orchestra version of that and I really want the London Symphony Orchestra version under Michael Tilson Thomas." How do you hone in on that recording? And that turns out to be a really hard search problem that you don't have when you're looking at Brittney Spears' albums because nobody wants ...
Aryel Cianflone: Not quite as many covers.
Jared Spool: Yeah, nobody wants Brittney Spears' albums, let alone that level of specificity on them. It turns out that that was a problem we didn't know. To get back to your question, the issue then becomes how do we have the humility to go back and say "You know that thing we thought was an unmovable truth, it turns out we were completely wrong." It's not true. In fact, our whole frame of reference tells us that in fact we've been collecting the data wrong and we've been doing everything wrong up until that point.
Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. So just to summarize what you were saying, it's tenacity it sounds like paired with humility and a willingness to revaluate some of things that you maybe tenaciously thought or advocated for.
Jared Spool: Right, yeah I'm not completely committed to anything we've ever written or done. I believe that everything is still open for debate and we can go through. There are things where I'll argue with people because they present the same old arguments, but if there's new information, if there's something we haven't seen before and haven't tested against that's new for us. In those situations I'm very happy to say, you know that thing, turns out it's much more nuance. It's much more subtle. It's partially true in certain situations but it turns out there's a lot of situations where it's not true and we need to account for that. That is in my mind a critical part of the process.
Aryel Cianflone: You know I want to be sensitive to your time but one last question would be, if you're talking to someone who's newer in this field, what advice would you give to them? What do you feel like is most important for people who are starting to be involved and participating in this community?
Jared Spool: I think the biggest advice is to always be yourself. The coffee mug we have at the school says, "Always be yourself unless you're a unicorn, then be a unicorn." Figure out who you are. The number one critique that I have these days, people always show me their portfolios. They show me their resumes and I read through this stuff and I think to myself this is good stuff, but I don't see you here. I don't see who you are. In their portfolio they'll describe their process. This is my process. My process is that I first do research. I talk to stakeholders. Then I do research. Then I create sketches. Every portfolio seems to have this requirement where you have to have at least one shot of a bunch of people standing in front of a wall full of post-it's. Then I created these mock ups. Then I created these prototypes. Then I usability tested this. Then we shipped it right. The process is all the same. It's like okay good, you've got a basic process, that's a good process, who are you? Right?
What makes you, you? Tell me about that. Tell me what your challenge is. Tell me what part of this was hard because for some people the sketches are going to be hard and for other people the talking to stakeholders is going to be hard. What was hard and how did you overcome that? How did you get this result? Help me understand what you learned in that process. What did you not know at the beginning of that project that you now know? What challenges did you run into and how did you overcome them? Those are the things that I want to see that I never see in these first cuts of people's portfolios.
That's what I've learned the hiring managers want to see. They know what design process is and they don't really care about that because you're going to do whatever process they have anyways. What they want to know is how did you learn how to produce the work you did? How did you learn how to do the things you weren't taught in school because they have a whole bunch of things that you weren't taught in school and you have to be able to do them, so how are you going to learn that. They want to see that you are capable of being dropped into the middle of something that you're completely unfamiliar with and that you can navigate your way out of that and produce something pretty awesome in the process. That's what they want to see. How did you navigate your way out of not knowing at all what the hell you were supposed to be doing.
Aryel Cianflone: Yeah.
Jared Spool: That's my advice. Always be looking for that story.
Aryel Cianflone: Yeah I think that's amazing advice because so often, especially when you're newer to a career, I think you're afraid to show vulnerability or to show I had this challenge and it was really hard for me to figure out how to do this but, like you're saying it's so important to show our humanity. Show ourselves a little bit in the same way that as researchers we're here because we want to bring, as Elizabeth Churchill said, "We want to bring humanity into technology." I think that's really good advice.
Jared Spool: Yeah, I think that Elizabeth Churchill is one of the smartest people on the planet, so if she said something I would buy.
Aryel Cianflone: Me too. Thank you so much Jared. This has been such a cool conversation for me and it's amazing to kind of hear a little bit about what it's like, or how you became Jared Spool, the Jared Spool that we all know and appreciate today. Thank you so much for telling us a little bit about your story and what you've been up to.
Jared Spool: Oh excellent. I can't wait to hear how I became who I became.
Aryel Cianflone: I'll let you know. I'll send you a first cut.
Jared Spool: That'll be awesome. Thank you very much for encouraging my behavior.