Interview: Jared Spool on Design

by J. Cornelius — Aug 17, 2007
Webmaster Jam Session

We recently spoke with renown usability expert Jared Spool. User Interface Engineering, the firm that he founded in 1988, is the world’s largest research, training and consulting firm specializing in Website and product usability.

Jared’s insights have helped countless organizations improve not only their usability, but in doing so he has helped them achieve their business goals.

You can see Jared speak about Experience design and the “Age of Experience” in his Keynote at the Webmaster Jam Session.

The Interview

Jared, you have been regarded as one of the top usability experts in our industry. The results of your work have also been used as a guide for many designers and developers. Just for reference, can you give us the 30 second synopsis on how you conduct your research on Websites?

It’s straight forward. We ask people to sit in front of web sites and we watch them. After you've done this for a thousand or so people, you start to see real patterns in how people approach different types of designs. We can use that information to tell us how to design sites that make our users happy and help us achieve our business objectives.

So given all that research, what do you see as the 5 most egregious errors commonly made by Web designers?

Hmmm. Only 5, eh? That’s hard.

OK, let’s try this:

5) Designing things to be cool without thinking about if they are useful or usable
4) Allocating page real estate disproportionate to how likely people want that content
3) Trying to keep pages short
2) Not having links that tell the user what they'll get when they click

and the #1 egregious error: Never actually watching users use the design.

So are you aware of any bulletproof methods for preventing or at least reducing those errors?

The closest thing to a bulletproof method for reducing these five is to focus on #1. Spend time watching your users. Lots of time. Try for 2-4 days per month. (One day each week would be ideal.)

Either go someplace where the users congregate or bring them to you. Sit next to them. Ask them to use the site as if you weren't there. Pay attention to what they are trying to do; the words they use to describe things (they're telling you what your links should be); and what obstacles the site design puts in their way to accomplishing their goals.

If you watch 3-4 users per day, 4 times per month, you'll see 12-16 users. Make changes to improve the site, then watch users with the new design. I guarantee you that your site will improve dramatically in no time at all.

Who in the design world would you say is setting a good example of combining nice aesthetics with good usability practice? (i.e. where should designers look for inspiration)

I do a simple experiment with my grad students. I have them ask 4 friends two questions: What are two brands you love and why? What are two brands you really dislike and why?

This is a great way to find out what’s inspiring. As a fledgling designer, look for people who you want to be in your target audience. Who do you want to design for? Then ask them those two questions, listen to why they like/dislike the brand, and then visit the site.

For brands people like, look at how the site communicates those brand values. For brands people dislike, look at how the site isn't meeting their needs.

I'm betting you'll find much inspiration that way.

What have you learned in work that surprised you the most, or seems the most counter-intuitive to what we commonly think of as ‘usable’ on the Internet?

I think the thing that surprises me constantly is how many people believe the myths of design. Many designers focus on trying to keep pages short, so everything falls “above the fold”, even though there is no evidence to suggest users want short pages. Many designers put large ads on their home page, thinking people will pay attention, even though all the evidence shows people skip right past them. Many designers try hard to make a site fun through slick interface elements (such as flying menus), even though all the evidence shows that users only rate sites as ‘fun’ if they complete their objective.

When designers don’t spend time watching and talking to their own users, they tend to fixate on these random practices, despite the fact there is no evidence that suggests “the practices” make better sites.

You have been talking about “the Age of Experience” recently. What is the Age of Experience, and how does ‘experience design’ differ from traditional ‘web design’ or ‘usability design’?

Experience design looks beyond the single web session. It talks to designing the entire experience your customers will have with your organization.

For example, Netflix, the DVD rental company, has created an experience where 85% of new subscribers say they reason they subscribe is because a friend or family member kept badgering them into subscribing. In less than 8 years, the company has reached almost 7 million users and is now twice the size of Blockbuster.

Yet, unlike Blockbuster, Netflix doesn't have any stores or sales people. Every user interacts with the web site. The web site has to handle every possible interaction: new customer sign up, choosing movies to rent, handling lost discs, changing billing information, and anything that happens.

If you study the Netflix site, it’s very usable and it’s a very clear web design. Yet, the most interesting thing is the total experience each user has with the organization and how the site manages that experience. And, it does such a good job, the users regularly badger their friends and family members into also signing up. How cool is that?

Do you see any interesting parallels between the present day challenges in the Web design industry and those of any other form of media, either presently or historically?

Sure. The web is just another in a long line of technological introductions, all of which follow the same pattern:

1) Technology — the designers focus on making the technology do what it’s promised. It may be unusable or difficult to learn, but that’s ok, because it’s doing something you couldn't do before. The web went thru this in the early '90s.

2) Features — the designers focus on building out the function set, experimenting with features to differentiate themselves from others who come along to copy the technology. The web has been going through this for the last 10 years.

3) Experience — the designers focus on delivering a quality experience, often eliminating functions to ensure users get exactly the experience they want. This is what the Web 2.0 movement is about, in many ways.

4) Integration — the designers focus on combining their design into something larger, to create a synergistic effect (1 + 1 = 3). We’re now starting to see this with the integration of some of the early Web 2.0 stuff into larger sites. (Google bought Writely to form Google Docs, for example.)

All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the pace and somewhat disorganized process of drafting specifications for the Web, notably XHTML 2 and HTML 5. Do you see this as a serious problem for the industry? If so, how do you think it will effect our everyday work as designers and developers? If not, .... why not?

To paraphrase Bismark, specifications are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.

I think the reason they aren't being made quickly is there isn’t enough demand for them. Most designers and developers are still trying to get their head around working with the tools they have today. Nothing in their day-to-day work says they *have* to move to new standards.

So, without the demands from the developers, the various parties all will try to get their own agenda pushed. And the manufacturers traditionally never want standards (since being standard-compliant is not a competitive advantage if everyone else is also compliant).

In my opinion, the only way new standards will become adopted is if there becomes a huge demand for them.

Obviously there are trade-offs between some very important ideals encountered when developing a Website. If you had to prioritize these 6 properties of a Website, how would you do it, and why? [ aesthetics, usability, validation, accessibility, semantic markup, pure css layout ]

That’s like asking how would you prioritize between these properties of your clothing: soft, red, washable, attractive, well-made?

Properties are just that. They are a way to describe what makes one thing different from another. You can't say one property is more important than another without a very specific context.

And design is all about tradeoffs. We can't ever design the "perfect" solution, because we’re limited in time and resources. So, we look for things that help us conserve our existing time and resources, while looking to produce something which meets the business objectives.

So, this question can’t really be answered without the specifics of the context of the development process.

Fair enough. I think you’ve just touched on how important it is to have all these things work together. Can you think of a time where you had to make this kind of choice? How did you choose and why?

Well we don’t actually do any design or development work, so we’re not ever in a place where we have to make such a choice.

I think that if you’re forced to choose, you’ve got a broken process.

The right way to look at this is in a larger scope: where are our strengths? Where is our process failing us?

If we look at how we're designing and realize that we’re not producing code that validates, then we need to look at our process and ask what is preventing us from doing that.

We also need to look at how it’s affecting us long-term. In any given project, we can say, “well, we don’t have any blind users right now, so we’re not going to make accessibility a priority -- it’s something we can skip to focus our resources on something more pressing.” But that’s a short-term perspective.

What we want to say is, “How is producing in accessible designs going to hurt us in the long term? How are we going to benefit if we change our standard day-to-day practice to always design for accessibility?”

Once we can answer those questions, it should be clear what the goals are. Then we can look at what we should be doing differently in the process of creating designs.

Finally, where do you see biggest advances in Web Experience coming from in the near future? What are they, and how do you think they will impact the Web?

Ah, well, you’re asking the wrong guy.

I’m not a futurist (someone who looks at trends and predicts what is going to happen). I’m a historian (someone who looks at what’s been done and tries to assess it’s importance).

Ask me what the biggest advances have been in the past, and we can talk. But ask me about the future and I claim ignorance. :)

(Grins) Thanks Jared, it’s always great to hear your insights and opinions.

My pleasure.

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