SK: Well, it’s going on five years. How much detail would you like?
I still spend some of my time doing the same client work I’ve always done, mostly expert reviews. But the nicest change for me is that now I also get to travel around with Lou Rosenfeld, teaching our public workshops, and I really love doing them. This spring, we’re going to San Diego, Boston, and Denver.
The other big change is that I have a lot more email to answer (or to try to answer). Maybe this would be a good chance for me to offer a public apology to anyone who’s ever tried to reach me by email and not heard back, especially in the last year. If you write me again, I promise I’ll get back to you. The problem is I can’t seem to bring myself to use canned replies, so I end up writing the same answer from scratch again and again, so I always have a backlog. It’d be fine if I was avoiding boilerplate on principle, but it’s really more of a character defect thing.
BA: What was the trigger for your book?
SK: Honestly? I wrote it so I could double my consulting rates.
I’d been doing usability consulting for almost years, and a lot of my clients had taken to introducing me as a usability “guru.” (Don’t get me started on the whole guru thing.) But when it came to billing, I felt a little like the Scarecrow in Oz: if only I had a certificate or a testimonial or something, I would have felt more comfortable charging high-end rates.
So when Roger Black asked me if I wanted to write a book (his design firm, Circle.com, was going to do a whole series of books about web design subjects), I more or less jumped at the chance. I’d always felt that a big part of my consulting work was educating my clients, so I knew I had a book about usability in me—as long as it was a short book. Of course, I was completely unclear on the concept that writing it would eat up an entire year of my life, otherwise I never would’ve started.
The funny thing is, not long after I finished the book I learned from several people who I trusted in the business that I could have doubled my rates anyway, since I was seriously undercharging. Live and learn.
BA: OK, so now you to tell me about the guru thing. How do you feel about being called a guru?
SK: Don’t get me wrong: I think I’m pretty good at this usability stuff. I’ve always been interested in how people learn to use things, and I’ve been at it for a long time now, so at this point I have no qualms about thinking of myself as an expert—saying I do “expert reviews,” for instance. And believe me, it’s a very flattering to have somebody call you a guru. I highly recommend it, if you ever have the chance.
But I think the reason why you hear so much about usability “gurus” goes back to the point I was trying to make in the “Religious Debates” cartoon in Don’t Make Me Think. One of the problems web teams face is that we all have a lot of personal experience as web users, so we all think we know what makes a site good (i.e., the kinds of things we like). As a result, most design discussions are full of strong (to put it mildly) personal opinions, usually disguised as facts (“Nobody like pull-downs”).
And if you’re trying to settle a religious debate (so you can just get the darned thing built), it’s very appealing to have someone you can turn to for definitive answers (hence the quasi-religious term “guru”).
The odd thing is, I wrote a book that spends most of its time explaining that there aren’t many definitive answers, just a few useful guiding principles. But maybe that’s what people really expect from gurus, anyway.
BA: You have a very different persona than the other big gurus of usability: Jakob Nielsen and Jared Spool. Have you consciously shaped your image as a complement/contrast to them?
SK: Wow! What an interesting notion: consciously making myself into not-Jakob and not-Jared.
Not that I haven’t been concerned about my public image. Since the book came out, it’s been important to me that whatever image people have is pretty much like me. I always feel good, for instance, when I meet someone who’s read the book and they end up saying, “Oh, you’re just like your book.”
I guess you’re right, though: if you did the user research on the three of us and came up with personas, they’d be pretty different. (Although I did learn recently from one of Jakob’s interviews that that we were both big fans of Donald Duck comics when we were kids. Of course, Jakob was reading them in Copenhagen and I was in suburban Long Island.)
But I tend to think that all three of our public personas are just reflections of who we really are. (Jakob’s really smart and opinionated and not afraid to stick to his guns, for instance, and I think Jared really enjoys being irascible.)
BA: Have you considered writing another book?
SK: I’ve had another one rattling around in my head for a long time, but given that I practically bankrupted us while writing Think, it’s always been up to Melanie whether I’d do another one. A few months ago she finally said it was up to me (I guess it’s a little like childbirth: the memory had finally faded enough), so I’m working on one now. Another short book.
SK: A how-to book that explains how to do low-cost/no-cost do-it-yourself usability testing.
BA: But that isn’t really true, is it?
SK: Well, no, you’re right. It was true eight months ago when I wrote that answer. But in the meantime I’ve had a change of heart, and decided to do an updated edition of Don’t Make Me Think first, then write the how-to testing book. The second edition of Think is due out later this year.
BA: How is a seminar different from a book? How is your seminar different from your book?
SK: Is this a riddle? Or a wossname…a conundrum? “How is a seminar different from a book?” Like “When is a door not a door?”
I guess the difference is that in the book, I tried to explain how I think about usability problems, and in the workshop I try to demonstrate how I think about them. I do a live usability test to show how you can get lots of valuable insights—usually more than you can use—in very little time, with very little skill. And I do a lot of quick (ten minute) expert reviews of URLs submitted by attendees. People seem to find them very useful.
I think watching somebody do what they do and explain how they do it is a great way to learn how to do it yourself. I used to love watching Pablo Casals teaching master classes on public television back in the early sixties (I guess it was actually called “educational television” at the time), even though I had no interest in ever playing the cello.
One of the things I think is most useful about the workshop is that people see that there really isn’t that much to what I do (as my corporate motto says, “It’s not rocket surgeryTM“), which encourages them to try it themselves. Also, almost every topic that people want me to discuss comes up in the URLs that we look at, and a lot of people get a “free” expert review out of it.
BA: How has the field changed (or not) since your book was published?
SK: Well, a lot of people who got dragooned into doing usability and IA by big web design shops during the tulip mania ended up marooned when it collapsed. So it’s been a tough few years for a lot of people.
I think all of Jakob’s hard work over the years has had an enormously valuable effect: most people in the computer world are at least aware of usability.
On the other hand, though, there’s one thing I don’t think has happened: I don’t think most companies have decided that usability spending should be part of every development budget. I think there’s more usability work going on than there was four years ago, but for the most part companies still don’t expect to spend real time or money on it.
BA: If someone wrote you (and I’ll bet they do) to ask how they can break into the usability field, what advice would you give?
SK: I do get a lot of email asking how to break into the glamorous, high-paying field of web usability. Since the market has been so bad, though, unless they seem to have a fair amount of experience under their belt already, I’ve usually tried to gently explain that this might not be the best time to enter the field, given the number of experienced people who seem to be having a hard time keeping themselves busy.
But I suppose it’s about time for that advice to change again, since the market seems to have thinned out the herd quite a bit. The best advice I can give is to spend a bunch of time watching people try to use stuff (i.e., do some informal usability testing). And I send them to the UPA site, which has some pretty good lists of resources, and tell them to attend the UPA conference, which tends to be excellent. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about the degree programs to tell people anything useful about them.
BA: I’ve heard a complaint that the “anyone can do it” approach to usability discredits the value that trained user researchers bring to the table, and causes over-reliance on what may be faulty data gathered badly. What’s your take on this contention?
SK: Hey, what happened to the softball questions? And who said that, anyway? I want names. This will probably end up being a whole chapter in the how-to testing book, but here’s the Reader’s Digest version:
- Frequent, iterative, small-sample testing is almost always one of the most valuable things you can do to improve the quality of a design. But this happens not to be something that fits very well into the consultant model (especially the “frequent, iterative” part), and most companies don’t have the budget for a full-time usability person.
- On any project, there are several (or dozens) of usability-related design questions to be decided every day, so having a consultant review things occasionally just isn’t enough. It’s important for team members (and stakeholders) to have some basic knowledge of usability.
- My experience is that the most significant problems tend to surface in even the worst-run tests, as long as you iterate a few times. (You usually almost can’t help tripping over them.) And since most organizations rarely have time to fix even the most significant problems, finding more than that is often a waste of time.
- I’ve seen very little evidence that “amateurs” make their products worse by watching people use what they’re building. (I’ve also had some usability professionals tell me that they’re sometimes horrified by the work they see some other “professionals” deliver. I haven’t had that experience myself, but I don’t see that many other people’s work products.)
That said, I always recommend that any organization that can afford to hire a usability professional should hire one, even if it’s only to train [people within the company] to do it themselves.
BA: There has been a lot of buzz lately on ROI of design and usability. What’s your take on that?
SK: Uh, oh. In every interview, there’s one question where I think, “Now I’m going to get myself in real trouble.” My personal take?
“Proving” usability ROI is really hard work. There are good reasons why you don’t see very many usability ROI case studies: they’re very time-consuming and expensive to create, especially one that legitimately controls for confounding variables. And if a company does go to the trouble of creating one, it’s probably going to be proprietary anyway.
But more importantly, I think most companies that need ROI-style “proof” to convince them to “do usability” probably aren’t going to do great work anyway.
BA: You have attended almost every IA summit, and are now touring with Lou Rosenfeld, one of the papas of IA. How do you see IA and Usability fitting together?
SK: Like a lot of people, my knowledge of IA dates back to the day when I first encountered the polar bear book. I read about two-thirds of it at one sitting, and when I was done, the pages were dripping yellow highlighter fluid (literally). Lou and Peter were talking about website design in a way that no one else had, so it was a real page-turner.
For me, one of the differences between the two fields is that information architects can actually build things, whereas usability folks mostly help people tweak things they’ve designed. (Although I have to admit that I get annoyed sometimes when people suggest that usability is just criticism. Most of the practitioners I know are very good at helping people figure out the best design solutions.)
As far as fitting together, I think there’s a lot of overlap. I’d certainly trust Lou to do a usability review of any website, and I think he’d trust me to advise a client on uncomplicated IA issues. But I think I’d also recognize where the issues are over my head, where I need to suggest calling in a pro. If you put me on a desert island with a laptop for a hundred years, for instance (with solar batteries), I still couldn’t construct a faceted classification scheme.
BA: In your opinion, what is one of the most usable sites out there today? Why?
SK: Completely predictable and boring answer, I’m afraid: Google. Someone asked me around the time of their IPO why Google is such a big deal, and I realized that I think it’s because the people who created it were more interested in coming up with something useful than something they could market.
They had a bright idea, and they created something that solves a real problem really well. Not perfect, but practical. And they’re restrained. Like Jeff Hawkins with the Palm Pilot, they fought off feature creep really well. Microsoft seems to have brilliant people and they do great research, but they never seem to have great ideas and carry them out with restraint. They always seem to be looking for the ideal (but cumbersome and buggy) solution rather than something “good enough” and workable. A lot of companies get suckered into trying to solve a huge problem (such as creating robot cars) when what most people really want and need is an adequate solution to a lesser problem (like power steering, or a robust, non-distracting navigation system…or maybe just road maps that are easier to fold up).
Plus I really like Google’s corporate motto “Do no evil.” It helps for your company to be a mensch.
BA: I hear you are using a new Tablet PC. What’re your thoughts on its usability?
SK: It’s actually the first new technology I’ve gotten excited about in years. As my wife will tell you, I’ve always had a pretty serious gadget jones. But for quite a while now, I’ve been pretty jaded. New technology always seems to eat up far more of my time than it’s worth.
I’ve always thought Tablet PCs were a great idea, ever since I wrote the user manual for one back in the late eighties. But it was one of those technologies that always seemed like it was five to ten years away, like artificial intelligence and speech recognition.
When I decided to do another book, somehow suddenly the idea of a Tablet PC seemed attractive for one reason: when I’m writing, I like to sketch lots and lots of illustrations as part of the process of figuring out what I mean. But the sketches always end up on random scraps of paper in the stacks around my office. Somehow, I felt like if I could actually sketch on the computer screen and insert the sketches right in the middle of what I was writing, it would help…somehow.
Adopting the Tablet PC did end up being a lot of work (it always takes a week out of my life when I switch to a new computer), but it’s really changed the way I work with the computer.
As usual, though, it turns out that the most valuable part isn’t what I expected (drawing) but something unanticipated. I’ve been trying to get speech recognition to work for me for years, through half a dozen upgrades of Dragon NaturallySpeaking and ViaVoice, and they’ve come a long way in increasing accuracy. But it turns out that no matter what you do speech recognition is always going to be n% inaccurate, so you’re always going to be making some corrections, which eats up any time you save by dictating. But it turns out that the solution (at least for me) isn’t to raise the bridge (make fewer errors) but to lower the water (make correcting them easier). Being able to select the errors with a pen makes correcting them much, much easier, to the point where it’s almost fun. I dictate all my email now, and I’m trying to use it while writing book chapters. And the handwriting recognition on the Tablet PC is eerily accurate.
I could go on for an hour about the Tablet PC. But I’ve already spent enough time on this interview to write a book chapter, so….