Six Questions with Jared Spool

Jared Spool wowed the HighEdWeb crowd with his 2009 keynote speech in Milwaukee, where many attendees not only learned about ways to give their Web visitors a better user experience, but also about Girls Under Trees. Spool’s firm User Interface Engineering is the largest usability research organization of its kind in the world. We caught up with him to talk about the trends he’s seeing, what his best user experiences have been recently, and to get some important information about Julia Child.


1) Since you spoke at HEWeb09 in Milwaukee are there any big developments in usability that higher ed professionals should be keeping an eye on?

I think the biggest development is definitely the iPad. The iPad is a brilliantly designed device that everyone in the world desires.

This is really important to folks in higher ed because it’s likely that senior management has seen (or even owns) one of these devices. They see what an easy-to-use experience can be. And they are probably asking, “Why isn’t our stuff as easy as this?”

In the past, we had to explain what good design is. We don’t have explain it anymore. Instead, we now have to know how to make it happen. We have to be in a place to talk about the resources it will take and the time that’ll be needed to make it happen. That’s where I think the real challenges will be for a while: How do we make our websites, software and services as good as an iPad?

2) You talked about having a culture that embraces risk-taking by rewarding someone for creating something that turns out to be a big failure. What the best failure you’ve seen in the last six weeks or so?

I think the flashiest one is the recent Circles release from Etsy. In this, the folks at Etsy decided to publish the purchase history of everyone on the site, making it possible for people to, for example, see what gifts might have been purchased. (More details on the Usability Testing How-to blog.)

I think we have a lot to learn about how we integrate social features into our designs, and this is one place where we’ll see lots of failures to celebrate. Hopefully none will be too devastating.

3) You’re big on loading up a toolbox with tips and trips and creative approaches rather than getting bogged down in dogma. Can you offer some advice on HOW to spark creativity in a situation where dogma might have crept into the workplace?

I think the trick is to get a solid feedback mechanism into your work process. If you are regularly getting information about your users and how they interact with your designs, it’s hard for the dogmatic beliefs to keep a foothold.

You can start with simple usability tests. Two to four participants every three weeks or so. Put a design in front of them and see how well it works. If you ask the folks who are stuck on the dogma how the tests are likely to turn out, either they’ll be right (and their dogma is worth learning about) or they’ll be wrong (and their dogma is worth moving beyond).

It’s easy to argue with dogma but it’s harder to argue with data.

4) As you mentioned in Milwaukee, gourmet food requires quality ingredients. As you surf the Web, are you noticing new sources or kinds of “quality ingredients” popping up out there?

I think the recent XKCD cartoon about university websites says it all: The right content is a quality ingredient. You can put a lot of filler on your site, but if it isn’t what the users want, it’s not a quality experience.

In addition to having the right content, they want it in the right mediums. Looking at your site shouldn’t be painful from a mobile browser. Having a design that is responsive to the platform, taking advantage of benefits of the local device, can deliver a delightful experience.

I’m also really interested in what people are doing with data visualization. For example, the folks at PatientsLikeMe are using amazing visualization tools to predict treatment outcomes for specific treatments in a way that goes beyond the results we get from clinical trials. (See the TED talk in this post for more information.)

5) What’s your best user experience of the last year?

I think I was most touched by the experience of folks at PatientsLikeMe. It’s sites like this that got me into this business. Knowing that good design can have such an important influence over people’s quality of life, especially when dealing with a chronic illness, is fantastically amazing.

I think user experiences are hard to capture in a single moment, since they are spread across a myriad of touchpoints. It comes down to the total sum of the interactions, which, over time, forms the experience that makes a difference for the user.

6) Give us an update on Girls Under Trees. Are the websites of higher ed still facing a G.U.T. crisis?

I still come across university sites with the girls-under-trees cliché deeply embedded. I probably have about 70 or 80 examples.

The cliché is prominent because it’s obvious. Show the campus and the students. What’s better than a bunch of girls under trees? But, like all clichés, it ignores the reality that the recipient has now seen this so many times that it’s no longer a meaningful picture. It doesn’t distinguish your school from the hundreds of others schools that have, coincidentally, both girls and trees.

What should you put on your site that shows what makes your school unique? That demonstrates what your school brings beyond what everyone has? That’s what’ll be interesting to the prospective student.

6a) Julia Child comes back to life and is on Iron Chef America vs. Paula Dean. The ingredient is butter. Who would win, and why?

Julie has a huge size advantage. Have you seen Paula? She’s a tiny woman. No competition.

–Interviewed by Dave Tyler