Jesse James Garrett was the closing keynote at the 2015 Prototypes, Process & Play conference where he shares 15 Lessons from 15 (well, 16) Years in User Experience. Watch Jesse give an intimate, candid presentation and share things that can be critical to the success of designers.
We hope you enjoy Jesse’s presentation and don’t forget to get your tickets for Prototypes, Process & Play on August 11th and 12th!
Jesse James Garrett
Co-Founder & Cheif Creative Officer, Adaptive Path
Jesse James Garrett is co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Adaptive Path, a user experience design consultancy. His contributions to the field of user experience include creating the seminal “Elements of User Experience” model; developing the Visual Vocabulary, a notation system for documenting user experience design; and defining Ajax, an approach to creating dynamic Web applications. Jesse has received Wired Magazine’s Rave Award for Technology and was named one of the “50 Most Important People on the Web” by PC World.
Jesse James Garrett:
Thanks you guys. That was a really weird introduction.
Awesome. So yeah, I hope you agree with me when I say this has been a really fantastic event. I have had a great time.
The speakers have been terrific. Just every talk packed with insights and it’s been so much fun to hang out with you guys and eat donuts and eat yellow snow and —
[Laughter] — Yeah, this has been fun. So this talk is called 15 Lessons from 15 years in User Experience.
I first gave this talk a little over a year ago marking my 15th year doing this work. And although it’s been a year, I actually — so it’s now 15 lessons from 16 years in user experience. I don’t have a new lesson for you. I guess this last year was relatively uneventful for me. I didn’t learn much.
All right. Let me see by show of hands. All right, I’m a user experience designer, how about you? Hands. Are you some other kind of designer? Do you consider yourself to be not a designer at all? Awesome. Thank you guys for coming. So for those of you who do consider yourselves some form of designer, let’s see.
How should I do this? Um. Raise your hand if you’ve been doing this job less than a year. All right. Awesome. Thank you for your honesty.
[Laughter] How many of you have been doing this job for less than five years? Less than ten years? Okay. Cool. More than ten years? All right. Awesome.
So yeah, we’ve got a pretty good mix of different levels of experience here. I’m in the last group. As I mentioned, I have been doing this for 16 years now. Oh, wait. I went too far.
So unlike probably almost everyone else in this room, I have no training or education in design. I have no idea how to do my job. I never have. My training is in journalism. And I came out of journalism school with dreams of working for a major metropolitan newspaper and speaking truth to power and all of that kind of stuff. And like many people with such dreams I found myself working in corporate marketing instead. And then in the course of that, got involved in writing for the web because the web was in the late ’90s, the web was blowing up and the web needed writers. So I started doing that. And in 1999, I was working for a big B2B ecommerce website, managing and running the content team there. And as sort of the lead content guy I got to be in the meetings with the business people and with the designers and as those meetings unfolded, I started to realize more and more that people’s ability to derive value from and meaning from the content that my team was creating was intrinsically tied up with the effectiveness of the design. And especially the navigation and information architecture of the website. So I started getting really interested in those issues and I kind of became that guy. That one guy who in every meeting says what about this thing that is really important to me that no one else in this room seems to even know this exists. I hassled them about AI for long enough that they were like “Fine, you’re fired. But we’re giving you a new job. Congratulations you’re our new information architect.” That was my transition out of content into design. And a lot of my approach to design I think is informed by my background. I really, I come to design through the lens of storytelling and narrative. And all of the sort of sense making stuff that we do as writers to communicate ideas and to impart information is completely bound up in the work that I do as a designer. So that was in ’99 and then I moved on from there and worked for another consultancy that then a year later promptly went under because it was the dot com crash and there was no work to be had. It was the best time to start a company. We started Adaptive Path in 2001 in part for safety in numbers in a hostile job environment. We thought we would be better off sticking together than all of us competing for the same jobs out there. So with all of that context in mind, I want to offer a couple of disclaimers. One is that I make no pretense that anything I’m about to say is useful or relevant to you. These are insights from my specific experiences. Some of them may resonate with you, some of them may not. They are rooted in our practices at Adaptive Path and in my previous experience. A lot of it is about doing user experience, design, as a consultant in the collaborative team environment. So hopefully with those things in mind you’ll be able to get something useful out of all of this. So let’s get started.
Number one! Go broad. When we were starting the company, people asked us what kind of stuff we wanted to work on. And I was like I want to work on everything because for me the problems that we work on as creative professionals shape us. They shape our practices. They shape the way that we think. We deliberately did not specialize in verticals at Adaptive Path because we all saw I think a lot of value in having the opportunity to try out our skill sets on lots of different kinds of problems. A partial list of industries that I’ve worked in includes media, insurance, packaged software, online services, non‑profit organizations, retail, consumer products, energy, healthcare, and oh yeah, financial services.
And you might think that this feels like spreading yourself too thin. It feels like, it feels like you end up with this, that you might potentially end up with these isolated pockets of knowledge that don’t add up to anything. But that’s actually completely the opposite of my own experience. My experience has been that the more different kinds of problems I work on, the broader and richer a creative toolkit I can bring to bear on problems going forward.
So for me, having had the opportunity to work in like very serious things like financial services and healthcare versus more sort of entertainment‑oriented things and media‑oriented things and things like that, it gives me different lenses to put on a problem. And to look at things in different ways. Design solutions that you come up with in a particular context can teach you things that have broader application beyond the context in which you originally sort of encountered them.
Number two. Go deep. Yes, I know this contradicts what I just said. Seek more context than you think you need. The more you can immerse yourself in a problem and really take it on, the deeper that context yule understanding that you bring to it, this enriches the work that we do. Let it become your world. I did a project many years ago for Crayola. And at one point during the project I realized I had probably gone too far in immersing myself in the client’s problem when I had a nightmare in which I was …uh …I was threatened by a topple wall made up of crayon boxes. It was sort of like falling in on me.
I like to research the people that I work with. Not in like a creepy way.
[Laughter] But learn about the history of the organizations that you work with. Learn about the background and the philosophy of the founders of those organizations, even if those people are dead because what I have found is that the culture of an organization and the practices of an organization frequently get encoded in the DNA of the organization at the very beginning. So in working for an organization that maybe has decades of history and all kinds of processes and things that define how they’ve always operated, all of those things if you trace those all the way back what you get to is the original philosophy of the original people that created the organization. And that depth of content informs, better informs your understanding of the business problems, better informs your understanding of how the organization makes decisions. Understanding the decision‑making culture of an organization is essential to getting good design work done.
So there are a couple of things that we do at Adaptive Path to support this idea of going deep. One is that our project teams have dedicated project rooms. So for every project team they have a room that is their room that is just for the project. And they can do whatever they want with that space to allow themselves to like fully inhabit the problem. They cover the walls with user interview and photos and quotes and data from various sources and whatever kinds of artifacts we can bring into the environment to help you feel like when you’re stepping into that room you’re really stepping into the problem that you want to solve. The other thing that we do is our designers are completely dedicated to a single project. That we don’t have designers split their time across projects, because that immersion allows you to just sort of carry the thing around with you all the time. That somewhere in the back of your head the problem can stick with you because it’s not competing with other stuff. Or it’s not competing with other hard design problems in your mind as you’re working through the — looking for solutions.
Number three. Go for a walk.
So all of that said, there is such a thing as being too immersed in a problem. And too kind of surrounded by it. Changing your physical context is an essential technique for getting a different mental perspective on a problem. The actual sensory experiences of our day‑to‑day life are really, really critical. Familiar sensory experiences end up sort of facilitating thought patterns that become rote and unconscious. And you become, it’s like you’re not even aware of it. It’s like the fact that you’re at the same desk doing the same thing day after day. You can lose perspective. And so get out of the office. Go for a walk. I mean you hear about these Ah‑Ha, breakthrough kind of moments, right? Where some entomologist is stuck at a stoplight and has some insight about the foraging habits of South American ants. Those things are great and you want to open yourselves to those ah‑ha experiences, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m simply talking about changing your physical setting to give yourself some breathing room from a problem so that when you step back into the problem, you can step back into it with a fresh perspective.
Resetting the system.
Number four. Go farther than you think you should.
It is so easy to fall into the trap of imposing artificial limitations on yourself to cut off a thought before it’s even fully formed. To preedit yourself. You need to be able to live in uncertainty and not be afraid of it. You need to be able to give voice to ideas that you may or may not actually believe in. Because that’s part of it. That exploration is necessary. If you want to innovate. If you want to bring new things into the world, your job is to be unreasonable. You should be scared by your ideas. It should make you nervous. I don’t know if this is going to work. I don’t know if we can pull this off. I did a project for an insurance company years ago where we were building, we were building and testing a prototype of a customer data entry system. And this is a very boring job that these people have. I did the research study. They sent me all over the country. I sat in insurance agents’ offices and watched these people do their job. It’s a tedious grind of a job. And the system that they had to use, the UI was really, really awful. And I had this idea. I thought well what — can we possibly bring some joy to these people’s lives? Can we possibly make insurance customer data entry somewhat less chore like? And we all kind of looked at each other and were like that doesn’t sound like the kind of thing an insurance company would do. But we went for it. And it was this really, really powerful experience when we did the testing of the prototype to have the testers come in and talk about their miserable grind of a job and then to show them a different way. And I can still remember the woman who just, she just cracked up in the middle of it and she just exclaimed I’m really enjoying this!
So yeah, yeah. Be unreasonable. Do things that seem scary.
Number five. Put away your notes. I feel like there is a tendency for us to lean really, really heavily on data to validate our — not even to validate our choices. To support our decisions. That as if what we’re doing is solving a logic problem, right? Where if we just get all the information in one place and we can build this logical argument from the information, which leads to this inevitable conclusion that our design is the right design, which is one way that you can do it. But you can’t calculate your way to good design no matter how much Google tries. What we do as designers is something that is much more human and living process. A living process. And so what I like to do is I’ll read all the notes, I’ll look at all the data, and then once I’ve sort of taken all that stuff in, I put it all away. And stand in front of a blank white board and just ask myself “What do I know? What do I know to be true about this problem? What do I know to be true about these users?” And whatever the stuff is that you instinctively come out, come out with in that moment, those are actually probably the most important things. You can go back to your notes and backfill an argument that supports the fact that those are the most important things. But you already know as a designer from your own informed intuition what’s most important. You have to give yourself the space to discover that. And give yourself permission to trust it.
Number six. Learn to spot your assumptions. This is a challenging thing. This is one of the hardest things. Never mind as designers. As human beings one of the hardest things for us to do is to spot our assumptions. They’re slippery. They, by their nature fade into the background. And assumptions that you may have made consciously and explicitly then become somewhat less conscious and somewhat less explicit until you’re operating on an unstated premise that can skew your thinking and mess up your designs.
So whatever you — so whenever you’re making a design decision, it is essential to be able to see where there are assumptions that are informing your choices that you may not have stated out loud. What are the — it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s something that I am still struggling with all the time. I think it will probably continue to be that for the rest of my career. Because again, just because of human nature. It’s a lot easier to spot other people’s assumptions than our own, right? That’s why I think working in a collaborative environment is really valuable. To have somebody else’s eyes on the problem and say wait a minute, what’s going on with this piece of it?
The key I think is to at least try to say out loud your reasons or the framing of the problem that is informing your approach to it.
Number seven. Stay curious.
It is easy for us to write off certain kinds of problems as being not interesting or not worth your time or your creativity. Or, um, you might consider certain problems to be sort of fully solved in the world and that there is no interesting design approach to be taken there.
But you know it’s easy to become so focused on the outcomes of our work, the finished design, that we don’t appreciate what we learned from the exploration that gets us to that design. So that curiosity —
Did I sit on the power button? Is that possible? Okay, this is boring.
So like that insurance company thing, that project that I was telling you about. Like they came to us and they said you know we want you to spend the next year and a half improving insurance agent customer data entry. That, you know, that sounds like kind of a grind. But it was in the course of that project that the concept of Ajax came about. It was something that for me I was just trying to solve that problem and had this idea about the way that the browser technologies could be used to do that. And that solution ended up having obviously a much broader impact far beyond the context of that one insurance company project. But if I had not taken the insurance company project, I might not have gotten to Ajax. So you can find all kinds of things in all kinds of problems that can have, can inform your work in really broad ways. But you can’t do that if you don’t stay curious.
Number eight. Be as curious about your clients as you are about your users.
For people who are allegedly professional empathizers, we do a pretty poor job of empathizing with the people who pay our paychecks. We often do not do enough to understand what they really care about, what motivates them, what success looks like to them, what matters to them. If we can seek to understand them, if we can seek to understand their needs as deeply as we seek to understand the needs of users, we can turn non‑designers into allies of design. We can create solutions that will have real staying power in organizations because people in the organization believe in the solution. Because they can see that the way the solution connects back to what matters to them. The value that the solution provides connects with the value that they are trying to create for the organization.
Number nine. Hang with different crowds.
This is similar to the go broad thing. But when I was talking about going broad, I was talking about projects. And here I’m talk about people. Diversify your teams. Work with people who have really different kinds of backgrounds. I miss the fact that in the early years of adaptive path we couldn’t hire someone who had been to design school for interaction design because no design schools were teaching interaction design. So instead you had interaction designers who had a philosophy background. Or an architecture background. Or some sort of technical background. Or fine artists. Or writers. And the thing is that these different kinds of background bring with them different ways of looking at problems, which you can then learn from. You know I don’t have the training of a fine artist. But by working alongside someone who does have that training, I can see the problem through their eyes and next time I’m encountering a similar kind of problem, I can say well, you know, what would Jennifer think about this? That kind of thing.
So after Ajax happened, I’m a designer. I wrote an article on our website about this concept called Ajax, which was about making web pages more dynamic, which they were actually not dynamic at all at the time. And this brought me into contact with this huge community of Java Script developers who had been working with these technologies, most of whom were grateful for my participation in the conversation. And not all of them. But most of them. And I learned so much from them. I learned so much from the way that they think about problems. I learned so much from their ideas about what was technically possible that I could carry forward into my work. Again, if I had not chosen to go to the Java Script meetups and things like that, it never would have happened.
Number ten. Cultivate allies.
So this is the thing I mean about this particular time period that I’m talking about, the last 15 years. In that we have had to do a lot of explaining of abstract concepts that are difficult to understand to people who have no frame for understanding them, or understanding of why you’re telling them this. None of this stuff mattered last week. Why is it suddenly really important now? So we at Adaptive Path did a lot of our consulting engagements had like this evangelism component to it. But there’s only so much you can do on your own, especially as a consultant. As an outsider to forward ideas in organizations. You need people who can speak for your designs when you’re not in the room. You need people who understand and can represent the thinking behind the work, the ideas that drive the work to people whom you may not have access to. I’m actually not a good fit for a lot of corporate cultures. I’m the wrong guy to be carrying certain messages. But if I can find the people in those organizations who are the right person, get them on my side, give them the tools, give them here. I’ll make the deck. You go take the deck and present the deck to the VP of whatever. They don’t have to be designers either. I mean some of the most powerful allies that I’ve had on my projects have been people who are in other roles altogether that had nothing to do with design. It’s really a matter of finding the person, somebody who understands what we’re doing and can articulate it. Whatever “it” happens to be.
Number 11. Pick your battles.
I honestly feel like I’ve lost more battles than I’ve won as a designer. I feel like I have over the years made a lot of really smart coaching arguments for why a design should be a certain way. And just have them say “Nope.” And so for me I have to learn like where is it worth fighting for a particular aspect of the design? What is actually going to be compromised if I don’t keep fighting for this?
And again, this is something where working in a collaborative environment really helps you because the perspectives of those other people can help you figure out where the priorities ought to be. What are the things that are worth fighting for? And you can collectively sort of keep each other honest so that basically so nobody has their thumb on the scale and is distorting the sense of the overall priorities based on their own personal interests.
Number 12. Good work does not speak for itself. You must, must, must learn how to sell your work. You need to be able to tell people why and not just tell them why. Make them believe in what you’re doing. If they believe in what you’re doing, anything is possible. And if they don’t, you’re going to have a really hard time. Find ways of framing problems that make sense to people, that appeal to their emotions, that appeal to their values so that they will believe in it.
Number 13. Changing a design is easy, changing minds is hard.
The hardest fights you will ever have are the fights against people’s prejudices, their preconceptions, and most importantly the cultural inertia in organizations. I talked before how decision making, the decision making culture and style of an organization often comes from the personalities of the founders. That kind of thing is a very big boat that turns very, very slowly. Getting people to adopt a very different way of doing things or a different way of seeing things is a very, very slow process. It takes patience. It takes dedication. And you have to sort of push through the pain of changing people’s minds so that we can get better design work into the world.
Number 14. Pay attention to your failures.
This is of course a pretty popular idea these days. Now everything that I’ve said here so far has been something that I learned from a mistake that I made. Or more likely several mistakes that I’ve made. Or making the same mistake over and over again. And now of course we have things like lean where you have this explicit emphasis on failing fast and stuff like that. But even if you aren’t operating in an environment like that, you can still learn from failure. But more important than learning from failure is actually paying attention to failure. Studying it, analyzing it. Trying to figure out what is the message that the failure is trying to send you about improving the product, about changing your process.
But the important thing is that the scale of the failure does not necessarily correlate to the scale of the lesson that you can take away from it. Sometimes it can be like just a huge exploding disaster of a project. And you can look at it and go “Well we’re not doing that again.” And sometimes that’s about as much as you can get out of it. Or on the other side sometimes you can have something that is just a line item note in a user research study that just says, you know, some minor little UI thing that when you look at it and you start to unpack it, can have implications for the entire design if you can understand where that is coming from.
So back in 2006, Adaptive Path built a product we call Measure Map. It was an analytics tool for bloggers. And we, when we designed it and took it into testing, this wasn’t my project. It was somebody else at AP. But when we took it into testing we had done all this fancy Ajax stuff for handling the dynamic data display and stuff like that. And what we discovered in the course of doing user testing was that our system was actually too responsive for the users. That when they — and again this was just like one thing. But we saw a couple of people, they would do something, which is like the first step or the second step in a series. And then after that they would get like suddenly really uncertain. And we were like what’s going on? I’m like I’m not sure if it saved my data. It says it saved my data, but it happened so fast that people didn’t trust it. In fact, we had to artificially introduce slow downs into the entire application, into the entire application to help create that sense of trust. Because what we discovered from this one thing was if it’s too fast people won’t trust it. And if people won’t trust it, people won’t use it.
Finally, number 15. Everything is always changing.
I think that when I was starting out I thought that change was something that happened in like these discreet events. Like we have the world. The world is in this steady state. And then the moment of change happens and then after the change the world is in a new, slightly different steady state. That’s not how change works. Change is constant. And it really only varies by degree. This is one way that assumptions can undermine you. Even a perfectly valid assumption can betray you over time if it is eroded by, if its truth is eroded by slow change. Slow change can be hard for us to see.
But these things, they sneak up on us.
And they can cause us to be caught off guard when a bunch of little slow changes suddenly add up to a big one. And so for me what I have tried to do is reconcile myself to the ephemerality of thoughts, ideas, products, design philosophies. Because if everything is always changing, we need to be changing too. Don’t let change just sort of wash over you like a wave. Get on top of it. Ride the wave.
Thank you all very much for your attention.