Design expert Jared Spool on teaching UX to the next generation

Design is a team sport. So says Jared Spool who returns to the Inside Intercom podcast to chat to Jonathon Colman about everything from education to the the future of UX.

While it might be obvious that there’s usually a team of people collaborating on the vision and creation of good design, this truth applies just as much to the end user  – there’ll be more than one person on the receiving end. Good design doesn’t only account for a single persona. Instead, you have to consider all people, all experiences and, crucially, all privileges.

No one understands this better than Jared Spool, the co-founder of Center Centre, the two-year vocational school he helped establish in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with the goal of training industry-ready UX designers and equipping them with the skills they need to be successful on the job from day one. Many people know Jared through User Interface Engineering (UIE), the product usability consulting firm he has helmed for more than 30 years. A few years ago, he joined Intercom co-founder Des Traynor on this podcast and set out the vision behind Center Centre.

This time around, he stopped by to give us an update on the school’s accomplishments since then, which includes graduating its very first cohort of students. Our chat ranges from Jared’s advice on how to justify design’s value within your company to his perspective on why good design must be inclusive to people at all stages of life.

Short on time? Here are five quick takeaways:

  1. Center Centre teaches both hard and soft skills — but it no longer calls them soft because they’re, well, hard! When most of your time as a designer is spent with people instead of actually designing, interpersonal skills are essential for being industry-ready.
  2. The school is now sending people out into the workforce, with an incredible 100% placement rate enjoyed by students from all walks of life.
  3. Center Centre doesn’t offer a course on accessibility, which comes as a surprise to many people. Instead of treating it like an afterthought, the school bakes a focus on inclusivity into every class.
  4. If the leaders at your company don’t value design as much as they should, help them understand by framing it as a tool that helps eliminate pain points for both your users and your colleagues.
  5. Jared points to “experience visions” as a fantastic tool to help guide the decision-making process. An experience vision answers the question: “What will the experience of using our product or service be like some number of years in the future?”

If you enjoy our conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

Establishing “power skills”

Jon Colman: Jared, we’re delighted to have you return as a guest with us here on Inside Intercom. Now the last time you spoke with us, you talked to Des Traynor and you had just launched Center Centre. For anyone who missed that episode, can you remind us what Center Centre does?

Jared: The Center Centre is a school in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the United States with the mission of creating industry-ready UX designers.

Jon: Excellent. And tell us a bit more about what industry-ready means.

“It’d be nice if designers spent 99% of their time designing, but most of your time is spent working with other people and collaborating”

Jared: In its simplest form, industry-ready is basically just being able to show up on day one able to contribute to the team from that moment on. We have heard so many stories from hiring managers about graduates out of school not being prepared to work in the workplace. So it’s the hard skills of design. It’s also what people refer to as “soft skills”, but we don’t refer to them as that any more, because they’re actually really hard. So it’s interpersonal skills – or what we refer to these days as “power skills” – that are needed to do the job right. Just simple things like knowing how to communicate through email or facilitate a meeting or present your work.

These are things that are missed in a lot of programs, and the way our program is structured, the students get a lot of practice at it. As a result, school and work feel very familiar to them because the way we’ve modeled the school is like a work environment more than a conventional university setting. The students don’t feel out of place when they get to the workplace. It feels like exactly what they’ve been doing for the last two years.

Jon: That is a fascinating approach. I love that framing of power skills, because this is really how the business gets done. Is that right?

Jared: Yeah. It’d be nice if designers spent 99% of their time designing, but most of your time is spent working with other people and collaborating and not putting pixels into a document or drawing lines on a wire frame or walking through all the possible color palettes you can use or type choices. All of those things are important, but that’s not what the bulk of design work is today. The bulk of design work is contributing on a team where lots of people are doing lots of things and knowing how to jump in and make sure that you’re adding value with everything that you do.

Jon: This sounds like something that most traditional design courses seem to leave out or take for granted.

Jared: Well, universities follow the same model today that they followed in the 1400s when Saint Ignatius created the first college. School was created to teach people to teach. The whole idea was that there weren’t enough people teaching the word of God, so we create more teachers and we go from there. The modern university is not vocational, it’s academic. There’s nothing wrong with academics. Academics has its place, but we shouldn’t confuse it with vocational work. And we shouldn’t be disappointed when people coming out of an academic environment don’t have vocational skills. Vocational skills are not just theory, they are actually practiced. They’re being able to do the work on a regular basis, and that’s the key thing.

Jon: It sounds like this is deeply rooted in application and developing practical skills and experience.

Jared: Yeah, absolutely.

Achieving a 100% placement rate

Jon: Fantastic. So now that we’re all caught up then, tell us how things have progressed over the last three years.

Jared: So we graduated our first cohort last October, and they were very much coming in cold. They had very little design experience when they came in. I think we had somebody who had done some content strategy work and another student who had been an illustrator, but they really had no formal background in design. We hit the ground running, and they worked for two years really hard.

“A hundred percent graduation rate is virtually unheard of, but they all did. And then they all went off and got really great UX jobs within six weeks of graduating”

We’ve taken these students who knew nothing, and we gave them all of this background, and then we set them on projects. They worked on a project for a defense contractor, and they worked on a project for a university, and they did a project that involved the city of Chattanooga, a future planning project. As a result, they were able to harness all these skills and they all graduated, which is unusual in adult education. A hundred percent graduation rate is virtually unheard of, but they all did. And then they all went off and got really great UX jobs within six weeks of graduating.

Jon: Tell us a bit more about that, because I understand you’ve done some research on where all of your alumni are at now. What have you found?

Jared: Yeah, they’re all doing fantastic. We stay in touch. They keep us informed. The nice thing about this first cohort was that it wasn’t a big group. There were only six of them, but they were really the perfect students for what we were trying to do. Because this was somewhat of a pilot and we were adjusting the curriculum and other things as we were learning from them, we very much bonded with them, and so they stay in touch and we hear a lot about them. When we first put in our proposal to the state of Tennessee to get our authorization, we had to estimate what we thought salaries would be, and based on industry standards, we picked for a junior designer going into the workplace, a starting salary of $66,000 a year. And that seems reasonable for someone right out of school.

Our average salary for the students came in at $86,000 so we’re $20,000 above where we aimed. So we have a 100% graduation, 100% placement and $20,000 higher than our target for this. Part of me wants to just stop now, because we’ll never get this good again. There are no better stats than this. This is going to be our shining point, you know? Hopefully we can keep it up for a while.

Jon: Since we’re talking about financials, tell us a bit about your approach to student financing, because I understand this is really different than a traditional university. Can you tell us how this works?

Jared: You learn a lot of things when you start a school. One of the things we learned was that in the US, we have this notion of federally backed student loans. And federally backed student loans meant that basically you can get a loan from a bank, but the federal government guarantees it. If you default, the federal government will pay it off, the bank can’t lose. And so we created our own student financing system through donations because we knew that there was a lot of support in the industry for people to get into design, particularly around inclusivity and working with folks who wouldn’t normally be able to get to a program like this. And so we created a program that allows that to happen and we’re very proud of it. In our first cohort, half the cohort was women, all of whom were women of color.

We were able to succeed at having a very diverse, inclusive group in the first cohort. The applicants for our second cohort are fantastic. They come from all different backgrounds. And many of them come out of economic situations where an expensive school was just not in their realm of possibility.

Good design is inclusive

Jon: Oh, that’s brilliant. I was just going to say, it sounds like they’re paying it forward. I love that. You mentioned diversity and inclusion, and it sounds like you think that’s really important for good design. I’m curious if that’s part of the curriculum of the school and how you focus on that.

Jared: Yeah, it absolutely is. I mean, we build it into every course. Originally we thought about this around accessibility but we’ve expanded it since then. We don’t have a course on accessibility. And initially people look at us cross-eyed when they figure this out that there is nothing. If you look at our course list, there’s nothing on there about accessibility. And that’s because we decided early on that we didn’t want to put it in the mindset of the students that accessibility was this thing you come to later, you work on your design and then you make it accessible. It’s this afterthought of work. Instead, throughout every course we talk about accessibility: when you’re doing your user research we ask, “How are you going to recruit accessible participants?” And we also talk about what happens if the observers in the room need accessibility efforts and the team members that you’re working with: “How do you make sure that your research results are accessible in their own right?”

“You have binary gender declarations in your code: Are you a male? Are you female? But people are not binary”

We’ve been expanding that from accessibility into inclusion and diversity and basically saying, “How do we make sure we have all the different voices, all the different representations?” We started with accessibility and said: “Accessibility is not just people who are blind, people who are deaf, but it’s also people who have trouble accessing something because maybe they have brain trauma. Maybe they are low literacy. Maybe they come from an economic background that they don’t understand computer technology.” Once you go there, you get into this notion of inclusiveness that talks about where all of these experiences are key.

We see this in the work today where the canonical examples are people putting out health applications that don’t take into account that women’s health is different than men’s health, and therefore they don’t talk about menstrual cycles or other activities that are usually specifically to women. You don’t have things where it’s possible for a trans man to make an appointment at a women’s clinic because they’re seen as he/him, therefore they’re male, and therefore why would they need to have a cervical smear or something like that? You have binary gender declarations in your code: Are you a male? Are you female? But people are not binary.

But then it gets into other things like: Do we understand what happens when someone gets charged a fee they weren’t expecting, and every penny in their life is budgeted and they can’t deal with a $40 fee that is a surprise in their budget? That means someone’s going to go without a meal that month. Unless you’ve been there, you don’t really understand what that place is like. We have some applicants who have lived out of their car and eaten ramen for years on end, or they could not go to college, or they could not transfer to the community college they wanted to go to because it had a better program for what they wanted to study. Maybe they needed a car to do that, but they could not afford a car at that moment. Until you’re in that situation, you don’t really understand what it’s like to be there.

Where is a lack of good design causing the organization to deliver products and services that are far less than they could be?

Jon: Absolutely. This is something that we don’t talk about enough in the industry. I love how you’re first of all expanding the people who are doing the work by giving them access to your school, but also preparing them for considering exactly these kinds of problems in their own work.

Jared: Right, right. I mean, you need that person in the meeting to sit up and say, “Wait a second, we’ve left something out,” or, “We have taken a very privileged perspective on this problem, and we need to think of this from a less privileged point of view.” It’s really hard to put yourself in that unless you’ve been there and to even know that that situation exists. Because if you live in a community where everybody’s just like you and everybody has the same privileges you have, why would you think to consider people without those privileges?

Jon: Because we tend to design from our own perspectives, right?

Jared: Exactly. So you don’t even know to do the research. You don’t even know how to have empathy for the folks. And so that’s where we come from. That’s our take.

Jon: That’s fantastic. In terms of thinking about how designers can expand and change the organizations they’re in, you’ve written a lot about empowering and educating design leaders so that they can sell the value of design and the impact of design to their leadership and to companies. What are some of the strategies you’d recommend to design leaders to show how design makes the organization stronger or more effective?

“If the numbers are big enough, folks will pay attention. And if an organization has been ignoring design, chances are the numbers are pretty big”

Jared: The place I almost always start is looking at where it’s hurting the organization right now. Where is a lack of good design causing the organization to deliver products and services that are far less than they could be? An example is whenever you have some sort of experience problem, it causes frustration. And whenever you have that frustration, something in the organization feels that pain, right? You get support calls you didn’t want to get. You lose sales you didn’t want to lose. You have employees not being as productive. You have developers working on features that nobody uses. Somewhere, there’s a financial burden that the organization feels because they have created something that was frustrating.

Oftentimes, if you chase the frustration, you can get to something you can actually put a monetary value on. And once you can put a monetary value on it, you can get people’s attention who normally wouldn’t pay attention to design things, because the monetary value is speaking the language that they’re focused on. And once we can speak that language, we can then say: “You know, there’s a way we could reverse this. We could actually make this a monetary benefit, not a monetary cost. And I have some tools to do that.” If the numbers are big enough, folks will pay attention. And if an organization has been ignoring design, chances are the numbers are pretty big.

Jon: You’ve said that money is the language that executives bring to the table. Can you tell us a bit about how designers and design leaders should communicate the ROI of design?

Jared: Well, the first thing is to not think of it as ROI of design, because I think that’s an abstract notion. It’s: “Right now, decisions are being made and the decisions are resulting in frustrating outcomes. And if we make different decisions, we can make them not be frustrating. If we can prove that those frustrating outcomes have a monetary cost on the organization, then we can make decisions that don’t have that monetary cost and actually produce a monetary gain for the organization.” Once you go there, the return on investment question becomes very simple. Why would we spend money when we could be making money? Let’s talk about that. And then it’s just a matter of talking about different ways you can make money.

If you try and go down the road of ROI, that gets you into looking at competitors and figuring out in the industry who has made money when they’ve invested in design. Those questions are academic at best and often very futile. Any executive that’s any good knows that you’re just making arguments based on cherry-picked findings and you’re not really talking to the heart of the problems that are close to them. But if you can talk about how there’s an opportunity to change the way income or costs are expended in the organization, then talk about that. And usually that is a discussion that very often does not require that you state a return on investment. Instead, what you’re saying is, “Hey, we seem to be spending a lot of money on people calling support and if we fix this problem, we can make those support calls go away. And therefore we could use that money for something else.” This is not a hard conversation to have once you know what we’re spending support on and how fixing it would solve it. And that’s where we should focus the effort.

Predicting the future of UX

Jon: Let’s jump in a bit to the future of UX. In the past you’ve written about how Apple created a series of experience visions in 1987 that helped them predict the future of their products. Can you tell us more about how this worked and what they learned from it?

Jared: You can see one of them. If you search the phrase “knowledge navigator” in YouTube, there are people who’ve uploaded copies of the video. It’s a crappy video because it was originally shot on a low-resolution VHS. And it reminds us that those days are gone and people are often uploading copies of copies of copies, because as far as I know, the original masters are long since lost. But this was a project run by Hugh Dubberly when he was at Apple. He and his team, in 1987, set out to create a bunch of videos based on some stories that they’d created on what the experience of the user would be like 23 years in the future. And what’s fascinating about these videos is that they’re not a demo of a product, they’re a person living their life, doing their job for four minutes, where you get to see what it’s like to use technology.

The Knowledge Navigator video is particularly fascinating. That’s the one that caught everybody’s imagination. Because 1987 was an interesting year. It was five years after the PC was announced. It was three years after the Macintosh came out, which introduced GUIs to the world. So people having computers on their desk was still a brand new thing in 1987, compared to today where it seems very commonplace. These computers that were massive boxes that took up a good chunk of your desk. They made a lot of noise. They were really slow. I mean, you would boot them up and you’d go get a cup of coffee, you’d brew the coffee, you’d come back, and it was still booting. They had no connectivity to the outside world at all, because the internet didn’t come along until 1993. Most of them were still character-based, because while the Macintosh came out in ’84, Windows 3.1 (which was the first version of Windows that most people ended up using) didn’t come out until 1991. It was a very crude world.

And Apple comes out with this little thing: a desktop flat-panel device that you talk to, and you touch it to interact with it. And it somehow collects data from all over the world and integrates it into one source. And it’s got seamless video conferencing built in, and you’re running multiple apps at the same time. And in 1987, that was just science fiction. There was no technology that could do any of that. And people said said, “I want this.” In fact, Apple ended up showing the Knowledge Navigator video at their annual shareholders meeting, and the next day they got a purchase order for one of these things, even though they said this is not going to ship for 23 years.

“An experience vision basically answers a question, what will the experience of using our product or service be like some number of years in the future?”

Jon: But then they used this to inform their product roadmap, is that right?

Jared: Yeah. So every decision after that, people got to ask a question. Normally when you’re faced with a bunch of design options, you have a couple of questions that you lean on. Like, which thing will be fastest to deliver, or which thing will be cheapest to manufacturer, or which thing will be easiest to build?

And we used those types of questions to help guide us to make choices. But Apple’s Knowledge Navigator video gave them another question. And that question was, well, which of these design options takes a baby step towards the Knowledge Navigator? So when they were working on the PowerBooks, the Newtons, the iPods, all of these things that led up to the iPhone and the iPad, every single one of those was faced with decisions. And they would ask the question, well, which one of these gets us closest to the Knowledge Navigator?

That question, which, unlike the other questions, puts the user at the center of the equation. Because remember, the Knowledge Navigator didn’t exist as a set of specifications. The Knowledge Navigator existed as an experience that a user had doing this work. And so everything they knew about it was about a better user experience, and that’s what they were asking. Which of these produces a better user experience? But it’s a very specific user experience. It’s one that everybody’s already bought into. And so you don’t argue over whether my user experience is better than yours. It’s like either we believe in the Knowledge Navigator or we don’t. And if we all say the Knowledge Navigator is what we wanted, then we can use this question.

So we’re helping teams create experience visions, and it’s a fantastic tool, because it completely changes the decision-making process. And an experience vision basically answers a question, what will the experience of using our product or service be like some number of years in the future? You want it to be far enough out that whatever the legacy things that are holding you back, are doable. We can get past that. We can get the mainframes to talk to each other, even though we’ve never done that in 25 years. But we can do it in the next five years. Why not? We can completely redo the whole tech stack in five years. Why not?

Jon: Practically then, how would a design team know when to create an experience vision and what should they do to get started?

“In most organizations, the people who are making these decisions, often do not know what the user’s current experiences are”

Jared: Well, they should create one as soon as possible, but they may be prevented from creating one, because they don’t know enough about the current experience. One of the advantages that Apple had with the Knowledge Navigator was that everybody who saw that video knew how crappy the current experience of using technology was. So, it immediately distinguished itself, because the user comes in the room, they open this thing up and *bing*, it’s on and running and it’s telling them their calendar for the day. And they then realize they have an upcoming important appointment, and they have to prepare for it. They start to look through things that feels like an internet, but it’s still five years before the internet was invented.

They’re doing all these things that are so different than the way users were doing them at that time, that they jumped out of it. And one of the problems we have in a lot of teams today is that in most organizations, the people who are making these decisions, often do not know what the user’s current experiences are. They are so divorced from those experiences that they don’t have any way to empathize with those people.

So the first thing you need to do is you need to have a lot of exposure to the current experience. And you need to get all the people who are going to be supportive and make the decisions be making that, which one gets us closer to the experience vision question. You need all those people to know what the current experience is like, so that when they see the experience vision, they have a real understanding of how this is going to be an improvement over what users have today.

Jon: It’s like an exercise in immersion, and you use that to build alignment across your team or your company.

Jared: Bingo. Yes, that’s exactly it. Wow, it took you much shorter to say that.

Design is a team sport

Jon: Content design. That’s how we roll. Jared, I know we’re running short on time. Before we wrap up, we usually ask people what designers they look up to or aspire to, but I know you’re not keen on this notion of genius or rockstar designers. I’m curious if you could tell us why, in your experience, UX leaders show up across the board in all walks of life.

Jared: Yeah, I get the question. Who are your influences? What are you there for? But I’m influenced every day by the people around me. And the thing is, design is a team sport. And when we take some individual and we say, oh, this is the designer that I believe in, then we’re basically saying that nobody else on that team was an equal contributor to that.

We were just talking about Apple and the Knowledge Navigator. The Knowledge Navigator led to the iPad, if you compare the Knowledge Navigator and the iPad side by side, you can see the influence right there. But everybody gives the credit to the iPad, to Steve jobs. He created the iPhone. He created the iPad, and certainly he was the front man for Apple during that period. And he was definitely creating a leadership and a vision and people loved working for him, for sure, because of that. But to say Steve Jobs was the leader there really doesn’t give credit to the amazing talent inside Apple. And then all the people who’ve created the applications that have made the iPad useful today, that it really doesn’t do service to say Steve Jobs.

Here’s the thing: Steve Jobs did not work at Apple in 1987, when Hugh Dubberly and his team built the Knowledge Navigator video. He didn’t show up for another four years. But he took the video and he said: “I love this. Let’s make this the vision.” Then under his leadership, everybody was like, “Okay, this is what we’re doing.” And everybody got behind it. But he didn’t create the idea. So do we give him the credit for that? There’s a lot to give him credit for, but personally, I want to give the whole team credit, and I want to find a way to do that.

I go into organizations all the time where I see amazing people doing amazing work. Oftentimes, they don’t even know they’re doing design work, because they’re just doing their job of making people’s experiences better. It doesn’t occur to them that’s design, and they should be getting the credit too. So we were talking about this interview, and you all said we’re going to ask you this question, I’m thinking: “You won’t know anybody who influences me, because they’re the people I had a call with 15 minutes ago, and the people I had four calls with yesterday. And all these people are influencing me every day.”

Jon: I love that. So then lastly, Jared, where can people keep up with you, your work and Center Centre?

Jared: Well, there’s my Twitter account, @jmspool, where I tweet about design, design strategy, design education, and the amazing customer service habits of the airline industry. (See also: @CenterCentre + @UIE)