Jared Spool on UX design

Jared Spool has been helping product companies solve their design problems for decades.

Most folks know Jared through User Interface Engineering (UIE), the leading research, training and consulting firm specializing in product usability. Having spent the past 28 years working with clients at UIE, he’s keenly aware of where and why many young UX designers struggle. To help remedy that, he’s co-founded a unique school, Center Centre, to produce a new generation of industry-ready designers. The inaugural class begins its journey on October 17.

Jared recently joined me on the podcast to chat about why design graduates struggle in the workplace and what the Center Centre curriculum is doing differently. We also get into why all parts of your own company must have an appreciation of design to succeed, and how to cross what Jared calls “the UX Tipping Point”.

If you like what you hear, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or grab the RSS feed.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the interview. Short on time? Here are four key takeaways:


Des Traynor: Jared, it’s an absolute pleasure to have you here. So you’re still involved at User Interface Engineering, but you’re also spending a lot of time on a new initiative, which is confusingly called Center Centre. What is it, and what’s the thinking behind the name?

Jared Spool: It’s a new school for industry-ready UX designers. (The name) plays into being multiple types of a center. A good school is a place where community, education and industry come together. We see (Center Centre) as a place where all those things come together to do good work. The way we’ve structured the school, the students are going to be very active in the community. They’re going to be very active in the industry throughout their education. At the same time, it’s a place where new thinking and new ideas emerge from. Things come from the center, things come to the center. Two types of center, so therefor, Center Centre.

Des: You talked about creating this new generation of designers. The adjective you use was “industry ready”. What’s the difference between an industry-ready designer, and someone who graduates from a typical art and design college?

Jared: We are definitely not a typical art and design college. We are without art., and we are just design. We’re a vocational school. It’s very much about making people ready for work. Universities were not built for trades. Universities were made to create educators, actually. The first universities were built in the 15th and 16th centuries to spread the word of the church. What they needed were people who could teach the word of God. They created a system for producing teachers, not for producing people who could work a trade.

The structure of those universities hasn’t changed much since the 16th century. We still use the same basic constructs. When my partner, Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, and I started on this project, we did what you do when you have a good project – we went out and did research. We started talking to hiring managers. While students are our primary customer, hiring managers are customers too. If we don’t produce graduates that the hiring managers want to hire, we will fail as a trade school. We have to make very desirable hiring managers.

When you hire somebody what is it you look for, particularly when you hire students? What is it that you feel you’re not getting? We found that while students had a lot of book knowledge – they knew how to do design as it was prescribed in books – they didn’t have a lot of field knowledge. They didn’t have a lot of experience. They couldn’t do very much, and the result is they’re not getting jobs right out of school.

We have more jobs than ever. We estimate in the United States there are somewhere between 70,000-80,000 UX positions right now. Students coming right out of school are having a lot of trouble filling those jobs because they’re not ready. So much so, that companies like IBM have built entire institutions. In Austin, IBM has, in essence, a school where they take students who have come out of design school, and they give them another six months of training. Not on things specific to IBM – that’s only three weeks of the six months – but on basic workplace skills.

In order to make students ready to sit down and do the job the day they get there, they have to have a lot of experience. So we built an experience-based program that students work on real-life projects. Projects that are assigned. Projects that come from real-life companies, and community-based projects. They last 3-5 months, and students work on them as a team. They are not expected to project lead them at the beginning, because project leadership is a learned skill. We don’t throw them at the wolves and then wonder why their projects were so poorly managed, like so many school projects end up being. They come out of the program with two years of experience. As a result, they are much more attractive to companies looking to hire them.

Des: When you say “experience,” is it specific? Do you have modules on things like how to create a persona? How to assess a site navigation? How to wireframe? How to do a usability test?

Jared: Yeah, that’s just the beginning. The first course is information architecture. The second course is sketching and prototyping. The third course is user research practices. Then we get into front-end development and go from there. We have courses on leadership, critique, design studios, personas and storytelling, workshop facilitation, the business of user experience, how to design for social, etc. We have 30 courses that are taken over two years.

Des: It is full-time? Do students move to Chattanooga, Tennessee and enroll there?

Jared: It’s full-time. We have a lovely facility in downtown Chattanooga. The students live in Chattanooga and go to school five days a week. We modeled it after a full-time job.

One of the things the hiring managers told us is one of the things they have to deal with is a lot of students come out of school and for many years, they have been taught it they can sit still for an hour and a half, they can go play Frisbee. That’s the basic structure of school. The hiring managers are telling us they have trouble just getting these people to sit and work for an entire day. We decided to fix that problem. School will be structured for an entire day. So instead of taking multiple classes – each one is three hours or an hour and a half – you take one class for three weeks. It starts at 8:30 a.m. and it ends at 5 p.m. There’s no homework. You do the work at school. Then you go and reinvigorate over the weekend, and you come back to school ready to work.

Bringing hiring companies into education earlier

Des: What’s your first real sign of feedback from this cohort, which enrolls this fall? Will it be two years time when you’ll know how that worked out?

Jared: No, no, no. We’ve built feedback in all the way. In a lot of programs, the companies finally get involved just as the students are graduating. Maybe there’s a career day, maybe there’s a capstone project at the end that the company sponsors. In this program, companies are involved all the way through. They supply projects for students to work on, so they’re watching the students go through. Every three weeks we have a new class starting, and the first two days of class an industry expert comes and delivers a two-day industry-grade workshop on the topic.

For example, we have Abby Covert coming in and talking about information architecture for two days. Dana Chisnell, who wrote the handbook of usability testing and is one of the highest-placed UX people in the federal government, is introducing data research.

We have all these industry experts coming in. We’re inviting the companies to come and participate in those workshops, while at the same time they get a chance to meet the students and see their progress. The goal is for the students to get feedback from those folks, from people that work on the projects, from mentors they are assigned to, who have volunteered their time. They get that feedback all the way through the program, and we’re getting feedback from those folks saying, “Yeah, this is the type of person I want to hire, or I would like to see this.”

We’ve actually kept the last six months of the program undefined. We’ll start to define it about 12 months into the program. We leave this undefined because we want to be able to catch things that are new and emerging that we didn’t know people needed to know. For example, machine learning is becoming a hot topic. There’s this nascent idea of, how do you design for environments where there’s a machine-learning engine behind it? By the time we finish this program, that’s probably going to be a really hot topic. We’re going to spend the next year researching these sorts of things, and we’re going to have companies tell us what hot topics they really wish student came out of the program knowing, which we couldn’t possibly have known in the past year when we were developing all the curriculum for the program.

We can keep it very adaptable and make sure it works. We’re going to be getting feedback all the way through, and if we’re not producing students that the companies are interested in, we’re going to find that out almost immediately.

Des: Have you thought about the exact opposite problem? What if everyone gets poached within six months?

Jared: That’s actually a big problem for us. According to the state of Tennessee, that’s technically considered a dropout, even if they are poached and given an amazing salary.

It’s a weird thing, right? The entire purpose of the Higher Ed Commission, the people who authorize us, is to develop skills. So if we’re developing the skills at a faster rate than the program, they’re still considered a dropout. We have a political battle to fight there. We’re also going to work with the hiring companies so they understand it will be to the student’s benefit, to our benefit, and to their benefit if we come up with a way. What we’ll probably end up doing when that happens – hopefully it won’t happen after six months – is we’ll work on a work-study program, where they’ll actually get credit for work and can finish out their program there. We’ll want to make sure the curriculum stays intact, because it’s to everyone’s benefit that happens.

The value of certification

Des: The design industry is torn over the issue of certification. Today anyone can be a designer. Basically, you’re a designer if you put it in your Twitter bio. We probably have more people saying they’re designers than we have designers. On the other side we have folks like yourself who have now produced an entire curriculum that outputs a pretty well-defined industry-ready designer. Would it be ostentatious for UX design to move to a world of some degree of certification?

Jared: I think it’s going to happen. When you talk about certification, you have to talk about the experience of certification. Everybody always focuses on the person who’s being certified. That’s actually not the beneficiary of certification. The real beneficiary of certification is the hiring manager. They are the ones who need to be able to tell whether this person is certified or not.

Right now, there is an implied certification that comes with what school you went to. If you know the curriculum of a school and you know that someone has gone through that program and gotten their diploma, then in essence they’re certified. They are certified in a way that people who didn’t go to the program are not certified. So certification already exists. What we need to talk about is not do we have certification or not have certification, but what do hiring managers really need.

One of the things I learned when we were talking to hiring managers is that almost always, they are completely surprised at what students don’t know when they come out of school. You get a degree from some institution – let’s say it’s a Bachelor’s degree in information design, or interaction design, or visual design. The students come in and they’re given an assignment, and they can’t do the basics. They don’t know how to do user research, or they don’t know how to do other sort of things that everybody assumes, if you’re trained as a designer, you would know. The curriculum doesn’t ever say that.

We realized there’s an implied contract between the school and the hiring managers, but no one states what the actual contractual agreement is, the skills we’re committed to teaching these students.

We create an explicit contract of what it means to be a designer.

We met a hiring who loves Carnegie Mellon’s program right now, another manager who loves the School of Visual Arts. When we dug a little deeper we learned that was the school they went to. They knew the contract because they had already been through it. We’ve decided to make the contract explicit. We’ve created competencies, demonstrable skills, for every course. In order for a student to pass the course, they actually have to demonstrate to us that they can do those things.

For example, in the user research course students have to observe a usability test, be able to moderate a usability test, design the test plan for the test, recruit participants, and synthesize results. We break all those up into independent competencies.

Our full-time faculty are basically monitoring the students’ progress through the competencies and looking at the upcoming project work and saying, “You have a chance to practice your usability testing skills here. Let’s have you do the test plan for this project.” When they have completed that to the satisfaction of the facilitator they get that checked off. Think of it like merit badges. You have to do all the steps and you get the merit badge. They get to pass the course at that point. We have 30 courses, so there’s going to be 30 merit badges, 30 sets of competencies, and the competencies start to overlap.

When you get to the user research course, because we’ve already done sketching and prototyping and we’ve already done information architecture, you’re going to have to do a usability test of prototypes of navigation of a website, for example. So we start to combine these and demonstrate these. We can publish the list of competencies that every student has to have in order to graduate, and the students can share and specifically speak to the work and how they passed it. That becomes part of their portfolio.

We create this explicit contract of what it means to be a designer and what we think it is.

The UX Tipping Point

Des: The days where you do a podcast about why UX is important are long gone – until you move into the murky field of enterprise software. You wrote recently about how companies need to cross what you call “the UX tipping point”. What is the tipping point? What are the stages the larger companies need to go through?

Jared: There’s a bunch of things that get you there. The evolutionary stages start with what we call the UX dark ages, which is an organization that has never thought about UX, they don’t talk about UX, they’re about doing the thing they do. They sell gasoline, but they don’t think about how people use gasoline. They don’t think about how the distributors distribute gasoline. They just sell gasoline, and that’s all they think about.

It’s easy to say, “Well, that’s not a high tech product. Why do they have UX?” That’s changing. There’s a company I talked to in Alabama that makes water meters. These are little devices that sit on pipes and measure how much water goes through. Your house has one, and chances are your municipality bills you for that. It needs to be accurate. Up until a few years ago that was a purely mechanical device. They never thought about the user experience. You train the people to read the thing, you train the installers to install the thing. That’s all the user experience you have to think about.

Now these are digital devices. They have software in them, a reading device that actually uses a radio system to talk to it. The person who reads the meter no longer has to come in your house. They can drive by in a truck and it tells them how much water you’ve been using. Now they’re suddenly finding themselves in the software business, and they’re wholly ill-equipped to work in the software business. They grew up in a part of Alabama where there are no software people and there are no UX people.

So how do they navigate this? They’ve gone from being in the dark ages to now needing to think about this, without really knowing anything about it. We call that the spot UX phase. You bring in somebody and they work on UX for a while, and then you send them away. Or maybe you have a manager who drives a UX project until the rest of the organization overtakes them, and then they get fed up and they leave. There’s no concerted UX phase.

The next stage you see is folks saying, “Okay let’s get serious. Let’s hire designers and therefore create a design team. Therefore we need a design manager. What we’ll do is, to serve the whole organization, we will create this internal service. Instead of using outside agencies anymore, we’re going to bring that in house and we’re going to create this service that basically replicates what the outside agencies were doing for us, but at a much cheaper rate.” That’s what we call design as a service. It’s UX design as a service inside the organization.

A lot of people have thought for a long time that was the ultimate evolution. It turns out that as we’ve been studying companies, that’s not it at all. That’s actually a midpoint. The next stage is when a team that the service has been servicing, realizes that design is actually critical to their success. They get frustrated hiring that team for spot pieces as they go. Instead they hire people from the team to actually be embedded in the project.

The difference is embedded people only work on that project. They think about multiple releases of that product. Normally design as a service is only thinking about the current release and they are only working on parts of the project. There are whole parts that they have nothing to do with and no control over and know influence over. The designers now have influence over this.

For some people they thought, okay well that was sort of the end. It turns out that it’s not. There could be something after this – where the designers aren’t the only ones designing. Everybody on the team is now thinking of themselves as a UX person.

The example I like to give is Netflix. There are people who are in charge of making sure that the bits come off the server as fast as possible. They worry about responsiveness and bandwidth and reliability. They’re typically engineers, and their job is to make the servers and the network perform as fast as it can. Conventionally, we would never have referred to them as UX people. They don’t have anything to do with UX. They work on the back end. The moment you’re watching your favorite movie and the little spinner starts to spin, and your movie stops and nothing happens, suddenly they’re UX people. They are the most important UX people on the team in that moment.

The last stage is what we call a design-infused organization, where everybody sees themselves as a UX person. The performance engineers, the product managers, the lawyers who create the license agreements, everybody has some influence over the user experience and is actively working to provide the best user experience possible. It’s that organization where we see the UX tipping point.

You actually use design to hold up your product.

The UX tipping point is a moment that happens when you go (away) from having the conventional approach of shipping a product at the very moment that it’s technically capable of doing what we want it to do and meets the business model. “If it does those two things we ship it. We don’t worry if the design isn’t great, we’ll fix it in the next release.” This has been Microsoft’s MO for three decades. The old joke is that Microsoft’s user experience doesn’t get good until the third release, because for the first two releases they just get it out there and working. That’s been the convention.

The tipping point is when you stop shipping products, not because it technically doesn’t work or the business model isn’t met, but because it’s not designed well enough for your standards. You actually use design to hold up your product. There aren’t a lot of companies that have reached this tipping point. The ones who have met this are producing a much higher grade of product. As a result, they command higher revenues, they command higher prices, and they get more customer loyalty. They win on all the factors.

Design is really the last ground to compete on. Technology is an even bar. You can get all the technology you want and most of it is in the cloud. You can come out with the cheapest product, but cheap doesn’t give you a lot of margin. Competition can come up with something cheaper, which means you have to lower your prices. So you’re always in this game of seeing who can drive their costs down. You can produce the highest quality product, but reliability, maintainability, those sorts of things are now basic stakes. So what’s left? The user experience. Being able to compete on a user experience.

This is why Nest beat Honeywell, the market leader, at a 40-year-old business, which is thermostats. Why didn’t Honeywell come out with the Nest? In fact, Honeywell was completely surprised by Nest. They had nothing in R&D that was even close. They had no skills in-house.

This happens all the time. Motorola and Nokia ran the cellphone market. Suddenly Apple, not in the phone business, takes over the market and drives what the market is. It’s all based on user experience. No company wants to be the next Honeywell. The water meter company does not want to be the next Honeywell. So what do they do? How do they get past that? How do they make sure that some competitor doesn’t just march in, take over and sell themselves to Google for $3.2 billion?

Des: Do companies need to get their asses kicked to realize this? I worry that with your enterprise-grade person who’s made billions of dollars off hardware water meters, you could wave your arms and try to get them worried about the next generation of technology, but part of it is seeing is believing.

Jared: These days, you can talk to most boards and they’re panicked because they see how the Nest scenario played out. A bunch of ex-Apple dudes found a market that no one was talking about, took it over, and defined what the next generation of product was to be. Healthcare.gov, another example, was this lovely website that failed so badly that you could just walk up to people and say, “Do you want to be the next healthcare.gov?” They’d say no, and you’d say okay then you need to think about this.

We have Nest, we have the iPhone, we have a ton of stuff where we can say, hey, you guys are on par to be the next Honeywell. You’re on par to be the next Nokia. You’re on par to be the next GM while Tesla wipes your ass with electric cars. What do you want to do? Do you want to wait until a Tesla shows up in your industry? Or do you want to be the Tesla of your industry? Almost always they say they want to be the Tesla of our industry. Then we say, okay, that’s going to cost you a lot of money, and it becomes a business thing.

The reason Nest was able to do what it was able to do, is they didn’t have to get rid of all the old people who didn’t understand what they were trying to do. The problem a company like Honeywell has is that their business was going fine until suddenly it wasn’t.

Des: It’s a harder decision for Honeywell to go all in on a new, effectively competitive business, against their existing revenue, than it is for Nest to have zero revenue to build something that’s going to change the world.

Jared: It is. So you just start the death clock, right? That’s your choice. You can say, “Oh, it’s too hard.” Okay, I’ve got a timer, when do we want to set the date? We’ll just count down until you’re dead.

Des: When talking to CEOs who aren’t founders, their attitudes towards these things are that’s probably the next person’s problem. You hear things like, “I fully believe that Tesla is on the way but not under my watch. I’ll be long gone before that matters.” It’s a different type of survival strategy.

Jared: Yeah, this is boardroom level thinking. The Honeywell thing was not an engineering (issue). It was a boardroom problem. This is why I think things like design-thinking are catching on. There isn’t a management school out there now that doesn’t teach a design-thinking course. I personally don’t know what design thinking is. There is nothing there. It’s fake.

It took me a long time to get my head around why executives love design thinking. They do. As a result they now realize they have to find a solution. If they are moving into another organization to be a CEO or an executive of another place, it will be on their watch somewhere.

Des: You can run but you can’t hide. Jared, this has been a fascinating chat. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Jared: Thank you for encouraging my behavior.