There’s often a sense of trailblazing when it comes to UX in digital technology. We try new things, iterate on what works, and go back to the drawing board when it doesn’t.
While there’s a lot to be learned and explored, we also rely on the knowledge and experiences of those who have been there before to help guide our way. The ones who began to map out the territory before anyone else knew about it. The ones who recognized the importance of what was there before many others did.
Jared Spool is one of those pioneers. Jared has been working in user experience since 1978—a time when barely anyone was exploring the connection between usability and computer tech.
Since then, he’s watched as the world around UX design in digital technologies changes and grows in explosive ways. He’s helped countless orgs grow their own UX practice, and became the co-founder and co-CEO of Center Centre - UIE, a brick-and-mortar school training people to become the next generation of UX designers.
Now in a time when digital technology is both growing at an incomprehensible pace and more ingrained in our daily lives than ever, we thought it’d be good to take a step back and get his perspective on things.
We took some time out of Jared’s busy day to talk to him about the growth he’s seen from UX, and what he thinks are the biggest issues facing designers today.
dscout: You've been working in UX since before UX was even a term in common parlance. What are some of the biggest changes that you've seen since you've started?
Jared: Well first, there are other people who work in UX. That's a big change.
There were a smaller number of us compared to today; I would definitely say I'm first-generation. The field itself is very different. We're now instrumental to well-designed products and services. It's clear what the contribution is and could be. That has changed lots of things.
Back when I started, we were very much focused on basics. For example, how do you get computers to work for people in simple forms? The big difference is, when I started, there were no personal computers. So I worked on the first generation of personal computers. All the computers that existed, people used because they were trained to do so. You had to go to weeks or months of training just to be able to touch the machine, let alone be able to program it and operate it. You often had to be a programmer to use the computer, or you used it on behalf of programmers.
This idea that everybody would have their own computer that they would operate themselves, and that none of them would be programmers, that was a novel idea when I started. So we had to figure out what the rules of engagement were for this technology—it being a new idea that someone else would have to program it and let you use it for the things you wanted to use it for.
Compared to now, where babies will have a smartphone or tablet in their hand.
Exactly. We have a generation of children who are growing up on Zoom, right?
One of my best friends is a four-and-a-half year old, who has spent the last year going to school on Zoom. To him, this is just how you go to school.
And the impact of the global pandemic has only sped along this ubiquitousness of technology and the way people interact with them.
The pandemic has been a forcing function for a lot of businesses. The obvious ones are like that corner takeout restaurant that barely had a website and never thought it really needed one.
Now suddenly, their entire survival depends on having online ordering. That took them by as much surprise as it took us, right?
[Apple and Netflix] broke the rules of business. Everybody looked at them and went, 'What the hell's going on?' Then realized that there was this deeper thing—a better experience—that underlaid both of them.
Was there an inflection point from when you started to now, where people took the idea of UX more seriously as a discipline? Or was it a gradual occurrence?
There was definitely an inflection point. I think that there were several, but the big ones were probably Apple and Netflix.
The progression of the Apple iPod, and then the success of the Apple stores. Then the iPhone got everybody wondering what Apple was doing—because they weren't following the rules of the rest of the industry.
Netflix was the other one. Blockbuster, this established, large, worldwide enterprise, was squashed in mere months by this little upstart company that did something that just seemed wildly stupid: take something that you can go down to the corner store and get immediately, and make it instead be something that you'd have to wait three days in the mail to get.
In both cases, they broke the rules of business. Everybody looked at them and went, "What the hell's going on?" Then realized that there was this deeper thing—a better experience—that underlaid both of them.
I remember going to college and Netflix was a completely new thing—and it seemed great to get a movie in my dorm mailbox. But you’re right. I could have just also gone to Blockbuster or Family Video and gotten a movie the same day.
Right, except you wouldn't have gotten the movies you wanted.
There was this amazing element of just having this thing show up—a red envelope in your mailbox—without you having to really do anything. Then you put that red envelope back in your mailbox a few days later.
There was also the queue. The queue made all the difference. Blockbuster paid no attention to what you watched. So you'd go into a Blockbuster and you're like, "Have we seen this before? I don't remember if we've seen this." Well, Netflix knew, but Blockbuster didn't. There were all these little subtleties that made a huge difference.
The difference was this focus on the user rather than product.
It was based on their experience, right? Both of them were focused on the user, but Blockbuster's focus on the user was transactional. It was all about the experience.
What are the biggest challenges that you see facing UX practitioners today?
There's a bunch. For the people leading design inside organizations, it's shifting from a reactive approach to user experience, to a proactive approach. In a reactive approach, the UX team responds to whatever the current crisis is, whatever the new feature is, whatever the new deadline is. All these things are sort of coming at you, and you're busy trying to get the stuff on your plate off of your plate.
It's very akin to the chocolate factory in that I Love Lucy episode. There's chocolate coming down the conveyor belt and it just keeps coming faster and faster and faster, and you have to put it in the box. Eventually you have to do something with it. You can't do it fast enough. That's a reactive approach to user experience practice.
The biggest challenge is to become proactive. You need to be in control of how fast things are coming down, and to be able to have a say in the priorities that are coming through. That proactive approach to user experiences is a big deal. The more that we can become proactive, the better off we get. That's a big part of it.
The second thing is, we have a bit of a diversity problem—and not just in UX specifically, but in our product and service development teams generally. We aren't as diverse as we should be, we don't see problems that we should be seeing, and suddenly we're faced with inequity built into our products that is problematic.
Then the third thing that I think is an issue is, we have an ethics problem in that we don't have a language and a tool set to be able to say, "Just because we can build this doesn't mean we should build this," and being able to stop things from going out the door that are ethically dubious.
In a reactive approach, the UX team responds to whatever the current crisis is, whatever the new feature is, whatever the new deadline is...The biggest challenge is to become proactive.
The Jurassic Park problem.
Exactly. Those are the big things that I see us dealing with right now.
What’s your advice on how to tackle these big hairy issues?
They're hard. There's no prescription that will guarantee that we solve any of these. That's not where it's at.
But we have to develop language around it. We don't even have very good language around it. You can't talk about something you can't name. We have to understand what it means. We have to be able to talk about causal relationships. All of that's pretty critical.
Is there anything else that you think is maybe holding back UX as a practice?
I don't subscribe to this “holding the field back” thing. I don't think you hold a field back.
I think there are big challenges and I think we have to tackle those challenges. I think part of it is that we don't always have a voice, so we need to be able to find our voice. But that's not unique to UX people. That's happening all over in a lot of places.
So understanding where our voice is, is key. But I think that we need to have the mechanisms to have conversations and to be real about these things. The industry isn't moving. It's not a moving object. It's a contextual object, and the context that we're in is changing out from under us, but that's always the case.
It's like you go to the beach and it's a cloudy day. It's not like, “What's holding the beach back from being sunny?” It's just the weather.
What's something that people always come to you for advice about, and have those questions changed over your time in doing this?
Oh yeah, the questions have definitely changed.
Most recently, the biggest request I get is from people who are new in the UX field on how to land their first job. Because we're now in a place where that has become difficult in the last few years. A few years ago, it was difficult to find enough people, so as soon as you found anybody you could suck them in and they became part of it.
But now, organizations don't want people who don't have experience. There's a lot of institutions that are creating people who don't have experience. So there's this real catch-22 for those people, where they can't get experience because no one will give them a job, and no one will give them a job because they don't have experience.
It’s like what any recent college grad goes through when reading job boards. You need experience to get experience.
It's much worse in the UX field now than it was. There are all these boot camps and other things that are taking people's money and giving them a certificate and saying, "Okay, you're now a UX person," but not doing anything for them in terms of giving them their first opportunity. There's no pipeline, right?
At least with many colleges, they set up a pipeline of graduates and other people who know to come to a college and hire people out. There's job fairs and things like that. Most of these programs don't have anything substantive beyond just a portfolio review. And the thing is, is that before the pandemic, companies were growing so quickly that they were struggling to take on new people. And after the pandemic it's even more difficult.
What do you say to those who are struggling to find work in this time, whether because of the issues you just outlined or because of COVID-19?
You've got to know what your story is, and you've got to know your network. Applying to every job is basically putting quarters into slot machines. That's not how you're going to find a job. Very few people find a job that way. Hiring managers don't want to hire anybody that way.
So you need to have a network. If you don't have a network, that's to some extent a failure of the institution that you went through. You need to build one, and it takes time to build one.
A network is a group of people who know who you are and know what you can do. So you have to figure out how you're going to get a bunch of people to know who you are and know what you can do. Then they're far more likely to consider you, because you're known to them.
If I'm faced with two candidates and one of them I've met and have interacted with, and they demonstrated over and over again that they seem to know their stuff, and the other one is completely new to me, and I know nothing about them, it is not a hard choice.
Then you need to know what your story is, so that you can tell them what it is. If your story is exactly the same as everybody else's story, because you went through the same boot camp that everybody else went through, and you have exactly the same portfolio and sample projects that everybody else has, it doesn't matter to them who they hire, does it? They might as well just spin a wheel and see who's cheapest.
You don't have to become something different. You already are something different. Why are you not telling your story?
You’ve got to find the thing that sets you apart from the other person.
Yeah, you do. But, it's not going to be something radical. It's just going to be, what sets me apart is all the things that went into me being me.
We're this whole society about how everybody's unique, everybody's different, and everybody's a unique individual. And then we constantly try to show ourselves as if we are identical to everybody else.
Your background and my background are completely different. We could have graduated from the same program, but we'd have very different stories to tell. Someone who tried to be a teacher in their last life, before they went in to become a UX person and someone who was a salesperson have very different backgrounds.
For the person who was a teacher, there are companies that are building educational software that need people who understand what teachers do. That person's going to be really valuable. And out there, there are companies that make tools for salespeople, and that person who was a teacher doesn't understand what salespeople do. But someone who used to be a salesperson does.
You don't have to become something different. You already are something different. Why are you not telling your story?
Tony Ho Tran is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Huff Post, Business Insider, Growthlab, and wherever else fine writing is published.