Jared Spool’s EDUI 2009 Keynote

(Originally published in 2009, and still completely relevant.)

Tricks and techniques work better for improving website usability than do structured methodologies, Jared Spool (CEO, User Interface Engineering) said at the EDUI conference last week. Spool says that there is no evidence that methodologies result in quality designs, and that design can’t be institutionalized to conform to usability templates. He equates methodology with dogma, defined as “an unquestioned faith independent of any supporting evidence, using the TSA’s airport screening procedures as a prime example of methodology’s lack of value. His research found that:

  • The best teams didn’t have a methodology or dogma they followed
  • The struggling teams often tried following a methodology, withou success
  • The best teams all focused on increasing the techniques and tricks for each team member
  • They were constantly exploring new tricks and techniques for their toolbox
  • Struggling teams had limited tricks and techniques

He recommends that usability development teams focus on developing great techniques and tricks and avoid get dragged down by methodologies. Techniques, he says, are things that you can master through practice, building blocks that can be applied to any methodology.

How the best teams develop great design

Vision, feedback and culture are the most important variables in the way the best teams develop great design:

  • Vision: Can everyone on the team describe the experience of using your design five years from now? Spool says that five years is an optimal time period becaue the team’s thinking is not constrained by current legacy ( ie.technology limitiations), freeing them to focus on the aspiration of the design. Everyone on the team should have the exact same vision. Focusing the vision gives the team the chance to know where they’re going. They can deal with how to get there later on in the process.
  • Feedback: In the last six weeks, have you spent more than two hours watching someone use either your design or a competitor’s?Everyone should answer “yes” to this question. You don’t know what’s happening with your design until you watch people use it. Spool points out that great chefs go out into the dining room and ask people about the food.
  • Culture: In the last six weeks, have you rewarded a team member for creating a major design failure? Spool says that we only learn by making mistakes. He advocates making a huge investment in order to a failure, mentioning that Scott Cook, founder of Intuit (Quicken and Quickbooks), gives a big party for someone who has “screwed up big,” that celebrates all the things they learned. Spool asserts that organizations that are risk averse “produce crap.”

Spool says that user testing can be as speedy as the “Five-Second Page Test” that he uses. Have the test participant look at a page for five seconds (not the home page, but one with a specific purpose, such as providing customer support information or making a donation). Then ask the participant to write down what they remember aboutthe page and whether they would do business with the organization. The test is particularly useful when a page is too cluttered or confusing, and identifies whether pages quickly communicate their purpose.

On the other hand, Spool says that paper prototype testing is especially useful when the design is in flux. The team can participate in the sudy at a point where they can make changes before going into technical implementation. Paper Prototyping, by Carolyn Snyder, is a recommended resource.

What a couple of Jared Spool's paper prototypes look like

What a couple of Jared Spool’s paper prototypes look like

Virtual seminars and many other free resources are available on Spool’s company website and on his blog, Brainsparks.

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