A Meeting with Jared Spool

Jared Spool was recently in town for Phoenix Design Week 2014. I was invited to meet with him as part of a small group session at the Tallwave / Ethology / 29th Drive offices in Scottsdale.

Everyone who reads this blog should be familiar with Jared and his work. This is a UX design blog after all and he’s kind of a big deal! But just in case, here’s a bio that they posted on the PHXDW web site:



Jared did not disappoint. In addition to being a beacon of UX knowledge and experience the guy is quite a character and he was ‘on’ from the minute we arrived.

He broke the ice with a joke about dealing with The Cloud on his plane ride into Phoenix. He said that he was very frustrated … There he was, literally right up in the clouds and yet he could not access his data. Har-har.

Here are a few more highlights from the meeting. Some of these are direct quotes, like the ones about Empathy and Design Thinking. In other cases I’ve paraphrased what he had to say.



Jared on the role of a Senior UX Designer…

“I visit these companies all over the place and when I walk in I see Senior designers wasting their time doing mock ups and wireframes.”

That struck me odd, so I asked him, “What should the Senior Designers be doing instead?”

His response:  “Figuring out how design will increase revenue. Figuring out how to increase customer satisfaction and attract more business. Let the junior designers do the grunt work.”


Jared on building UX within an organization…

 “It’s a DNA thing. Companies either get it or they don’t. It’s like the circus. Have you ever heard of Ringling Brothers? They roll into town, put up a tent with a few animals in it, and they roll out. There’s nothing elegant about it. But then look at Cirque du Soleil. It’s obvious that the founders had an exceptional experience in mind. And that’s what they sell. They sell fewer seats than Ringling Brothers, but they sell them at a premium. They make more money by selling a great design. And that’s their choice. You’ll never see Ringling Brothers doing that.

Apple is another example. It wasn’t always that way with Apple. They put out a lot of crappy products for a while. But then there was a culture change. And EVERYBODY in the entire organization was bought in. That’s the only way you can do it. If everyone is bought in from the Executive team on down.”

Someone in the room asked, “What if you just have a single champion (who values UX) on the Executive team?”

Jared’s response: “Can that person fire all the other executives who aren’t bought in? No? Then it won’t work.”


Jared on knowing when a product is ready to ship…

 “What’s the test [to know when something is ready to ship]? Does everyone in the organization know what the test is?

Let me tell you a story about Steve Jobs. When Apple was working on the iPod Nano or whatever – an early iPod something – they brought a prototype into his office. Steve Jobs told them that it wasn’t small enough. They argued that it was as small as it could possibly be given the technology they were working with. There was nothing else they could do. Steve Jobs had a fish tank in his office, so he took the prototype over to the fish tank and he dropped it in. As it sank to the bottom these little tiny air bubbles came floating up to the top. ‘See that?’ Steve told them. ‘There’s air in there. That means there’s extra space that can be removed to make it smaller.’

They went back to the work on it and they did come up with something smaller. In the meantime, Steve Jobs had fish tanks installed throughout the entire office. It was a reminder of the mission.

So at Apple, it was Steve Jobs. He set the bar for when something was ready to ship. Who has that role at your company? Who owns the definition? If you’re not sure, and if your whole company doesn’t know it by heart, then you’re in trouble.”


Jared on Empathy…

“If I hear one more  f***ing talk about empathy, I’m going to kill someone.”


Jared on Design Thinking…

“I want to see less Design Thinking and more design doing.”


Jared on where the industry is going when it comes to hiring UX…

“What companies are looking for is Unicorns. You have to be able to do  it all. You have to do the UX research and the prototyping AND write some front-end code AND work with a team to build it AND be able to do some user testing and iterate. You have to do it all. But there’s not enough people out there who can do that.

24,000 jobs. There are 24,000 UX jobs open right now … and not enough people to fill them. That is why I started the Center Centre. We’re going to train people in all of these things so they can take on these jobs.”


Jared on innovation and problem solving…

 “I was in a room at this one company that was filled with smart people. This was going to be our project team. You had your Architect and your  Engineer and your QA and they were all very bright and talented.

As we were talking all of these great ideas starting to come out. There was no shortage of things that we could do. The only time we had trouble finding a solution was when we didn’t know what the problem was.

It became very clear as we moved into the kick off that the business couldn’t state what problems it was trying to solve. And so we had to back up and figure that out. Because it doesn’t matter how smart your team is – you won’t be successful solving anything if you can’t identify what the problems are.”


[ End of Post ]



Making usability problems real for project stakeholders

Sometimes the old techniques work best.

On a recent project, one of our lead UX analysts ran into a situation where some long-standing usability issues were impacting the success of a soon-to-be-released new feature.

Everyone knew about these UX problems. They were discovered in past Betas and user testing sessions and had also been reported by customers via feature requests and Support calls. But when it came time to decide on what’s in vs. what’s out for a release, they never seemed to make the cut. In fact, the lead UX analyst had just lobbied for some of these very issues to be included in the current release – but no luck!

So now that they were staring her in the face again she knew she needed to do something different to make the problems resonate with the project manager and project stakeholders. She crafted a usability test and invited them to attend. While some of her fellow sprint team members made it to the sessions (always a good thing) the product manager and stakeholders did not.

That’s okay. She had recorded the sessions. And when it came time to present the findings she showed them sample videos from the tests to really accentuate the difficulties that the users were having.

In the first clip, she demonstrated an issue with selecting multiple rows in a list. If you click anywhere outside of the tiny little checkbox icons you lose all your previous selections. (ARGH!) It sounds fairly innocuous in the grand scheme of building a feature – the user can just try again, right? But to the user, this seemed pretty ridiculous. He had to laugh as he tried over and over to make it work and kept missing the mark.

It was clearly a bad UX.

Usability test clip 1: User selecting multiple rows – but watch out! Don’t click too far away from that checkbox!


Usability testing clip 2: Users reaction as he loses his row selections by clicking a pixel or two outside of the checkbox. What is going on!!!???


In the second clip she showed a user searching for a custom list he had just created. The user wondered out loud, “Did I forget to click OK?” Apparently he thought he may have forgotten to save the list. He moved his mouse pointer to the area where the list was supposed to be on the left side of the screen. “I would expect to see something here” he said. But he didn’t think to click on the tiny gray chevron. It didn’t look clickable anyways. It looked disabled. But that’s where the list was hidden – behind the collapsed tree node.

Another bad UX.


Usability testing clip 3: User searching the screen for the new list he just created. (It’s hidden in a collapsed tree node.) Note the frown on his face as he scans the GUI.


I was in the room when these clips were shown to stakeholders. To the credit of the lead UX analyst, she wove them perfectly into her overall testing summary. The response was just what she had hoped for: Seeing the users made the problems real for project stakeholders and now they wanted to do something about it.

And that’s the old trick that worked so well to blow the dust off of those “old news” usability issues and make them new again. All it took was getting some fresh evidence and rolling the tape.

Remember this the next time you are trying to get a point across with your stakeholder / product manager audience: Seeing is believing.