Interview with Ginny Redish

Ginny Redish has followed her fascinations through decades of change. By asking unrelenting questions about why documents are hard for people to use, she ended up being one of the founders of the field of usability. Her books trace her interests as they’ve evolved, and my conversation with her focuses on – what else? – conversations.

Excerpts From the Interview

I’ve always been fascinated by language and language history, how language changes, and how people use language. That’s why I studied linguistics. That seems an unusual path into our field, but when you think about it, it really isn’t. Linguistics is about how people use language, and language is such a critical part of user interfaces, web sites, and all the things we work on.

I am in a much happier place in the web world than I was in the software world, where it was just that much harder to get people to understand. You could talk about software as a conversation: the user comes wanting to do a task and says to the software interface: ‘Okay, I want to make a bulleted list. How do I go about doing that?’ And the software has to talk back again in the interface. But somehow that metaphor of the conversation was never as clear to people in the software world as it seems to be in the web world.

An Interview with Ginny Redish

Conducted by Tamara Adlin on June 13, 2007 12:53 AM

Ginny Redish has been in love with language since she was twelve. And today? It’s only logical – she creates conversations between people and computers.

Tamara Adlin:  Today I am talking to Ginny Redish, currently of Redish & Associates. Ginny is amazing – she’s done a tremendous amount in our field.

In 1979, she founded the Document Design Center (remember documents?) at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) in Washington, DC, and she directed that center for 13 years.

In 1985, Ginny set up one of the first independent usability test laboratories in North America, where she and her colleagues had users come in to try out interfaces and documentation for clients like HP, IBM, SAP, and Sony. If you read the interview with Judy Ramey, you will hear lots of great stuff about that work.

Since 1992 Ginny has been working with private companies and government agencies as a consultant in usability and documentation.

Ginny wrote the classic book, A Practical Guide to Usability Testing, with Joe Dumas. The first edition came out in 1993, and it was reprinted with a new introduction in 1999. With JoAnn Hackos, she wrote User and Task Analysis for Interface Design, which originally came out in 1998, and it is still as fresh and useful as it was when it first appeared.

Ginny’s new book on writing for the web, Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works, has just been published by Morgan Kaufmann.

Hello, Ginny! 

Ginny Redish: Hello!

TA:  I am collecting stories about career histories and motivations, because I think it’s so interesting that the people who are very active in our field right now are people who had to get there in interesting ways.

The first question I always ask is: What really fascinated you when you were young? It could be from when you were a kid, or it could be as you started to choose your educational path.

GR: I’ve always been fascinated by language and language history, how language changes, and how people use language. That’s why I studied linguistics. That seems an unusual path into our field, but when you think about it, it really isn’t. Linguistics is about how people use language, and language is such a critical part of user interfaces, web sites, and all the things we work on.

TA: When did you start getting interested in linguistics? I know that’s not something they teach in high school.

GR: When I went to high school back a very long time ago, in 9th grade we had to think about what we wanted to be and actually go and meet people who did that for a profession.

I was also interested in journalism, which is another great background for the things that we do. I read a lot of books about language and linguistics. I got to meet a very famous professor at Columbia University, because I lived in New Jersey right across the river from New York City.

TA: So you went and visited a professor about a potential career.

GR: Yes. I had intended to go into an academic career, but that isn’t what happened, and I have made a fantastic life without becoming a professor.

TA: As have many of us in this field.

I think it’s interesting that in 9th grade you would have gotten interested in linguistics. That just seems so early to have an interest in something that’s so relatively esoteric.

GR: Yes, but I was always a great reader. My mother had been a French teacher, so languages were around in my life. Then, when I went to college, I went to Bryn Mawr, which is a small women’s college, and I got to study not only a lot of different languages and literature, but also some linguistics. Then I went to graduate school in linguistics.

I have to say that an awful lot of what I have come to do in my professional life did not really exist when I was in school. I think that’s true for many of us. What we studied and what we do today… I can see the thread, but if I were going to school today there would be lots of things to study that didn’t even exist when I was in school.

TA: When I was looking for classes or degree programs in 1994, they didn’t exist. It’s taken a while, hasn’t it?

GR: The world really changes. When I came out of school and ended up in a career there were lots of documents, but there was no personal computer. There was no web. There wasn’t a lot of the technology that we all use, and that we, as a profession, try to make useful and usable to people. It just didn’t exist then.

TA: Did you do an English degree at Bryn Mawr?

GR: I did a Russian degree.

TA: Russian. That’s a first. I haven’t heard that before.

GR: In the 1960s, Russian was of great interest for many different reasons.

TA: What did you think you were going to do when you got out of graduate school?

GR: I assumed I’d become a professor. I married a fellow graduate student. He got a post doc and we ended up in a place where a wife could not hold a job in the same place that a husband did. This was the “two body problem,” which at the time was not yet recognized. There weren’t any academic jobs, so I found another life.

TA: They actually had rules saying you couldn’t both work there?

GR: Yes. We ended up in Washington, DC. My husband was a Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland. He still is, almost 40 years later. You couldn’t both hold a job in the same place, and the government wouldn’t hire part-time people. I had two babies and didn’t want to work full-time when they were very young. It was a very different world 40 years ago.

TA: That just sounds archaic now, doesn’t it?

GR: It does.

TA: So you chose something else. You had to look around and say, well, I’m not going to be a professor so what on earth am I going to do with my PhD and my linguistics?

GR:  I did look around, and discovered we had ended up in a place that was good for me at the time, because Washington DC is full of think tanks that work under government contract.

There actually is one called the Center for Applied Linguistics. It was originally funded by the Ford Foundation, and it does projects that have to do with practical applications of linguistics. So there was the world in which to take an esoteric, academic degree and find practical ways to use it.

The first project I ever worked on was funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I went around to Native American communities as a consultant. I helped the community to figure out whether, given its language situation, it should be teaching children bilingually – whether the community should be teaching English as a second language or teaching in the native language. I became an expert in language education policy.

TA: You know, a lot of folks have talked about “translation” being one of the things that we do today. Broadly speaking, we translate between the worlds of computers, or systems, and the world of people. It sounds like you were actually getting started with that then.

GR:  Actually, to go back to my linguistics, translation of course was an important part of it. I spent a summer at Harvard while I was in college, working on a project that was trying to translate Russian to English by computer. This was machine translation, which is still an important topic. It was a neat job in the 1960s because the computer building was the only air-conditioned building on campus in those days.

What I really came to do [in my job at the Center for Applied Linguistics] was to help people think about the ways in which people use language.

Just to make my story shorter, I ended up going from project to project and to different organizations because they had projects for which my skills were relevant. I ended up at American Institutes for Research which, as you may know, is the same place that Joe Dumas eventually ended up. I came there not to do the sort of thing we do today, but to do educational policy research, which is a major topic they still deal with.

I was in the right place at the right time when Jimmy Carter, as President of the United States, declared that the government would do everything it wanted to do, but it would do it in plain language. And it would involve people in the process.

So both translation and usability were coming up in work around documents that come out of the government.

TA: Do you remember when you first heard Carter express an interest in plain language? That was the birth of a movement in our field, wasn’t it?

GR: Yes, it was, although we have to give credit to our predecessors. There is a current plain language movement, which is wonderful, but some of the young people in it don’t even realize there was an earlier movement. There was a great deal of activity in the late 1970s, and in fact there was a great deal of activity around plain English going back to just after the Second World War – and probably even before that.

I was in the right place at the right time during the cycle of this movement that became really active in the late 1970s. I also always give credit to some folks in the government. There were linguists, reading specialists, writing specialists, psychologists, some folks from AT&T Bell Labs who happened to be all together in the government agency that funds research on education at that very moment.

The Department of Education had put a great deal of money into trying to understand why young people can’t read and other school activities like that. But no one had looked into the question of why adults have so much trouble understanding government documents. They decided to fund a three-year project they called the Document Design Project.

I was at American Institutes for Research at the time. We wrote the winning proposal, in collaboration with folks at Carnegie Mellon University, and a private design firm, and we got to be the people who did research on the question of why documents are so difficult for people.

We now look at that in terms of software interfaces, hardware interfaces, and so many other interfaces. But it’s exactly the same question; it’s the basic usability question.

TA: The interface of information.

GR: Yes. The basic question is, “Why is it difficult for people to use what other people create?”

TA: That is a great way to put it.

Was that interest born when you got to the American Institutes for Research?

GR: It was really when this group at the Department of Education came out with a request for what was an extremely well-funded project, and my colleagues and I at AIR looked at that and said, “Wow; that is right up our alley.” We have not only myself as a linguist, but Andy Rose, who is a cognitive psychologist, Dan Felker, who is an instructional technologist, and others. The place was full of people with relevant skills to look at this issue from a variety of points of view.

So we wrote the proposal and we got to do it. I stopped being a language education policy expert and became a usability and documentation specialist.

TA: How did that happen? How did the word usability start entering into your vocabulary?

GR: Actually a lot of it comes, in my personal development, from the folks at AIR who come out of instructional systems design. They had a process model, and have since the 1950s, that says you have to start by figuring out who are the people you are going to train, what do they know now, what don’t they know, and what are their needs. You do a needs analysis; you develop a pilot; you evaluate it with the real users; you revise it; and you cycle back through that until you have something you know works.

I looked at their model when we were writing the proposal to the government to be the people to do the Document Design Project, and I said, “That is exactly what we do as writers.” If you’re developing a form, you’re writing a document that lives in the functional world. We’re not talking about novels and poetry. We’re talking about things that are functional in the real world. So I just adapted that model and put it in the proposal. It included user-centered design and evaluation.

TA: It included those words?

GR: We called it “evaluation” at the time. I don’t think we used the words “user-centered design” or “usability,” but it was in fact the same notion.

TA: In technical writing, the concept of audience analysis is so similar to what we do. It’s just expressed in a different way.

GR:  Exactly. And the Document Design Center really was a center for technical writing. We were doing documents in the early days. In the early ’80s, we had a very sad thing and then a very good thing happen in exactly the same year. When the administration changed, unfortunately Ronald Reagan’s very first act of office was to rescind the Carter executive order on plain language.

So we stopped being interested in plain language for a while. But that was exactly the same year that the PC arrived. A vice president of IBM called me up, having gotten my name from Dave Kieras. This person from IBM contacted me because, as he said, they were about to put a computer on the desk of every executive in America and they didn’t know how to talk to those people; they only knew how to talk to system administrators.

So my whole group – and by that time I had quite a large group of folks working with me – turned our attention to computers.

TA: Were you still at AIR at this point, or were you moving on?

GR:  Yes; this was at AIR. One of the things we had promised the government when we started the Document Design Project was that we would turn it into a center that would have a life beyond the three years of the original government funding. We also promised that we would seek other projects and other work.

By that time, we had a group called the Document Design Center, and it was an institute within AIR’s set of institutes, so we were able to go looking for other work. The computer projects materialized at just the right moment for us.

TA: So did IBM deliver a bunch of computers for you guys to start playing with?

GR: Yes, they did. They gave us computers in the early days. Then to move to the usability question: In the early 1980’s, probably about 1983 or 1984, we were doing work for IBM on documentation and they asked us if we would set up a usability lab. They had a few usability labs, but they wanted one where there would be an independent usability vendor – where it would not be something within IBM.

That was the impetus for the lab that I built at AIR in Washington, DC in about 1985. At that point we were calling it “usability.”

TA: Okay. That’s amazing to me because I’ve worked with companies recently who think they can do it all in-house. So, in ’84, for IBM to think there’s some usefulness in getting an outside perspective and to have the labs was pretty advanced.

GR: Yes, it was. There was a lot of really good stuff going on at the time. The very first time I ever took something that our folks created through a usability lab was at IBM in Atlanta. I can tell you that it was an eye-opening, humiliating experience – the same experience that happens to even my new clients today.

TA: Do you remember what their labs looked like? Who started those labs at IBM, I wonder?

GR: I don’t know how it all started, but an IBM lab in the early ’80s looked quite a bit like the labs that Joe Dumas and I describe in the back of our book, A Practical Guide to Usability Testing. There is an appendix with pictures of various usability labs. I can’t remember if the IBM lab is one of them, but it was definitely two rooms. Now I know a lot of people who have three rooms, but at the time it was two.

The user was in one room, and then there was glass between the two rooms. We had note-takers and observers; they sat behind the glass taking their notes. Sometimes there was a person in the room with the user and sometimes not. But it was what I think many people today, or many people a few years ago, would have thought of as a standard usability lab.

I know that today a lot of labs are being built without the one-way glass because the technology allows us to observe on a monitor without using the one-way glass.

We did have lots of computers in our observation room even then, but you had to synch the video tape to the computer by checking the times before you started, and you were pushing both buttons at the same moment, which of course we don’t have to do anymore today.

TA: I also want to know what it was like to get together with Joe Dumas. That was a meeting of minds that turned out to be very fruitful.

GR: Yes, it really was. Joe is absolutely marvelous. Joe joined the New England office of AIR while I was in Washington, DC.

Washington , DC is where AIR’s headquarters are located, but even at the time AIR had a major office in New England, and one in Palo Alto.

The office in New England was primarily human factors specialists, like the members of the Human Factors and Ergonomic Society (HFES). They supported Hanscom Air Force Base with real human factors engineering. I know you’ve talked to Joe, so perhaps he’s told you his story. I don’t know the early part of it, but he ended up at AIR to support human factors projects. Then he and I met and he realized that he was very much interested in the usability side – not so much the human factors knobs and dials, but the other aspects – the kind of usability that we do today.

We started collaborating. So many people were asking us both about usability, about what we did and how we did it, that we decided it would be appropriate to write a book about it. So we did.

TA: A Practical Guide to Usability Testing – I think the first version came out in ’93; is that correct?

GR: That’s correct.

TA: When did you start doing that? Was it a 10-year project?

GR:  No, we probably started writing it in about 1990. It was based on training that we had developed and delivered for Janice James when she was working with American Airlines for the Sabre Travel Information Network.

I do hope you are interviewing Janice, because it was when Janice James was in that job at American that she founded the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA).

TA: Yes. I do have her on my list, absolutely. She’s been mentioned by several people.

Judy Ramey was talking about yours being the first usability lab that she ever came into contact with, and that was a very powerful experience for her.

GR: That’s interesting. She is one of the most interesting people because she brought this to a university’s technical communication department. The work that she has done at the University of Washington is the most fantastic training ground for technical writers and usability people.

We attempted to start that at Carnegie Mellon University because they were partners with us in the original Document Design Project. They started a comparable center to our Document Design Center: the Communications Design Center. They were doing similar things, and it lasted until about 1990.

Karen Schriver is another person you might well consider talking to because she’s done fantastic work, but she’s not in the university anymore. Judy maintains an incredible university department that does this sort of stuff.

TA: I am very proud to hear what you just said because I am one of the alums from that department, and Judy is quite amazing. She’s been the chair of that department for a long time.

It always amazes me. From my perspective – and I’m not completely in the know – it’s a constant battle to stay alive within an engineering school. And this is even though the department is so productive and popular and actually, I think, a money-making program for them.

GR: That’s kind of a side topic, but it is very difficult to maintain a consulting environment in a university environment. It’s not only the engineering school. Another person you should talk to is Carol Barnum at Southern Polytechnic State University in Atlanta, because she also does that. Somehow the idea of being so practical in a university setting is very, very difficult. I think Judy has been amazing to keep it going. She graduates such fantastic alumni who are now very active in UPA and very active in many companies.

TA: The folks I know who went through when I did are awesome.

That actually relates to another question I’d like to ask. Were you aware you were participating in something that was new and developing? You were participating in two new developing fields, which were related to document design and plain language, but also the field related to computer usability.

GR: Yes, I was very much aware that we were pioneers. We were bringing new ideas. As I met clients we were forever selling the idea, as we still are today. We were getting people to change attitudes and to understand their users.

I can remember being at the facility of a major computer company (whose name I will not mention) talking to developers and saying, “We have to get out and meet the users! We have to understand the users in this!” They were saying, “We know our users.” But when I talked to them, they were obviously assuming the users were all absolutely identical to themselves, when of course they weren’t at all.

I think all of us in this field realize that we’re not coming into something that has been well-established for ever and ever, and that is, in fact, for many of the people we meet, a totally new concept.

TA: By the time you got into the early ’90s and were working on writing this book with Joe, you must have been looking around at other work in the field. In order to write the book and do research – you’re an academic person – you must have looked around to see what else was out there. Were there particular people working in the field you started to get really interested in at that point?

GR: That’s also just when Janice started the Usability Professionals’ Association. A lot of the people who had been in the field and who were just getting into the field all came together at the first UPA meeting. It was hosted by what was then WordPerfect in Orem, Utah. There were about 130 of us. We realized then that there were lots of other people out there trying to do similar things.

TA: That must have been such an interesting crowd – I should see if I can dig up a list of attendees from that first UPA.

GR:  It probably exists someplace. I’m trying to remember; I know that Jared Spool gave one of the invited talks, as did I. The other people involved with Janice in getting UPA started were Dave Rinehart of Atlanta, and Kay Chalupnik of American Express IDS in Minneapolis . (At IDS, Kay worked for Susan Dray, who is still very active in our field.)

Jakob Nielsen, of course, was very much into usability. I had heard Jakob talk to a Washington, DC group that Ben Shneiderman had started back in the 1980s. That was a group of people interested in the intersection of computer science and psychology.

TA: You are in the same neighborhood, geographically, as Ben Shneiderman now.

GR: Yes, Ben is a colleague of my husband’s at the University of Maryland. I’ve known Ben for many years.

TA: Small, small world.

So in ’93, the book came out. Did that change things for you?

GR: I changed my life in 1992. I had been running the Document Design Center at AIR for about 13 years. It was going strong at the time, but it’s a very difficult life keeping 45 people going on totally soft money projects, and I was interested in doing a lot of training and writing the book. It’s very difficult to do that while you’re also being the vice president of a think tank and running an institute.

TA: And having a family.

GR: Absolutely. I guess my kids were beyond teenage years. They were finishing college at the time.

I took the opportunity when we went on sabbatical, which was in fact in Seattle. I had the opportunity to spend a year with Judy Ramey, and I left AIR to become an independent consultant.

That’s when I started Redish & Associates and went out on my own.

I started with three projects: Working as a consultant for Janice James at American Airlines, doing training that led to the book, and writing the book.

And then Judy and I got to do a project funded by the Society for Technical Communication. They wanted someone to do research on how you could show that technical communication and technical communicators bring value to their companies. It’s really the same topic as the Bias and Mayhew Cost-Justifying Usability book. We were talking about cost-justifying good documentation .

So I had projects going, and it was an opportunity, as I say, to get out from under the tremendous management job that is running an institute. In that sense, the book was very opportune for me because it did bring me a lot of independent clients.

TA: It’s a totally different thing to be running a business than it is to be working within an established business or environment.

GR:  I made a very conscious decision that the goal of the business would be just projects that I found interesting to do, not to grow a business and have a lot of employees and have to deal with so many of those aspects of running a large business. So Redish & Associates is basically me doing interesting projects and joining forces with other independent consultants when that makes sense from a project point of view.

Many of us in the field operate that way. 

TA: Yes, as sort of a big virtual agency that expands the country and the world, I suppose.

We are in the mid ’90s, and the internet – or the internets, I should say – were popping up their little heads at this point. When did you start to have projects related to that?

GR: I had knowledge of the pre-internet – my husband was on Bitnet, long before it became a public internet. And all my documentation work was involved with markup language, so I had a really good grasp of SGML. When the internet came along, I guess in the mid-’90s, it was really very logical to start thinking about it. I had been working on computer manuals, then online help systems, then software interfaces, then applications. I did a lot of work in the ’90s with people porting applications from green screen to GUI, and then people started porting them from GUI to web.

So I guess it was the late ’90s when people were asking me to think about and review web sites.

TA: In ’93 you had the Practical Guide to Usability Testing, and then in ’98 there was User and Task Analysis for Interface Design, which you wrote with JoAnn Hackos . If I were to just look at your books, or if I were just to look at those two, I’d say that you started realizing that we all have to swim upstream –that it’s not just about usability testing once something is designed, but doing the task analysis up front.

GR: Absolutely. But you know, as you said earlier, there is a real connection to what technical communicators and documentation specialists do, because we always start by thinking about the audience.

In the academic world you’re permitted to just think about the audience, But it was clear to many of us who were doing documentation that it wasn’t enough to just think about the audience; you had to go out there and meet the audience.

I give Janice James credit for a lot of my learning how to do user and task analysis, because she asked me in about ’94 to spend several months doing a very extensive user and task analysis of travel agents. I think we did a paper on this at UPA in ’96.

Much of what we learned shows up today in Travelocity, which was originally an American Airlines product. I got to do a lot of that early analysis with enough background and experience to be able to then write a book about how to go about doing it. Once again, Janice James has had a tremendous influence on this field.

TA: I’m looking forward to speaking with her too, because she was coming from industry. That’s a very different proposition than coming from academia or research project-based work.

You mentioned earlier the difficulty of convincing academia that practical stuff is worthwhile. In industry, it has to be all practical.

GR: Yes, but most of my experience since the late 1970s has been in industry, and convincing industry to do projects. I don’t know if you found this, but I think many of us in the field have found that when you come into a company, there has to be a champion in that company; someone who truly gets it and understands it. For American Airlines at the time, that was Janice.

I had an experience like that in the 1980s when I was first starting out

I told you about my first foray into documentation when I worked on computer manuals for IBM because someone had gotten my name from someone else whom they knew.

My second foray with my team at AIR was for Hewlett Packard, and that was because a gal who was there at the time realized that part of their problem was that they were not doing usable documentation

It takes somebody who is willing to take the risk of saying: “I will convince people inside to try something completely different.”

The team I brought in there to work together with folks at Hewlett Packard did what I think was probably the first usability test at Hewlett Packard; this was in about 1982. We wrote what was some of the earliest really good task-oriented documentation, all because someone inside recognized there was a problem and went out, did the research, and found out there were people who had potential solutions.

TA: It’s a brave thing to say, “What we’re doing now isn’t working and we need to try something else,” because it implies failure in an organization.

GR: Yes but as we know, there is failure in many organizations, and if they don’t recognize it they eventually disappear.

TA: Very good point.

You mentioned that when you started your consulting agency, one of the prime directives you gave yourself was for your work to be fun and interesting. It also sounded like you also concluded that you didn’t want to start running a big agency, or having to deal with spreadsheets all day.

I assume that has stayed true throughout your now quite long consulting career. What has changed since the very beginning? Are there different types of projects you look for now; is there a different approach that you have?

GR: I’m not sure that my approach has changed, but I do think that convincing people is much easier. And I think that has to do with the fact that UPA started; that usability has spread; that there are more of us in the business; that people are more aware of it. I am often brought in now in a situation where people already know about usability, and they just want some work done.

So yes, although I’m still selling it sometimes, I don’t have to sell it nearly as much, and that’s a great thing.

I guess the other thing is that my business today is almost exclusively related to the web, and not nearly as much as it used to be related to computer documentation, to software interfaces. Perhaps I am finding it easier in the web world because web developers understand the need to connect to the user in ways in which we often could not get the software developers to accept.

TA: You said just a few minutes ago that if companies don’t realize they have a problem, they disappear. Web companies are sort of amazing in the rate at which they can disappear if they mess things up.

GR: That’s true. For me, the web is really bringing things full circle, because the web is all about communication; the web is all about information; the web is all about writing.

My new book is about the web. It’s called Letting Go of the Words:Writing Web Content that Works.

TA: I saw that. It’s actually available for pre-order on Amazon right now.

GR: Yes, it is. It’s at the printers and we hope to make a big splash with it at UPA 2007. It is my work in linguistics, all of my work in usability, and in writing and in plain language, all coming together. The theme of the book is that every use of any web site is a conversation started by a very busy user.

So of course you have to understand the user, and you have to understand the user’s scenario – whatever scenario is bringing the user to the web site at this given moment. It seems to me it’s much easier to get that message across to web developers than it was to the software developers.

TA:  I love the conversation idea. I will use that every time I talk to a new or existing client. Somehow it’s easier to understand that with every click, the user is saying something to a site and the web site is saying something back.

GR: Exactly. That is the whole theme of the book. So getting people to think about the users, and then, of course, the work that you and others have done to bring the notion of persona forward – and the work that Whitney Quesenbery is doing. I assume you’re talking to Whitney too.

TA: Oh yes. I already did.

GR: She is working to bring storytelling forward: Users and their scenarios, personas and their stories. I am in a much happier place in the web world than I was in the software world, where it was just that much harder to get people to understand. You could talk about software as a conversation: the user comes wanting to do a task and says to the software interface: “Okay, I want to make a bulleted list. How do I go about doing that?” And the software has to talk back again in the interface. But somehow that metaphor of the conversation was never as clear to people in the software world as it seems to be in the web world.

TA: That leads me to my last question. You just said you’re in a happier place now, you’ve come full circle. What fascinates you now? What floats your boat? It could be something personally or professionally that you think is going to drive you for the next couple of years.

GR:  That’s a hard question to answer. One of the things that’s happened to all of us over the course of our careers is that the next technology seems to appear without our even realizing it. I hope there will be something new and exciting five years from now that I can’t even imagine right now.

But right now I really foresee doing more of what I now do a great deal of, which is training people in good web writing, training people in user centered design related to web sites, and helping people put good content on their web sites.

I hope that my book will change the way people think about web sites. Even within the usability community, many people still focus exclusively on navigation.

Of course, navigation is important – if you can’t find the information, it doesn’t matter how well written the information is.

But finding it isn’t enough. What people come to a web site for is the content. And many companies have not paid nearly enough attention to putting good content on their web sites. Perhaps my goal for the next several years is getting people to appreciate that and then be interested in having help doing that. 

TA: So you think that navigation is just the road signs, and it’s really the destination that’s more interesting.

GR: Well, it is. The navigation is the road sign and people want to get through the navigation as quickly as possible because all the time you spend navigating is downtime. It’s just like all the time you spend hunting in a software interface for the right menu item. It is downtime.

Obviously it’s critical that the usability be good. As Steve Krug says, “don’t make me think” when I’m navigating. I don’t want to think until I get to the place that has the information I want to think about.

My book is about the information you get to at the end of your navigating – the information that you’ve come to the web site to find. I hope that will be of interest to people, and that I’ll be able to help people work on their web content, as well as doing usability studies on people using web content.

Of course, usability studies have changed radically in the past ten years with technology that allows us to do it remotely and without a lab, etc. So I see a lot of change. My approach to usability testing has certainly changed phenomenally over the past 20 years. The technology allows us to change.

Also, the philosophy of what we mean by “usability testing” has changed. The line is very blurry between “I am out there doing user site visits,” and “I am doing usability testing in someone’s cubicle.” In reality I am basically doing contextual inquiry, whether I’m doing it pre-design or post-design. We aren’t doing summative testing very much any more. We’re doing formative testing – in the lab or in people’s home or work spaces.

TA: I think all this is what makes you such an interesting person in the field. Again, just looking at the three books: Usability testing, and then task analysis, and then web content. You are hitting everything.

I love what you said earlier: It’s very interesting to think about navigation as downtime. I think that’s a really powerful concept.

I want to thank you for your time today and for sharing all of these great stories with me and the people who are going to be reading or listening to these interviews.

GR: Thank you. I think it is a wonderful project that you’ve undertaken.