Interview with Mike Kuniavsky

Mike watched his father’s life change almost overnight when some of the assembly work at Ford was automated. As he continued to explore his interest in the way that people interact with (and have to adapt to) computers and technology, Mike stayed strongly enmeshed in the worlds of art and personal expression. This magical mixture of interests stayed with him as he helped to launch one of the very first ecommerce sites, build giant robot puppets, and co-found Adaptive Path. He’s practical – he wrote Observing the User Experience, after all – but that doesn’t hinder his creativity in the slightest. Today, Mike is thinking about how technology is showing up (and carefully hidden) everywhere in our lives.


The thing that most influenced me was essentially art. The use of technology in art, and all the different projects that were coming out of art; out of Ars Electronica, out of Burning Man , out of ISEA, out of ITP at NYU. All of those things that use technology as an expressive medium – or as part of a personal expression – as opposed to just productivity or information. Objective support of productivity is kind of a fiction in a lot of desktop computer design. Technology art was much more about embedding technology into everyday things as a form of expression.

Emotional design is good design. That’s what I learned at the Milan Furniture Fair. It had plenty of bad design, but there are some beautiful, beautiful things there. The reason they are well designed is not because there’s a lot of splash. It’s because they’ve been thought through and they connect with us on an emotional level in addition to a functional level.


Conducted by Tamara Adlin on April 24, 2007 10:35 PM

Before he co-founded Adaptive Path, Mike sold hot sauce online and built giant dancing robots. Today he thinks about things like boxes of chocolates that deliver joy and surprise long after the candy is gone.

Tamara Adlin: Today I am speaking with Mike Kuniavsky. He is a founding partner of Adaptive Path. Mike left Adaptive Path in 2004 to follow other pursuits, including designing experience of tangible technology—which sounds very cool and I’m looking forward to hearing more about it.

Mike has been developing commercial websites since 1994 for lots of different people. He is also the author of Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research, published by Morgan Kaufmann. Mike’s book is one of my personal favorites. When John and I were writing our book, we referred to your book a lot.

Hello Mike!

Mike Kuniavsky: Hello

TA: I know you’ve been interviewed a lot. I want to ask what I hope are some slightly different questions.

I am interested in collecting the stories of people in our field who helped build the field or helped the field progress. To begin, why did you get fascinated by this kind of work? What started out your interest path that eventually led you to where you are today?

MK: For me, really, the interest is in computers and the way that people relate to them — and the way that computers are in turn designed to relate to people. I saw that fairly early.

I’m not sure exactly what the impetus was, really. I had computers from when I was a kid; the PET 2001 being my first computer. But the thing that really got me thinking about specific relationships was when my father, who was working for Ford Motor Company in the early ’80s — he worked for Ford for about 20 years — but in the early ’80s, Ford was computerizing. They were computerizing in the sense that they were including computers as part of the way that an engine is designed.

He was an engineer at Ford. His responsibility was to tune engines so they would start and run efficiently and have good emissions under a variety of circumstances.

In the early ’80s, they started using computers to do all this instead of carburetors. Instead of just doing things mechanically or pneumatically or however else — they were doing things electronically.

TA: So they had bunches of people doing this calibration by hand before?

MK: Right. That’s exactly how it used to work. Before, say 1983–84, the way that a car engine was tuned — so it would start in 115 degree weather in Arizona and -20 degree weather in Minnesota, and 105% humidity in Florida and 0% humidity in New Mexico — was they would go through and try to start the cars in those circumstances. When a car wouldn’t start, they would come up with, essentially, new mechanical gizmos that would adjust the parameters of how the engine worked dynamically. Essentially all the knowledge and all the information was being built right into the metal.

For example, on hot days, a certain spring would be expanded more than it would on cold days. That would open a certain valve a little more on hot days than it would on cold days and things like that.

When computers came along, they could include sensors and the ability to adjust a lot of these parameters electronically. They started incorporating that very, very early.

We’re talking about embedded computing; the automotive industry pretty much did it first. This created this giant cultural shift within the company. For my father, as he experienced it, one year he was there twiddling under the hood and the next year he was sitting with a terminal in the passenger seat of the car, twiddling parameters that were adjusting things in the engine.

TA: That’s huge.

MK: Yes. This led to a huge, huge cultural change between the generations of engineers. This generation was suddenly thrust into computer literacy.

My high school honors thesis was actually about the psychological impact of computerization on middle management, which in 1986, was still a relatively new thing.

People who had essentially been pushing paper around and making phone calls suddenly got these boxes on their desk and they had to learn to type.

TA:  This was your high school thesis?

MK:  Yes.

TA: Wow. Did your dad bring this home and talk about it at the dinner table? Did you go to work with him? I am wondering how you even became interested — I mean, lots of teenagers actually think whatever their parents do is uncool.

MK: What my father did I thought was fairly uncool; I had really no interest in mechanical engineering as such at that time. Now I’m actually using a lot of that stuff doing ubiquitous computing work.

At the time, what I saw was the incredible amount of stress that it was putting on him because, really, it was incredibly stressful.

He had spent his entire life — at this point he was in his fifities — tweaking with metal and plastic and rubber. He had never had to deal with data.

TA:  It sounds like he was successful with that transition.

MK: He was mostly successful. He wasn’t the only one. Essentially, Ford had to create all of these ways of bringing the old generation up to speed with computing. I think all auto companies did, but my experience and his was with Ford. They were relatively successful. He continued with the job and he didn’t retire for another 12 years.

That entire time, he was doing all of his development with computers. Eventually, the engineers essentially had to abandon all of their own old ways, and everybody pretty much adjusted, and so did he.

Certainly the mid-’80s was not a happy time for him because of that.

TA: What a gigantic set of usability issues. He had to change his whole life.

MK: Yes, basically.

TA: So you did this amazing high school thesis and then —

MK:  The thesis wasn’t all that amazing. It got a fairly low B according to the international baccalaureate folks.

TA: But the fact that you even knew what ‘middle management’ meant is pretty impressive to me.

At that point, it sounds like you were doing great academically and then you probably had a lot of choices about how you were going to pursue your academic career.

How did you choose that?

MK: I was pretty interested in what I then didn’t know was the field of human computer interaction. I went to the University of Michigan.

The University was fortunate enough to have a fairly advanced computing culture within it. There were several people who were doing, effectively, HCI work. There was Dave KierasGary Olson, and Judy Olson — various people who were already doing HCI stuff there.

As an undergrad, I was able to trade some of my compiler construction classes for graduate level HCI classes.

TA: It sounds like you actually went to Michigan for computer sciences as much as anything else.

MK: Well, my undergrad was scattered in a bunch of parallel directions, which I generally continued to pursue. At one point I had four majors simultaneously.

TA:  Wow. So at some point you got really interested in the HCI courses with those great people. HCI started to fascinate you. What were the pieces of that fascination; what was really floating your boat at that time?

MK: For me, the part that was interesting was that interface, the literal interface between where people and computers interact.

I was essentially pursuing that in all different directions. One of my other degrees (with my computer sciences degree that I finished) was in film. One of the things I did as a filmmaker was computer generated film stuff.

I did animation; I did experimental film using computers and all those things.

TA: That’s interesting. A few of the people I’ve talked to already have had some kind of arts background. Whitney Quesenberry started her career doing dance and lighting, and I’m going to talk to Brenda Laurel as well, who started her career in theatre.

That is an interesting combination. There aren’t a lot of people who are interested in both film and computer science at the same time.

MK: Yes, it drove my college counselors crazy.

TA:  I’m sure it did. You went on to get a graduate degree?

MK: I did not.

TA:  Why did you choose not to do that?

MK: I was accepted into the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design (ID) in ’93.

I was all ready to go into their master’s and PhD program in design, because I wanted to design user interfaces. That program was one of the few avenues that weren’t hard-core computer science focused. I thought that was interesting.

I was accepted, and I was all ready to go there. In the fall of ’94, I was supposed to matriculate. But I got a summer internship working for a company in Pasadena, California that ended up being pretty much the second web design firm in Los Angeles doing very early web design. That summer we basically ended up designing what was to become one of the very first e-commerce websites. Basically everything took off from there.

TA:  And you just never made it to school?

MK:  Right. I essentially kept deferring enrollment until they told me I had to re-apply.

TA: Did people think you were nuts? This sounds like one junction where people might have thought you were nuts.

MK: It’s never been easy for me to explain what I do to my parents — so there’s at least one set of people who didn’t really get where it was I was going with all this. I’m not sure if people ever thought I was nuts; there was a lot of education that had to happen.

In retrospect… It’s easy to claim hindsight or whatever, but the first five years that I was working on the web, I was telling everybody it was a fad that was going to blow over any minute.

There were all kinds of things wrong with the protocol; there was all this money being pumped into it, and that was stupid. It wasn’t going to go anywhere and I was doing it while I could. But really I didn’t think there was much of a long-term future at it.

I was very wrong about that.

TA: I talked to Jakob Nielsen earlier today, and he said the same thing. Especially in the beginning, when it was so complicated and wasn’t graphical.

So it didn’t blow over and —

MK:  (laughs) Jakob knows about graphics?! They’re not readable!

TA: That’s true! But he knows about them, and he was saying that actually he was pretty happy when the graphical interfaces for the net came out.

I’m not going to take that line of discussion any further for fear of my career.

You know what, you just gave me an idea for a question I should ask everybody, which is how do you describe what you do, to your parents, now?

MK: Now that I’ve moved into ubiquitous computing, last week I was talking about using magic as a metaphor for embedded computer user interface design… I basically don’t explain what I do to my parents.

TA:  That works.

MK: They do kind of understand. I think for example they have a TiVo that they got very early on. They now understand that is an example of a device that makes sense to them.

For my father, certainly, computers embedded in cars makes sense, so he can translate that to computers embedded into other kinds of everyday devices.

In terms of what it is that I do as a designer, or someone who is working in this HCI world — I’m not sure they can explain that very well to their friends, and I’m not sure I can explain it very well to my friends.

TA: Exactly. I think I’ve defaulted to saying “I’m just trying to make computers easier to use,” which always gets an “Oh, thank goodness.”

We left you doing something on the web which “wasn’t going to go anywhere.” You did that for a while and then made a choice to move on.

MK: Yes. I did it for ten years. I essentially “retired from the web” at exactly ten years of working on it commercially, professionally.

There were a number of different factors, but basically I was done with it. At that point I was interested in, essentially, harking back to where I’d started, which was computers and everyday objects.

I decided to leave Adaptive Path and pursue all of that.

TA: How did you start paying attention to computers and everyday objects? Were there particular influences or books that you read?

MK: The thing that most influenced me was essentially art. The use of technology in art, and all the different projects that were coming out of art; out of Ars Electronica, out of Burning Man , out of ISEA, out of ITP at NYU. All of those things that use technology as an expressive medium — or as part of a personal expression — as opposed to just productivity or information.

Objective support of productivity is kind of a fiction in a lot of desktop computer design. Technology art was much more about embedding technology into everyday things as a form of expression.

TA:  Embedded technology is a completely different interface too. It’s not just about eyeballs and fingers at that point.

MK: Right. The point of it isn’t just about getting data from point A to point B, it’s about creating an experience in the meantime.

TA: I actually took a look around as I was researching you, and I found ThingM. Two of the movies you have up on that site are definitely about very personalized computing; one of them is about a Valentine’s chocolate box with memories coded into it (LoveM). That is certainly not about making tons of money by inventing new websites or new things.

It seems your focus has changed.

MK: ThingM is a company I started with Tod E. Kurt, who was actually one of the people that was on the team with me when we developed a very early e-commerce site in ’94.

Tod has a lot of different experience, but one of the things that he’s done is to develop a lot of electronics and embedded computing for spacecraft.

Pretty much every close-up photo of Mars that’s been taken in the last ten years from orbit, he’s been involved in designing electronics for that.

TA:  How cool.

MK: He and I decided to get together and talk about possibilities of embedding technology into everyday objects. About a year ago, we actually started and named the company — we didn’t incorporate it until January of this year — but ThingM is a company focused on developing and designing smart objects for everyday life.

TA:  It seems wonderfully free so far in the things you have up there. It’s unencumbered.

I realize now I’ve skipped a huge chunk of your professional life… In ’94 you started developing an e-commerce site — was Amazonalready launched by then?

MK: We launched somewhere between — I think two weeks or a month before Amazon.

TA:  It was HotHotHot, is that correct?

MK: Exactly.

TA:  What was HotHotHot all about?

MK: It sold hot sauces on the internet. There’s a whole story about that, but basically they were neighbors of ours when we were doing R&D stuff in Pasadena.

In retrospect, it makes a lot of sense why their product would work on the web, but at that point I think the president of the company kind of stumbled on it.

When I’m talking about “the company,” we were five people.

TA: So in the beginning of e-commerce it was hot sauce and books.

MK: Right. They don’t spoil when you ship them. There’s lots of different kinds of hot sauce, and people collect them.

Hot Sauce and Books and Wine. launched before us. Those were the kinds of things that worked well on the internet at that point.

TA: The wine I’m sure had all these issues about cross-state shipping —

MK:  Exactly — which Hot Sauce did not.

TA:  At some point, then, you decided to get together with buddies — colleagues — and start Adaptive Path.

MK: Right. So in between the hot sauce and Adaptive Path, I was at Wired Digital, which was first HotWired and then Wired Digital and then became part of Lycos — I was there for four years.

Then I left. I was writing my book and I left. Peter Merholz had this idea: Wouldn’t it be nice if all the people that were then freelancing, including me, at roughly the same level in the Bay Area — wouldn’t it be great if we could pool our resources?

After we started talking about it, we realized the thing that made the most sense was to start a company, so we started Adaptive Path.

TA: How did you choose the name?

MK:  I can’t remember who came up with the name — I think Jeff Veen came up with it. We were having one of these giant name-brainstorming sessions. I think that the way the name came up was either from Jesse (James Garrett) or Jeff, and we were like, “Hey, that’s a pretty good name.” And then I think Jeff piped up that he had already registered it.

TA: That’s convenient; that’s good.

What was the most fun about working there with those folks?

MK: Everybody was intensely smart. We had a really good mix of people who had experience starting companies, who had experience selling services (because we were such a service company). People who had experience thinking strategically and thinking tactically. These weren’t, of course, all the same people, but all those skills were available within the group.

The company launched at the bottom of the dot-com slump. We were amazingly booked with clients and profitable pretty much from the first day.

TA:  And that was when nobody had money to spend on anything.

MK: Right. So that was great. A good chunk of that was because we had enough people.

A number of us were relatively well known, but Jeff and Peter were very well known. They would regularly get people asking them to help, but they weren’t able to do that because they were only two people.

Now, we as an organization could address all of the leads that were coming in. As we were doing that, all the other partners started publishing more and speaking more and that reinforced the business. It was a very successful, good way of using the strength of all the different partners in the best way possible.

TA:  It still is. It still has a wonderful reputation. I would only imagine it’s growing.

MK: The company is definitely growing at a fairly good and fairly reasonable rate, unlike the old giant incubator days.

TA: So you had gone from academia to the corporate world as an internal person, part of the team, and now all of the sudden you were dealing with clients.

What were the good and bad of that? Were there any surprises when you first started?

MK: The good part of the transition was that we were exposed to a really broad range of different industries and different kinds of customers. Everybody from non-profits, like National Public Radio, to companies like Dow Corning, who were the exact opposite in terms of the way they worked. We worked with everybody from small companies, who had fairly boutique-y needs, to enormous companies that needed very broad, ‘big idea’ kinds of ideas and work.

That was terrific. It was really great and a wonderful experience.

The downside was as consultants, we never quite had the opportunity to follow through on all of the things that we wanted. What would invariably end up happening was that we’d produce something — something fairly involved — but then it was never really our responsibility to follow through on it organizationally.

We would spend all this time and energy developing all these ideas, but wouldn’t be able to follow through on making them happen.

TA: I think it’s just starting to be possible to convince companies that they need to keep user centered design people, or information architects or whatever, around for longer than 20 minutes at the beginning of a project if it’s really going to work.

MK: Or 20 minutes at the end if all they think they need is usability testing.

TA:  Right. Which, at that point, is just like asking if their baby is cute or not. And it usually isn’t.

MK: Exactly.

TA: And then something happened, and you became fascinated with something else; something you wanted to do on your own or with a different group of people.

What happened there?

MK: I had always been interested in physical computing. I had been doing various kinds of technological art projects for a while. I did one project — it was an enormous hairy huge robotics project that took a year and a half of all of our spare time. It was originally a Burning Man art project that ended up being a SIGGRAPH installation. It weighed more than a ton and involved enormous motors. It was called Stock Puppet. I did it with Jim Mason. You can actually see the documentation on it, on

TA:  I don’t think any of my projects have ever weighed anything.

MK: So Stock Puppets was essentially an art project that was supposed to be a one-note joke about how so much of the dot-com economy was based on the fluctuations of stock markets, and how everyone was dependent on that.

We thought this up in 1999. It was going to be seven giant puppets that were controlled by the fluctuations of world stock markets, so it became this giant robotics project.

TA:  Did they dance around or something?

MK: Yes, basically. They moved up and down and they danced around and the faces changed. The heads were 17” monitors and they would change. There was a sound track that I did with Maribeth Back who was then of Xerox PARC, and we developed this generative sound track that was also based on fluctuations of stock markets. We were using the same data feed. This was originally a Burning Man project; the whole thing was designed to run completely off of a satellite feed and a generator so it could be plopped anywhere on earth and we could get streaming stock market data that would make the puppets move.

It was an insane robotics project.

TA: Did they all fall over and explode in 2000?

MK: [laughs] We had algorithms so they would continue to be interesting. Although they did actually fall over — they were falling over a lot just from our own software glitches.

That was a big robotics physical computing project. We ended up getting all this technology from the Robot Wars people; we ended up talking to them. Anyway, it was an interesting crossover between a lot of different San Francisco groups.

TA: The Robot Wars people who eventually created a television show?

MK:  Exactly

TA:  Fun! So you did this big robotics projects in 1999 —

MK: Yes, it was ’99-2000.

TA: So then you just continued, really.

MK: Right. I always had an interest in this stuff. I decided that after I was done with the web at the ten year mark when I left Adaptive Path. I was going to pursue this new idea for a couple of years and see where it takes me.

I decided, “I’m just going to write about the issues around design and development of ubiquitous computing devices.”

I was also influenced because, thanks to Molly Wright Steenson, I spent a fair amount of time at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, in Italy. I was influenced by that experience, and I was influenced by the time I spent at the Milan Furniture Fair, and the idea of furniture as a platform for technology.

It became very interesting to me. I started writing and talking about that. I wrote a manifesto for it which was called the Smart Furniture Manifesto. This then got me talking to the appliance design world, so I started thinking about the future of appliances as domestic devices that have embedded technology.

I essentially let myself kind of swim around in the soup of where technology and everyday human activity interact.

TA: Were there products that came out during that time that you thought were especially cool or especially bad?

MK: There were a ton of bad products. There were refrigerators with built intablet PCs, which are totally useless.

At this point all of the internet appliances that had come out — which were essentially dedicated web browsers in a box — and the uselessness of all of those things — was an important lesson.

There were all of these different things people were trying. Then there were things that were interesting. Ambient devices like the ambient orb came out around the time I started looking at all of this stuff. That was a very interesting device.

TA:  What did that do? I don’t know about that one.

MK:  It’s a glass globe that essentially works off the pager network and changes colors based on a single dimension of data. So you can have it tracking the stock market for you — if the stock market goes up, it becomes greener; if the stock market goes down, it becomes redder. But you can also have it do things like track your bids on eBay, or you can have it track the quality of the code in a giant software build and react to how many errors our is code generating this second.

TA:  It translated that data into something appealing. There seems to be a thread of appealingness across all of this.

MK: Exactly. Another project that I think is great is one another friend of mine did. They are actually using a bunch of ambient orbs to show you the spot price of electricity right at a given moment, as the actual price of electricity fluctuates throughout the day. So you can know when is the cheapest time for you to turn on your electric oven by looking at the ambient orb.

That is using the availability of data sources from the world in a personal, intimate environment in a completely new way, in a way that doesn’t require you understand anything about the data sources.

TA: And in a way that’s subtle and fully part of your environment.

MK:  Exactly.

TA:  It seems to tie in too with the kind of thinking Don Norman puts into his Emotional Design work.

MK:  Right. Emotional design is good design. That’s what I learned at the Milan Furniture Fair. It had plenty of bad design, but there are some beautiful, beautiful things there. The reason they are well designed is not because there’s a lot of splash. It’s because they’ve been thought through and they connect with us on an emotional level in addition to a functional level.

TA:  In graphic design there is a thought that great designers know how to keep taking things away until a design is truly beautiful.

MK:  Exactly.

TA:  I’ve taken a lot of your time, but I have one more question for you. What really fascinates you the most now? What do you think is going to drive your next five years?

MK: The fact that information processing is dying to be treated by product designers and industrial designers as a kind of “material,” and that these people are including it into their devices as a kind of material.

What used to be robotics is now showing up as a line item in a design object, like rubber.

That is a profound shift in peoples’ relationship to what computers are and what they can do and where they can do it.

TA: So you are saying processing power, whatever it can do and whatever we want it to do, is being integrated into things just like something as ordinary as rubber.

MK:  Yes.

TA:  That’s a big topic for you.

MK:  Yes.

TA:  Thank you very much; this has been really interesting for me. Thank you for sharing all this.