Interview with Peter Merholz

Peter Merholz is interested in many things, from communications to anthropology, and he has been fascinated with computers and multimedia since he first encountered them. Following his own interests finally led him to join like-minded friends to start Adaptive Path, where he’s thinking about multi-channel experience and managing experience design teams.


For the last six years, the challenges that I’ve been interested in have been starting a company dedicated to experience design. That also involves understanding the role that a consultant company has when working with in-house teams when it comes to experience design. Both have changed over time.

[I’ve been thinking a lot about] multi-channel experiences. Trying to get people to recognize an experience isn’t just you with a computer and a website or you with a physical product but that people go in there engaging with your organization. People are engaging through multiple media – it might be through the web, it might be through the phone, it might be through products, it might be through going into a physical space. I’m really thinking about how all these experiences can relate to one another and looking for examples of when this is done well. Looking at when the design worked – those are the things that are interesting.


Conducted by Tamara Adlin on April 24, 2007 10:37 PM

From deciding he hated math to becoming the president of Adaptive Path, Peter describes a career driven by experience design.

Tamara Adlin: Today, I’m talking with Peter Merholz. Peter is President and a founding partner of Adaptive Path, which is a very popular and great agency doing customer experience work for clients.

Peter is an experienced information architect, writer, speaker and leader in the field of user experience design.

The reason I am talking to folks in our industry is to ask a couple of different kinds of questions than they may have been asked in the past. My questions are about what really motivated you rather than a bio-type history – because you are one of the people who has done a tremendous amount of work that’s helped bring our entire field forward.

Back when we were getting started, there were no degree programs in HCI and certainly not in information architecture.

So, I want to know what inspired these very creative minds along the way.

Peter Merholz: Okay. Sounds good.

TA:  Before you got started professionally — what fascinated you when you were young? Before you even decided what you were going to study?

PM: What fascinated me when I was young…I always had an interest in computers ever since we had our first TRS-80 at a school I was going to, and I saved allowance money to buy an Apple IIe in 1984 or something.

What’s an interesting thing about it in retrospect is that I’d always been interested in computers, but never had an interest in computer programming. I’ve always been interested in the use of computers, and what you can do with computers, but I’ve never really had that kind of hacker mindset to get into the plumbing and figure out how it works.

I think that’s why I ended up getting into a technological field but not on the programming side; more on the design and experience side.

TA:  That must have been frustrating when you had those early computers because it was tough to do much with them if you didn’t code, wasn’t it?

PM: That was actually some of the nicer things about the Apple IIE – put in a disc and type RUN and the name of the program and then it would basically run.

I have some degree of technological comfort, so figuring out directory structures and command lines isn’t all that problematic but I wasn’t one of those kids who would subscribe to BYTE Magazine and type out the programs that were in there or anything like that.

TA:  Yes; neither was I. How did you decide what to study when you went to college? And what did you study?

PM: In school I went to Berkeley. When I started at Berkeley – actually I’m going to back up a bit.

In high school I excelled across subjects, whether they were social sciences and humanities or science and math. My senior year in high school I was in part of a program where I was able to take a class at UCLA, and I took the class in math. I really hated it.

I decided at that point that I was no longer going to pursue the hard sciences and mathematics. I started down the path of social sciences. I took a class in communications and really loved it.

I started at Berkeley as a Mass Communications major. What’s frustrating about that degree is that I don’t think that it’s usually taught very well, and never really has been. But while I was a student there, I took all these classes in anthropology that I loved.

So I ended up switching majors and my bachelor’s degree is in anthropology. I had as much interest in physical anthropology, in issues of human evolution and biology as much as I did in archaeology and cultural anthropology.

Usually people focus on one or the other but I kept my interests across all of them.

My degree is in anthropology but my senior year at Cal, I started doing work for a professor in the School of Education, who was studying computers and multimedia in education. This was in 1992-93, so before the rise of the web. The web was available but not all that prominent, so it was much more about CD ROMs, which were the coin of the realm in the early 90’s when it came to multimedia. I was doing some work in multimedia on campus and became aware of the work that the Voyager Company did.

After I graduated I tried very hard to get a job at Voyager and after a year, I got one. I never pursued anthropology after school. I got involved in doing multimedia for education. So again, I wasn’t into learning scripting and using Director and all, but I was always interested in the kind of end use of the technology. I still wasn’t interested in the plumbing for the plumbing sake.

TA: That’s really interesting to me, because, looking back on it, there are a lot of people in our field who have some experience in anthropology and communications and you naturally gravitated towards those two on your own.

It sort of looks like a straight line once you look back on it, but maybe it didn’t look like such a straight line when you were in the middle of it.

PM: No; definitely it wasn’t a straight line.

I do what interests me. Communications interested me, and then when it stopped interesting me, anthropology interested me so I got my degree in that. Computers and multimedia always interested me from the moment I started to engage with them.

I tend to think of myself as a product of being raised in the 70’s and 80’s, when everyone was definitely a product of a media saturated society.

I engaged in multimedia before it was digital, so I would read newspapers, watch TV and listen to the radio, and then as things started to digitize, they all just came together in a way that made perfect sense to me.

TA: Were people thinking you were a little nuts? Did you have to do some explaining to your folks?

PM: I don’t think my parents understood – I still don’t even know if my parents understand exactly what it is that I do in terms of the nature of the design work. They understand that I design websites and stuff like that, and they are able to appreciate it.

Frankly, my mom, maybe less so, but my dad has become very nimble with the web and the technology. He loves movies so he is on IMDB all the time; he loves to send files around; he plays games on line – all those kinds of things.

Perhaps I have a gene that accommodates technological adoption.

TA: Yes, maybe so.

Do you remember when you first discovered there was a field evolving around this stuff that you were so naturally interested in?

PM: I almost exactly remember it. There are two points of genesis here. When I was doing this work at the School of Education at Berkeley, helping out the multimedia department, I became aware of issues of interface design and interaction design because the part of using multimedia to teach students – but in particular the book on the shelf of the professor I was working for. The book was Information Anxiety by Richard Saul Wurman.

It looked kind of interesting to me so it pulled it off the shelf. I probably read it in the course of two days, and realized that there were other people in the world who thought the way I did.

I never had seen it all wrapped up in a single book – those types of thoughts and that type of way of thinking about approaching information and managing dense information.

That was one part of the information design story. Then when I was working for the Voyager Company, my very first project was CD Rom that was a collection of books by Donald Norman. I had never read Don Norman before.

I read his first three books, Design of Everyday Things, Things That Make Us Smart, and Turn Signals are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles. I read all three of those books as part of this work I was doing, and realized that’s what I’m going to do. I understand where he’s coming from; I agree; I’ve had all the same problems and that is a place where I can make an impact.

So pretty much from that point on, I oriented myself towards issues of interaction design and information architecture.

TA: That’s interesting to me because those books were certainly early books in our field, and weren’t obviously in the field, right? They were some of the early thinking about what we all eventually started working on.

I don’t think any of them mention terms like information architecture.

PM: Wurman’s book does, I believe, mention information architecture in the book Information Anxiety, but he’s definitely doing a lot with information design and information visualization.

To Richard’s credit, he did actually coin the term ‘information architect’ in like 1975. He meant something a little bit different; somehow it’s evolved since the mid-90’s.

Don Norman was doing at the time pretty much all product design. He was doing the design of physical things; telephones and stoves and doors being the most famous. Probably by the time I started reading him, Don Norman was already working at Apple. These books he wrote before he was working at Apple, so he was definitely priming himself to help out in those ways. I just didn’t know that.

TA: My mistake on the term information architecture – actually I had the pleasure of talking briefly to Mr. Werman.

What fascinated me was something he said during our short conversation. He said that what really drives him is wanting to figure stuff out for himself and make things clear for himself.

It must have been interesting to work with him.

So after you read those books, that was about the time you decided to take – or when you had your opportunity to take your first job in the field – after your studies?

PM: Right. My first job was continuing the work I was doing as a student, but doing it full time. I was a research assistant. I did that for a while, and taught myself Macromedia Director 3.1.3. I taught myself PhotoShop and Illustrator and other types of graphics tools, and then worked there for about a year.

Then I got a job at the Voyager Company working on the production of multimedia CD ROMs, which I did for about a year.

I stayed at Voyager but changed my job. Voyager had one of the first e-commerce sites. They put all their CD ROMs that they had developed, produced and published, and sold them through the web, so you could buy them on line from them directly. I helped run the website that was essentially the catalog for our CD ROMs and some multimedia experiments we were playing with.

TA: So even though you weren’t a coder, some of those tools back then – Director especially – required work that was pretty much halfway down the path to coding.

PM: Oh yes; I had to teach myself Lingo and learn some basic coding principles in order to get it to do stuff. That’s definitely true.

TA:  So you were doing some prototyping and actually doing some production work for those CD ROMs, and also for the e-commerce site?

PM:  Yes; that’s fair to say.

TA:  How did you choose what to do next?

PM: I was living in New York and I didn’t like New York. I didn’t know exactly where I was going to head next, so I ended up deciding to come back to San Francisco.

After my experience at Voyager, my most marketable skill was web development, actually, because that’s one of the things I was doing at Voyager – building the pages. I taught myself html and got a job with Studio Archetype, in 1996 which at the time was one of the first graphic design companies to really take the web seriously.

I started there in 1996, working essentially in a design firm. For about a year I worked as a web developer but then got frustrated with that because web development felt like doing technology for technology’s sake.

I took a class in user centered design – a night class, actually – with a gentleman named Richard Anderson, and transitioned into becoming an interaction designer.

Since that title change in 1997, I have always had a job involving interaction design, information architecture, user experience.

TA:  Was that transition a fight? Maybe fight is overstating it – but if you stayed in the same company and went from web designer to information architecture – were they even aware of information architecture in your company at that point?

PM: Studio Archetype was; they called it information designer because of their background in graphic design, and what’s called ‘design for understanding.’ They were aware of information design principles as it relates to physical media, so there was a clear opportunity to do that work the interactive media. They were actually doing some CD ROM production that involved what we would now call information architecture, and the web was an obvious candidate for that kind of thinking.

They actually did have room for information design. What was new to them was, frankly, this idea of user centered design. They were still practicing design as design coming from the mind of the brilliant designer.

Through the classes that I took, and some other people who I had been involved with, we started introducing concepts of user research to really drive design. That, for the company, was a major change; to really bring in a true user centered design methodology.

TA: Although it’s much easier now, we sometimes still have challenges working with designers, and certainly in working with coders and front-end coders. It’s hard to figure out the distribution of responsibilities, and who’s the best qualified to make the call on different things.

I would imagine early in the ’90s that it must have been even trickier.

PM: Yes; this would have been ’96-97. There definitely were those challenges with figuring out where responsibilities lay between the functional design and ‘communication design’ as I tend to think of it. The interaction design and information architecture were more functional and the visual design was communication oriented.

One of the things that was really interesting at Studio Archetype was the extremely high degree of talent that was there, and also the degree of respect that everyone had for one another’s position.

Oddly enough, we didn’t have the types of challenges and battles at Studio Archetype that I had or saw after working there. There was a camaraderie and respect for the skills that everyone brought to bear.

I would hear about it as an issue. I’d go to conferences or read mailing lists or whatever and hear about visual designers complaining about information architects trying to take over their job, and information architects complaining that visual designers don’t understand the value that IA brings. But that wasn’t really much of a concern at Studio Archetype when I was there.

TA: That’s pretty unusual and speaks a lot to the philosophy there. When did you first start encountering those sort of challenges?

PM: I’m trying to think if I’ve ever had to deal with them myself. Specifically, in the work that I have done, I’ve been lucky to not have to deal with that. Possibly other people I worked with have dealt with it and I just didn’t realize it, because I tend not to pay attention to things that don’t interest me. Squabbling about roles and responsibilities doesn’t interest me; getting the work done does.

Where it would come up more would be in the discussions I would have on mailing lists. People would be bitching about ‘hey; you’re getting into my territory!’ or at conferences. My response has always been let go and just do your work, collaborate, stop being so ownership-oriented, and don’t we all have a common goal of trying to do great work.

I guess I don’t have a good story in terms of battles that I’ve fought around this issue.

TA: Maybe a better question to ask you: what sort of challenges have started to interest you – any kind of challenges, they don’t have to be organizational – as you’ve developed in the field?

PM: The challenges that have interested me have evolved as I have evolved. Process used to be a challenge that interested me a lot.

One of the things that worked really well at Studio Archetype was that the company had a pretty well-defined process. When I left Studio Archetype I found that very few organizations had such a well-defined process, particularly to accommodate user centered design.

Design processes had not really been designed to take into account user input throughout. In the late ’90s I found myself (either within companies I was working for or when I was independent for a while as a consultant) trying to help companies figure out how to imbed user centered methods within their design processes.

That stopped becoming interesting for me around 2000-2001. Companies were starting to understand process. It was in 2001 that I launched Adaptive Path with six friends of mine.

For the last six years, the challenges that I’ve been interested in have been starting a company dedicated to experience design. That also involves understanding the role that a consultant company has when working with in-house teams when it comes to experience design. Both have changed over time.

When we started in 2001, many companies didn’t really have experience teams in-house. We were being brought in to fill a skill gap.

What’s changed over time is that companies have increasingly been bringing skills in, so we’re not being brought in to fill a gap. We’re being brought in to provide vision and thought leadership around these issues.

As we’ve evolved, the big challenge is trying to understand how to communicate the value of experience to people outside the design team, whether it’s adjacent parts of the organization, IT or marketing or whomever. Or it can be communicating up the chain to the executives to help them understand the value that experience brings.

What has been interesting for me in the last year or two is finding that, in order for us to succeed, I need to go against all of those early approaches I had that were very process oriented, and instead be much more flexible and loose with how I approach problems. There’s a reason we have the word Adaptive in our name. We need to be able to adapt to the circumstances we find ourselves in, not to bring ‘a process’ in but to bring instead a philosophy and a set of tools, and figure out how the tools can be strung together in order to meet a particular problem.

Really, in order to innovate as the organizations we are working for now need, you can’t bring a process. Process stifles innovation. You need to bring a philosophy and a methodology and then develop a plan sort of on the fly that will enable innovation.

TA: That’s fascinating to me because I deal a lot with process-related stuff and tools and how they go together.

It seems to me you still really are heavily involved in process; it’s just defined in a different way. It’s sort of saying how do we not only evangelize user centered design, but make it practical within an organization — which always involves helping evolve a process internally.

PM: Right. We have the luxury of being a relatively small, 25 person consulting firm. So we don’t need an over-arching big process. People here are all pretty much senior-and-above practitioners. They’ve done it all before.

We’re able to put together processes on the fly in order to meet problems but when we’re working with clients, they often do need to have a process. They’ve got a lot of moving parts. They’ve got a lot of people they’re trying to engage to it. Our job is to make sure those processes aren’t getting in the way but are leading to opportunities for success.

TA: And I guess getting past some of the inertia, for lack of a better term, because when people get stressed in an organization they tend to fall back on the old ways of doing things.

PM: Right.

TA:  Let me ask you a little bit about Adaptive Path. What were those initial urges and conversations like between those six people that led eventually the brave step of creating a new company?

PM: The initial conversations – you have to think back – this was 2000 when we started talking to one another.

I was working at Epinions. I was Creative Director at and I had been working there for a little over a year, and had pretty much completed a wholesale re-design of the site. It hadn’t launched yet. It wasn’t going to launch for another three to four months, maybe more – five or six months – but my work was done and I was kind of sitting around waiting for this thing to launch.

There wasn’t a lot for me to do. I’d been there for a year, I had vested a quarter of my shares, and I decided I wanted to go independent again. But I realized I didn’t want to go wholly independent. I didn’t want to go truly on my own. I wanted to work with other like-minded people.

I already knew the six others who ended up forming Adaptive Path. I knew they too had been challenged or frustrated or whatever in whatever positions they were in. I started talking to them first individually and then as we started meeting as a group, we realized there was a real opportunity for us to launch a consulting firm dedicated to user experience, which wasn’t really out there.

There were a couple of models – there was the Nielsen/Norman Group and there was Mark Hurst at Creative Good. Both were more usability-oriented whereas we saw ourselves much more about information architecture, interaction design, as well as user research.

When we began, we did do usability, but in pretty short order we stopped doing usability testing.

The other thing that brought these people together was a desire to not just be consultants. That was why we decided not to be independent. When you’re independent, the easiest thing to do is to be a consultant. But when you have some structure you get by working with other people, it allows you to do things like run events.

In our second year, we launched a line of events. Then in our third year we launched our publishing line of business.

That was another reason for us to come together. It allowed us to create a structure that could enable us to communicate about experience more broadly than simply in our consulting work.

The other thing the seven of us shared was a passion for teaching, a passion for sharing. We met because we had all gone to conferences, we’d spoken at conferences, we’d written essays, we’d written magazine articles, whatever it was, and we all had this passion to uplift the field; spread the word of good design.

That was something important that we had at the outset that we have continued to capitalize on.

TA:  Do you think you were all aware of the fact you really were helping to shape elements of a new discipline? It sounds like you were, actually.

PM: I think we were, because we had been doing it before we had started Adaptive Path. Before we had started Adaptive Path, Jesse had designed his elements of user experience diagram.

Jeff Veen had written The Art and Science of Web Design, and had written numerous essays. I had spoken at conferences. My blog was very active. Indi Young had spoken at conferences. Mike was working on a book at the time – so these are people who had been engaged in shaping the discipline before we started the company.

It was a matter of coming together and really pooling our resources to frankly just have better leverage in this work once we were together.

TA: For those people reading, there are also interviews with Jesse James Garrett, Jeff Veen and Mike Kuniavsky in this collection.

PM:  Excellent.

TA: So now that you’re established and Adaptive Path is doing well, it sounds like you’ve created what you wanted to do.

What are the issues today that are most interesting to think about, to write about, to read about?

PM: That’s a good question. In terms of the things floating my boat, a lot of it really is around the evolution of the practice of experience design.

I guess there are a couple of ways I have been thinking about it. One is doing a lot more writing, reading, thinking, engaging with the idea of multi-channel experiences. Trying to get people to recognize an experience isn’t just you with a computer and a website or you with a physical product but that people go in there engaging with your organization. People are engaging through multiple media – it might be through the web, it might be through the phone, it might be through products, it might be through going into a physical space.

I’m really thinking about how all these experiences can relate to one another and looking for examples of when this is done well. Looking at when the design worked – those are the things that are interesting.

The other thing is this idea of managing experience design. Adaptive Path in February launched a new conference called MX, which stands for Managing Experience.

It was an attempt to address the issues of concern of those people who have grown with Adaptive Path over the last five or six years and who are no longer necessarily simply practitioners, but are managing experience teams.

When we started the company, our audience were practitioners, who were often the lone practitioner in the company and they’d come to our events and they would read our stuff because they didn’t have anybody else to turn to.

Now companies, as I mentioned, have practitioner teams, but there’s often just that lone manager of experience. That person doesn’t really have anyone to share their experience with in their organization. MX proved to be a catalyst bringing people together who need a community to share stories with one another because again. They don’t have people within their immediate work sphere; everyone can engage the issues that are currently facing them.

So those are the two things that have been interesting and exciting.

TA: The MX idea; the thought it brings up for me is that it is sort of turning user experience or customer experience inward and saying “this is a team that’s creating a product internally that has customers”, and that product could be prototypes, that product could be usability test results; that product could be visions for products or features.

Managing that is sort of managing the design of a loosely defined product.

PM:  I think that’s right.

TA:  Let me ask you this. If you had chosen a different career, or if you were going to choose a career after this, what do you think it would be.

PM: That’s a good question and a hard one for me to answer because I’ve never been that forward thinking in my approach to what I do. Honestly, I kind of fall into that which interests me in the moment.

I honestly don’t have an answer to that question. For the foreseeable future, this is what I do; this is what I am engaged in. These are the things I’m dealing with. I will continue to do so until it stops interesting me.

TA:  Are there particular people or books that you love right now – they could be professional or otherwise – things that inspire you?

PM: I’ve been disappointed in books I’ve been reading. There hasn’t been a whole lot that’s really been inspiring or exciting with one exception – and I haven’t read this book but I’ve listened to an interview with its author. It’s called Made to Stick and it’s by Chip and Dan Heath – they are brothers.

It’s about how to communicate to anybody in such a way that your ideas actually take root in the people to whom you are communicating. It’s something we’ve been thinking a lot about at Adaptive Path partly because one of our missions is to really improve design – expand the field of design – share what we understand – I was trying to figure out how can we communicate our ideas in such a way that they will take root.

I guess another point of inspiration comes from this conference I put on last October. I helped organize a conference called IDEA which stood for Information Design Experience and Access. I invited a bunch of speakers. All of the people who I invited were inspirations to me.

At the conference we had, Linda Stone in some of her thinking around continuous partial attention and Bruce Sterling is always an inspiration just because he’s crazy and always has interesting things to say.

There was a gentleman from the National Park Service. I love what the National Park Service has done in terms of how they approach the design of their, if you want to call it, experience from the brochures to the visitor centers to the waysides, as they call it – the signs along the paths. The folks from Staman Design – what they’ve done with information visualization.

I had a gentleman from, which is one of the most interesting ecommerce websites out there. I guess there are folks who continue to inspire me and I was lucky enough to have them speak at the event I hosted.

TA: That’s a great collection. It seems like those are folks who are also doing stuff in the multi-channeled world – certainly a park and the signs and the experience you create sounds like that’s in that field as well.

PM:  Exactly.

TA:  Peter, thank you so much for your time. We can’t wait to see what you do next at Adaptive Path and the conferences you create!