Interview with Whitney Quesenbery

Whitney Quesenberry is on her second career, after accidentally working in the theater for 15 years. She got into theater to get out of a PE requirement, and she got into user experience after being asked to write some technical documentation. Today, she continues to come up with creative methods to research and observe real people interacting with technology. She’s interested in what makes people the same and different, and the role storytelling can (and should) play in experience design.


I think if there’s one problem that everyone shares, it’s how hard it is to keep users in mind, even with personas and all of the tools we have to work with these days. It’s hard to keep remembering those people who don’t work for your company, who don’t come to your meetings, who aren’t in your lunchroom – but who are ultimately the reason we all exist.”

I’m often struck by hard it is to accept the users’ own story of what is happening when they interact with technology. We constantly want to explain their experience in our own technical terms. Especially with people who can use an interface, but don’t have a good vocabulary to talk about it. Our understanding can be so much richer if we use stories to enter into their world. I don’t mean this in a trite way, or that we should turn every interaction into a fable. Sometimes, instead of talk aloud, I’ll ask the person I’m working with to just ‘tell me what happened.’ that seems to be enough of a trigger to get them to relate the interaction as a narrative.”


Conducted by Tamara Adlin on April 24, 2007 02:39 PM

A solo usability consultant who focuses on user research and strategy, Whitney thinks and writes about the role of storytelling in user experience design.

Tamara Adlin: The reason for the series of interviews is to talk to people who have been instrumental in pushing the field of user experience and user focused design forward.

Today I am talking to Whitney Quesenbery, who is currently working as a solo consultant under the banner of WQ Interactive Design

Is most of the work that you do usability testing or user centered design?

Whitney Quesenbery:  I do an odd and interesting mix these days. Sometimes what I’m doing is actually work on a team with design. Sometimes we’re doing testing; often we’re doing testing as part of the design project. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of user research and strategy work.

TA: What’s your favorite?

WQ:  The research and strategy is definitely my favorite.

TA: Why is it your favorite?

WQ: Because it blends it all. You get to do little prototypes to have something to talk about. I often use exploratory usability testing as the way to do the research in addition to the observation of people using prototypes.

Sometimes it’s very useful to get users to interact with something and learn from that or use that experience as the springboard for a conversation; either one. I love doing research and strategy because they bring it all together.

TA: When you say, ‘get users to interact with something,’ does it matter what that something is? Does it just have to be a rough design?

WQ: No, it often doesn’t matter. For example, we were working on a clinical trial search site. They wanted to do a site refresh, but didn’t know what to change. We looked at all kinds of other sites that had clinical trial searches and we found a variety of them that had different approaches to the problem. We asked people to try searching for things that were about their medical condition on different sites, and we watched. We got behavioral results that helped us understand which sites helped them the most.

We also got a lot of opinions and thoughts on which search methods seemed to suit them better, why they were having trouble with ones they were having trouble with, why they were successful on some sites versus others.

In that case we actually didn’t make any prototypes at all. We simply used other sites to work with and made them our prototypes.

TA: Yes, I love doing that. I love making sure that you don’t repeat the mistakes your competitors have so kindly made before you.

WQ: Exactly. In this case, the sites were actually functioning as collaborators. Each was from a different group – some patient advocacy sites, others medical information sites, and even a commercial site. What we discovered was that all the sites had personalities. Each personality conveyed pretty accurately the mission of the organization.

Sometimes we use little artifacts or prototypes – just paper or mini websites or little sets of screens that are just enough to get people to springboard.

I work with the Open University and they are working on their new virtual student environment. One team had been given the charge to go ‘do something’ about student calendaring.

We had no idea how complex a calendaring solution should be. If we built something that was very feature-rich, would that be more than students wanted? So we built an online prototype, and it just had a little button or link that said ‘synchronize with your calendar’.

We had no idea what that meant nor did the users. When they saw it, they said, ‘what does that mean?’ and we said, ‘what would you like it to mean?’ and got lots and lots of information. From a couple of little squiggles on a screen, we learned about how they used calendars, what features they wanted, how they wanted their personal life calendar, their work calendar and their study calendar to integrate, and all we needed was a springboard for that conversation.

TA: You’ve done a lot of work with stories and storytelling and design, and ‘springboards stories‘ is one of the terms used for stories that help generate ideas.

WQ:  Yes.

TA: What you are doing is fascinating and really helping create some creative ways to get input from users that’s very different from just asking them what they want. As we all know, that isn’t always very helpful.

Did your career evolve as a straight line?

WQ: (laughs) This isn’t even my first career.

TA: What were you before?

WQ:  I was a theater designer. I designed lights for dance and opera and theatre productions. I did that for almost 15 years.

TA:  How did you get into that field? What fascinated you about that?

WQ: I got into lighting in college. The truth is I got into the field because my college had a gym requirement and I am a klutz. Dance counted as gym and they were very happy to have people who were happy to lug heavy things around and climb ladders and do that instead of dancing.

I liked it, and I liked that lighting was part of the performance; that it helped set the mood. It was the user interface within which the actors worked.

After college I got a summer theater job and then another little job and kept thinking, well, “when will my real career begin?” – but meanwhile theater was a lot of fun – and I ended up in the design union and had a pretty good run.

One day I met some people who needed a piece of documentation written and I thought, ‘I can do that…that’ll be a nice way to earn a little money between shows,’ and they asked me to do another, and another, and then they asked me if I would be the project manager for their new product.

That was Hyperties and it was 1990. We were doing hypertext before the web. Next thing I knew, I was turning down a show because I was way too busy.

That’s about as un-straight-line as I think you could get.

TA: Before that you must have been interested in something else, if you got into dance just because it was a requirement. What had you been studying before that?

WQ: I thought I was either going to be a philosopher or the next great American novelist.

TA:  So you had a chance to do some writing again and you picked that up.

WQ:  I can sit here and we can pull all the threads of my life together. They’ve all been about being open to possibilities and taking possibilities when they came along even if they didn’t seem like the next logical step. In a way, theater is related to HCI – you can think about the computer as a kind of fourth wall in a performance that’s happening, that the user is participating in.

TA:  What do you mean by fourth wall?

WQ: When a theater has a big proscenium, you have three walls: the sides and the back of the theater. There is an invisible “fourth wall” between the actors and the audience.

TA: That’s the portal through which communication happens.

WQ: Yes, exactly.

I lived through the era in theater when we broke the wall and took theater out into the audience, and now I’m living through the era in computing where we are beginning to take computers off the desktop into our lives in a kind of much more integrated way.

I think I came along as off-off-Broadway really blossomed and we began to think about not just big shows but also about projects like the Living Theater and all those other downtown experiments that played with the relationship between performer and audience.

Much of what we think of now as normal in theater was wildly experimental in the 60’s and 70’s when it started.

TA: Can you talk a little bit more about how some of those experiences you had when that sort of philosophy of theater was happening? How did they relate to how you see our discipline evolving?

WQ: When I first started working, I thought surely people who put lots of money into a Broadway show must know what they are doing. Then you discover that they don’t always. That’s why we have previews in theater. Before you actually open the show, you try it out. You invite people in to watch the show and give you feedback.

Sometimes they have very small audiences that are invited in, and then you go back into rehearsal for a while. Sound familiar?

TA: Yes, it does.

WQ: So that notion that products of any kind, things you create, do not spring up fully blown but get worked on. You work on them privately, you try them out against the audience and then you take what you learn from that and then work on them some more.

That’s very much built into the notion of how the theater industry works. More and more, is beginning to be built into the notion of how we design things.

TA:  In a way, if you were doing lighting design for these theater productions, you were behind the scenes but you were very definitely involved in manipulating how an audience would experience a theater piece. And you said one of your first jobs in the software technical industry, was product manager or program manager.

WQ:  Actually at first it was writing some documentation.

Just documenting. Then one day they said “We have this product; we would like you to be in charge of it.”

I had no idea what this meant. I have no idea why they asked me – probably out of desperation at hiring staff. I turned out to be good at it. I don’t think I was the best product manager out there but I worked hard at it and listened to people. Because I had written the documentation, I knew the product from that perspective. We grew the product and we grew the documentation by listening to the kind of questions our early adopters asked. Everything in the documentation was planned to answer questions; not just the very specific questions but the bigger question behind the question that we had heard.

It was a tiny company and it was lovely to be able to both influence the direction of the product and think about how to help people use that product.

TA: It sounds like you developed some of the documentation before you developed some of the product.

WQ: We were using pilot versions in our own consulting product so we had to document it internally. Of course there was a previous version to build on. But we often built the docs as we went along so that we would document a feature as we were building it.

TA: How did you move from managing a product (and I assume managing a team to a certain extent) into specializing in usability?

WQ: The web came along and if you had a hypertext product pre-web, the chance of it surviving post-web was pretty small.

The product work slipped away until we were just doing design and usability consulting. As the company grew, and I got to be more senior, I realized was I was hitting that point where I wasn’t going to be able to actually work on the projects any more. I was going to manage other people working on the projects. In a small company it’s very hard to step back from that position, so I stepped out entirely.

TA: Stepped out to – a different company?

WQ: To start my own company, yes.

So now I am a solo consultant. I hire people if I need them but basically what I like is to be able to go in and work with a team so that I become the whatever-is-missing from their team; whether that’s user research or usability testing or design work.

TA: What’s the biggest problem that you end up solving for these companies? Is there a common thread?

WQ: I think as an outsider coming in to work with a company, often you are providing an outside eye. You can’t work in an area and not develop ways of thinking about it. One of the good things an outsider can do is say, “What happens if we think about it completely differently?”

Sometimes that happens by accident because you don’t know enough to think like an insider. Sometimes the inspiration or “outsider view” comes from your interactions with users.

TA: So you get them out of the weeds a little bit.

WQ: Or out of a rut they are in. If there is a common thread, it’s that every project I work on has a usability specialist or a usability consultant. By definition, right? Because I’m there.

So, any project I work on is already committed to a certain kind of user centered design or user experience work.

Sometimes I’m helping them do the thing they want to do because life goes on and schedules are tight and it’s hard to break the pattern of how you do something and look at it with a fresh eye.

Or sometimes I come in to do something simple, or they think it’s going to be something simple, like “let’s just find out how our product is doing.” But even when I’m just doing a usability test, the act of constructing the test lets them look beyond ‘how did this particular version or prototype do’ and towards ‘lets learn more about our users.’

I think if there’s one problem that everyone shares, it’s how hard it is to keep users in mind, even with personas and all of the tools we have to work with these days. It’s hard to keep remembering those people who don’t work for your company, who don’t come to your meetings, who aren’t in your lunchroom — but who are ultimately the reason we all exist.

TA: Yes, there’s a lot of inertia from people being used to working in a certain way and thinking about themselves.

WQ: Even when they have done user centered work, even when they’ve met users, it’s hard to keep remembering users because they are not present on a day-to-day basis.

TA: That’s the biggest problem – the lack of physical presence?

WQ: That may not be the biggest problem but it’s where many of the problems spring from.

TA: Is there a question you always ask when you come into a new project, or a question that tends to surprise your clients?

WQ: I wouldn’t say it surprises the clients, but the first question we always ask is “who is this for, what are they going to do with it, why do they want to use it.”

Sometimes the surprise is in discovering that they don’t have a good answer; they thought they had a good answer but when you press they are not totally clear. It’s not clear whether they have an idea that’s looking for an audience or an audience that’s looking for a solution to a problem.

TA: Yes, I find that in my work. Everyone I talk to says “well, we already have a pretty good idea of who our users are.” They always say that. But I agree, when you press a little deeper, it’s quite difficult for clients to articulate who their users are.

WQ: Yes. Even when they know it, when they have the right information in their heads, it’s hard for them to get it out into an actionable form; into a form they can make use of.

I have worked with clients who really do know their users. They just don’t know how to use that knowledge to further a design process.

TA: How do you help them with that? Do you have favorite methods?

WQ: I do personas even when they are little quickie assumption personas. So even if I’m doing a one-day expert review, we’ll sit down and do a two paragraph persona just to say “here’s the person I think I am reviewing on behalf of.” This is to clarify that I’m not going to review it on behalf of WQ, the design expert, the usability expert. Just that, I think, is sometimes a revolutionary step.

That’s one technique, just to do that much. The other is to do anything I can to get them to meet a user—in a situation where we can make use of what we learn. Whether that’s a usability test or an interview or going out to a site – whatever that is.

Once you begin to build a few little personas, one of two things happens. Either you start to realize things you don’t know. That can open the door to finding answers to those questions. Or, you find out how much you do know and can build on it.

Personas can also provide a structure we can hang some design decisions on. Now we can look at a screen design or a page design and say, “how will this persona find the information they need? How will that person react to this?” This lets us remove from ourselves as designers and as specialists. We need to separate from our pet peeves, and feelings about what works and what doesn’t work in design, and start shifting that conversation around to what works for the people we’re designing for.

TA:  It sounds like those methods, even just quick personas or finding some way you can stand in for target users, is really helpful to you when you are talking to the clients. Are there particular questions or methods you think are really great when talking to end users, besides conducting a standard usability test?

WQ: I often construct usability tests around a problem or task that is very, very simple (or one that is perceived as being very, very simple). This lets us start from a task where we expect users to succeed. The actual task might be difficult or easy, but we get to start with the presumption that it will be simple.

We also came up with another method almost accidentally. We thought that asking people directly what they thought of a particular task wasn’t going to work well. So, we asked them, “well, what do you think other people might find hard about this?”

We got really good feedback. I started doing a lot of “in-direction” (asking indirect questions), like, “when might you use this, how would you use it, how would you envision your mother using it or somebody or your friend, peer or colleague?” (The question would be appropriate for the product, of course.) The point was to ask questions to help users both focus in on themselves, but also to break out of the “test” setup.

I often break up my sessions when I am working with users with things that let them get away from the screen for a few moments; for example, “pick 3 emotional words that reflect how you are feeling right now,” or looking at something on paper. I try to open up the door for participants to say things they might not otherwise say, or even think things they might not otherwise think, that they can then share either through behavior or verbally.

TA: Get them out of the mode of saying “I’m so stupid that I don’t get this.”

WQ: Yeah. Of the techniques that I’m really fascinated by, but don’t do that much is paper prototyping. It’s another method where the goal is to get the people you are working with actively engaged as opposed to putting on their critic’s hat or being passively answering your questions.

TA: So when you are sitting in a room full of the team members who are building something, or if you are hired to do a review for them, you work to get them all out of their own heads in and into the heads of their target users.

But you also ask the usability participants, the target users themselves, to get out of their own heads through taking on a role, like the perspective of their mother or their colleague.

WQ: Especially at the end of a session.

I’ll tell you an example: a woman who had to fish in her bag to get her glasses, said, “You know dear, the text was fine for me but some people might find it too small.” She would never have said the text was too small for her. And we’ve seen her get her glasses out. So the data was there. But we could then say, “we noticed you got your glasses out.” She said, “well, some of my friends don’t like to carry their glasses.”

TA:  Right — but not me, particularly. It’s other people.

WQ: Not me; of course I always have mine with me. Other people do this.

What’s interesting wasn’t that she had an opinion about other people, but that that opinion was actually hooked to her own experience.

TA: She accessed it in a different way.

WQ: Yes.

TA: So to come back to you a little bit and how you developed your career: were there particular people who inspired you to make the changes that you did, or to fight back against the methods you were working to change?

WQ: Well, I started out life in usability working for Charlie Krietzberg, who has been an advocate for a long time. Through (his company) Cognetics, I got to meet Ben Shneiderman and I have to say he has been a huge influence. But the biggest influence in my career and approach has been Ginny Redish.

TA:  How did each of them really inspire you? What is the biggest thing they taught you?

WQ: From Ben I got my first perspectives. I hadn’t gone to grad school so I didn’t have that background of academic reading. His framework for the creating direct manipulation, and his concepts like Lifelines and treemaps and starfields were eye-openers As was his constant search for how can we make things not just easier, but more – I hate the word intuitive – but I’m going to say intuitive – as a shorthand for matching a design to how people think about a problem.

The way he continually looked for new and better solutions was really inspiring.

Ginny as well. She has an ability to always come back to core questions. I think a lot of people in HCI focus very much on the computer, the computer program. Ginny started as a linguist and has done a lot of her work in communication. She always reminds us that communication is at the center of so much that we do. Her extraordinary projects, like her work with safety regulations in Washington State, show us that even complex things can be communicated clearly and simply and in plain language that’s not dumbed-down, but simply easy to understand.

TA: What do you think are some of the important qualities of people who turn into really good usability specialists or HCI specialists? It sounds like one of those might be being a great communicator.

WQ: If you can’t articulate what you have learned then no one else can benefit from it.

The next step is being able to take that articulated analysis and turn it into a design. That itself is a kind of communication. I’ve started thinking about applications as a conversation, which I borrow from Caroline Jarrett. It’s not just about physical layout,or presentation; it’s about understanding the relationship between the person and the questions being asked. It’s about understanding how to move through a process, not just about an interaction with a single screen.

Then professionally we have an awful lot of communicating to do to our team members about what we’re up to. We also have to communicate the value of what we do.

TA:  That’s still a big one, for sure.

WQ:  I think we forget how much of what’s in an interface is either words or stand-ins for words, like icons. Ultimately we’ve got a blend of visual and verbal communication going on, being mediated through these crazy computer things. But really it’s just a conversation.

TA: What do you think about the whole argument about number of clicks, and of people saying things like “this has to be one click away.”

WQ: I think it’s silly. At an extreme, you certainly don’t want something to be hundreds of steps away, because at some point you tip over and say it’s just taking too long to get there. But the information foraging [TA: also see interview with Stuart Card] and scent of information [TA: also see interview with Jared Spool] ideas are right. The real question is, “how confidently can I take each step?” Then I’d have to add, “how confident am I?” Because very confident steps that take me to the wrong place are no better than tentative steps that eventually get me to the right place.

TA: Confident — what an interesting word to use.

WQ: Absolutely. It’s all about expectations. I hope and expect that when I take an action on my computer or my device, that it will result in the thing I hope will happen.

Tom Tullis coined a phrase for older users: ‘cautious clickers‘ because he saw that older adults thought a lot harder about each click. Younger people tended to take a chance on a link much more easily than an older adult did. This is clearly about confidence, that not only will this click result in what I hope will happen, but that if it doesn’t, I can recover.

TA:  It won’t blow up my computer.

WQ: Yes. It won’t take me someplace I can’t get back from…it won’t do something unrecoverable. This goes all the way back to Ben Shneiderman and direct manipulation, which is reversible actions.

TA:  I sometimes think about it as analogous to road signs. Like when my mother was learning to use the computer, and she’s not old at all, but I said it’s kind of like being able to trust the road signs on a highway. They will be there and they’ll be consistent and at the very worst you’re going to have to turn around.

WQ:  And knowing that billboards are not road signs.

TA: Ah, what a great point.

WQ: Think about all the noise you see on the side of the highway that you ignore because you know it’s not the important stuff. How did we learn that? How did our eyes learn to not pay attention to them?

TA: Do you think the same thing is happening to advertising on the web right now?

WQ: I think it’s true about advertising but it’s also just true in general. Did you ever have the experience with someone who is very new to computers and you tell them to read the screen and they start: “there’s a little icon and then it says…” and they’re reading a file name and they’re moving to read file, edit, view?

And I know to start lower on the white part. We’ve learned that stuff at the very top is part of the framework. You might need it, but when we say “read the screen” we really probably “mean read what’s on the page.”

TA:  So you’ve done a lot of thinking about the users’ point of view when they encounter any interface. I know you’ve been doing a lot of work recently on the role storytelling plays (or should play) in HCI. Do you think some of these ideas came from observations like the one you just talked about?

WQ: I’m often struck by how hard it is to accept the users’ own story of what is happening when they interact with technology. We constantly want to explain their experience in our own technical terms. Especially with people who can use an interface, but don’t have a good vocabulary to talk about it. Our understanding can be so much richer if we use stories to enter into their world. I don’t mean this in a trite way, or that we should turn every interaction into a fable. Sometimes, instead of talk aloud, I’ll ask the person I’m working with to just ‘tell me what happened.’ that seems to be enough of a trigger to get them to relate the interaction as a narrative.

An even more powerful place to use storytelling techniques is in communicating what you have learned from user research. The conclusions or recommendations are great, but one of the important things we can do is try to share an image of the user. Short snippets of story help you get past “the data” to more impressionistic information. For example, I did a series of half-day visits to small businesses. We were looking for information about how they managed their financial information. One of the stories we brought back was this: one of the owners with the most organized sales process, also kept a guitar in his office and sometimes played between calls to keep himself centered. If all we had done was map his work flow, that quirky side of his personality would never have come out.

Of course, storytelling is a key to good personas, but stories are a way to help us stay grounded in the human reality of the people we work with, whether we are making personas or not.

TA: You’ve already had two careers. If you were going to have a third, what do you think it would be?

WQ: Gardener.

TA:  Really?

WQ: Seriously, I don’t know. I have no idea. I’ve been doing all of this regulatory work and there are people who think my next career will be being a politician, but I think not.

TA: Why not?

WQ: I might be a politician’s chief of staff. But I’m not sure I’m that interested in being the politician. It’s like the difference between being the front person and the person handing them the notes and telling them what to say. I like the research side although I seem to be getting better at talking on microphones. It’s pretty scary.

Here’s an analogy. One of the things about being on these federal committees, is you are on microphone and everything you are saying is being taped and broadcast and archived and preserved and made part of the record.

The relevance to user centered design work or user experience work is that when no one listened to us at all, it didn’t matter so much what we said. Now in some places people are actually hearing us and listening to us, now we’d better be right.

TA: What a terrifying thought.

WQ:  Isn’t it?

TA:  Last two questions; what really fascinates you now? You can answer that personally or professionally – what do you love to think about? Kind of a big question, I know.

WQ: Hmmm.

I think I’ve been thinking about what makes us the same and what makes us different. What things are the same about people; what things are different about people.

As we get more global products I think that’s a big issue and I’ve been doing a lot of work in accessibility; what’s the same and what’s different?

TA: Are there particular places you’re looking for some of the answers?

WQ:  No. I think it’s more a background question that has been pervading a lot of the work I do. Are 75 year old students different from 18 year old students? What’s the same and what’s different about them? Are people in China different than people in the United States when we design a website? what’s the same and what’s different?

TA: That has a huge impact because you usually can’t design lots of different versions of a site. There to be a solid foundation of sameness.

WQ:  Jean Luc Demont said this; he said he thinks we spend too much time looking for what’s different and not enough time looking for what’s the same.

TA: That’s an interesting thought and probably very true in a global community.

My very last question: what do you think is the best or most illuminating interview question? It could be interview questions you’ve gotten or you use when you’re trying to find a new consultant to work with. Is there a particular question you think is really interesting to ask or answer?

WQ: I don’t think there’s a particular question I use but there is a particular answer I’m looking for.

I think what I’m looking for in the answer is something that shows a sign of curiosity and openness to understanding experience and being able to do a little analysis around that. So someone who comes in and tells me that they have learned the 17 steps of user experience design, and they will follow them always, is much less interesting to me than someone who says “well, I know the basics and here’s how I applied them in this last project. Here’s what we learned because we applied them differently or because we applied them the same way.”

TA: There are probably a lot of questions that could get you to that sort of answer, I suppose.

WQ:  I can’t wait to see where this project goes; it sounds fascinating. I think it’s the sort of the thing lots of organizations have talked about doing and here you are doing it.

TA: I thought I’d just do it. Honestly, every time I talk to people in this industry, either the absolute pioneers or the people who are following a little bit in the footsteps (like you talked about being so inspired by Ben Shneiderman) – or the whippersnappers who are just coming up – there’s something interesting about the people who are attracted to and working in a relatively new discipline.

I think it does take some courage and it does take some creativity and it’s interesting now at the cusp of a time when there are people who come in to interviews and say, “I know the 17 principles and that’s what I’m going to use.”

WQ: If there’s one other thing I’ve been thinking about a lot, it’s how all the disciplines fit together; how does anthropology, how does political science; how do these all inform this thing we call user experience.

I find myself not so much on the traditional usability lists anymore but listening in on conversations where I’m definitely learning; where I’m not there to be the – I’m there because they’re a little uncomfortable for me.

TA: So you actually search out a little bit of that discomfort, of not knowing.

I think what I’ve also seen is that a lot of folks who have been long time attendees at conferences like UPA or CHI, get attracted to the invited speaker tracks. The people who are two inches to the left of the field – or like the GEL conference – can just give you some new different ways to think about things.

WQ: There’s nothing more wonderful.

I recently participated in a symposium on HCI and information design to communicate complex information. One of the presenters was a anesthesiologist in a pediatric cardiac unit. As you can imagine, his world is full of complex information that has to be understood and acted on quickly. He was trying to figure out how to make medical details about patients in their PICU easier to absorb. But he knew nothing about the fields of information design, usability, or user experience. Instead, he found someone almost by accident and suddenly discovered a whole field devoted to the problem he was trying to solve. What was so intriguing about him was the contrast between his medical expertise and his lack of any frame of reference to talk about information design. I loved this encounter for two reasons. First, it was fascinating to get a glimpse into his perspective. Even the way he explained the problem, and the questions he chose to ask, showed how different his view is. Second, it was a wonderful reminder of how often we work in areas where our expertise is only part of the answer.

TA: So, again, it’s communication and a conversation. Usability folks have answers to the problems he’s trying to solve and of course he, as a ‘user’, has answers to the problems we’re trying to solve.

WQ:  Exactly.

TA: I remember also during college no matter which courses I took, every semester there was one day we were all talking about the same thing in every class.

It didn’t matter if it was ceramics and political science and women’s studies; somehow there was one day we were all talking about the same thing.

WQ: There was a discussion on a usability e-list recently about a traffic accident in Georgia that led to a big, long discussion about researching traffic safety.

I thought, wow, there’s a very rich history – this is a well researched ergonomics field and we know almost nothing about it and I bet they know almost nothing about us. And we use very much the same methods.

TA:  We each solve parts of that problem.

WQ:  It turns out they test everything; the new font for road signs – it gets field tested and user tested. Ideas for how to slow or calm traffic down get tested or get researched in some very precise ways. They are asking in a very different domain, say, than computer software but they are asking very much the same question we’re asking, which is how do you understand and influence behavior.

TA:  And how do you understand and influence patterns, I suppose.

WQ: I actually wrote to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and they sent me one of the reports on something I was interested in. They said well, we noticed that drivers that drove this way tended not to respond to the new thing we put in place. It’s the drivers who drove in a slightly different pattern, did.

You could see they were already beginning to do user segmentation.

TA:  Whether they knew it or not.

I’ve been talking to a lot of people because of the whole persona work, who are in the field of marketing (which certainly isn’t as far away as traffic research or traffic pattern control). But a lot of people have been getting in touch saying, “I’ve been doing the same thing or been doing something really similar and I had no idea that you guys in user centered design were doing this, and it’s opened up this whole new world.”

WQ: Yes. My first impulse is wow, if I’m doing something similar, you can learn from me and then I think , I could probably learn from you, too.

TA: Learning from them is often more fun, I think. Maybe that’s the whole purpose of this set of interviews. Maybe we don’t know what we’re looking for but looking for a little inspiration and seeing the way other people think about things. Maybe that’s enough of a purpose on its own.

I want to thank you so much for your time. Whitney can be found

WQ: Thank you. I look forward to hearing how this all turns out.