We recently had the privilege of conducting an informative and quite engaging interview with Bentley University professor Bill Gribbons. It was quite the insight into the UX design field and the ways that this field has evolved over the years. We do so appreciate Bill taking the time out of his busy schedule and away from his students to answer these questions for our readers here at Smashing Magazine.
Whether you are working in UX yourself or are just interested in its connection to your own work, this interview with Bill is certainly worth checking out. His accessible and friendly style makes him a natural professor, and it makes the back and forth we have to share with you quite an interesting read.
Profile Of Bill
- Name: Bill Gribbons
- Organization: Bentley University
- Title: Professor, Director of the Master of Science in Human Factors in Information Design
- Website: Bill’s page at Bentley University
- Favorite tool in your arsenal: LinkedIn
- First job: Visual designer in 1976
- First information design project you were a part of: A documentation project for Digital Computer in 1986
- Last app you used today: Flipboard
Insights From Bill
Question: How would you describe your personal style?
Bill: Job one: cultivating and maintaining personal and professional relationships. The networks you build are your most important professional asset. Professionally, I’ve always enjoyed anticipating and planning for what’s next in the design, usability and UX field — a journey I’ve been on for the past 27 years.
Question: This explains your favorite tool being LinkedIn. In this context, would you agree that social media has been a game changer on the Internet and overall in the business world? Could you give an example of how it may have reshaped your job?
Bill: Social media is certainly a game changer. Humans are naturally social creatures, and social media taps into this basic need to connect at a level we haven’t seen before. It also now facilitates our social and professional relationships in unprecedented ways. I see my role as an educator sitting somewhere on the map between prospective students, current students, clients and employers, and social media helps me maintain these networks with unmatched efficiency.
If we were to look at the path of social media in waves, I would say the first wave was for facilitating and supporting human connections, and the next wave will be to use these social connections to positively influence different aspects of our lives, particularly physical, behavioral and financial health.
Question: Why information design?
Bill: First, I’ve been in the field since the early 1980s, long before we used such terms. I’ve always enjoyed applying informed design to improve, enrich and add value to all aspects of people’s lives. While the technology has changed over the years, an unwavering focus on the people interacting with the design has allowed me to successfully transition from paper to the computer to tangible product design and now to mobile and social media.
Question: Would you say that the public’s appreciation of such informed designs has improved over the years, declined or remained unchanged? Could you give us an example?
Bill: Yes — I’ve worked in the field since the 1980s, when users did what they were told in terms of interacting with new technology and did not question why a product might have been painful or frustrating to use. In the 1990s, we saw a noticeable shift where products became more usable. Apple was truly the driver of product innovation, and thanks to them, technology became more user-friendly, more beautiful, and was able to enhance people’s lifestyles rather than hinder them.
Innovation and change are not conscious desires — humans are programmed to like the same things over and over. But once technology demonstrates to consumers that things can be better, it is then that our expectations shift dramatically and we as users demand products with the best possible design and user experience.
Question: In that respect, do you think that we as a design community or industry have done a good job of trying to inform the public about the importance of more informed design? If not, what do you think we could do better?
Bill: The design community has done a good job informing the public on the importance of informed design, but design schools have room for improvement. I have seen that design school administrators are facing resistance as they try to transform traditional design programs to meet 21st-century standards.
Design schools must identify what basic design principles they need to preserve, and balance this with notions of new informed design. Many of these programs are traditional, and schools need to evaluate whether they are teaching students the most current design standards.
Question: What aspect of UX first drew you to it?
Bill: I like the cross-disciplinary challenge. UX is a mixture of design and media; cognitive, social and cultural psychology; and the intersection with the perceptual sciences. I also enjoy the challenge of orchestrating all of these variables in the user experience to deliver value to both the customer/user and the sponsoring business.
Perhaps my greatest professional satisfaction has been the privilege of designing and directing first the information design and then the UX programs at Bentley. The programs at Bentley were some of the first in the United States to adopt this cross-disciplinary approach to design. Over the past 23 years, I have had the great pleasure of working with literally thousands of talented students from around the globe. I feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction in watching their careers progress and the incredible contributions they are now making to the profession.
Question: Being behind Bentley’s UX program, can you describe some of the ways you keep the program engaging and at the forefront of the industry, given the numerous evolutions in design overall and, as you pointed out, the transitions between different media? In other words, how do you keep your students ready for such flexibility?
Bill: The program at Bentley is constantly changing so that we are delivering the greatest value to our students, and our students know and expect such change — they are eager for it. Alumni who graduated 15 years ago are amazed by how the program continues to transform; however, it’s vital that we continue to evolve to keep pace with the marketplace. When our current students graduate and are seen as the best in the business, it positively affects the degrees of those older alums.
We at Bentley know that both companies and academic programs that do not morph and change with the constantly innovating marketplace will fail, so we are laser-focused on the role of user experience in product innovation. It’s essential that our students understand that the only way to stay relevant is to be designing for tomorrow’s product, not today’s. Our students have also changed. In the past, our students graduated and worked for the entrepreneur; increasingly, our students are the entrepreneurs. They don’t want to work for Facebook — they want to be the next Facebook.
Question: What other less-related jobs have you worked before (for example, video store assistant)?
Bill: Again, I go way back. In the 1970s, I was a typographer setting lead foundry type for invitations and the like. I always smiled when I would hear Steve Jobs talk warmly about his adventure in typography and could relate to his narrative of how this formed his early appreciation for the finer details of design.
Question: Was there anything you brought from that job into the UX field, beyond your appreciation for design?
Bill: As a typographer, you have a tactile, physical relationship with your product. When I printed something out, I could feel and even smell the type on the paper. This physical involvement with design has been lost, but I try to bring this physicality back into my classrooms. While much has been gained through new design tools, something important has been lost.
Question: So, was teaching always part of your plan?
Bill: No, not necessarily. However, after the first day in the classroom, I fell in love with the profession, and after 33 years I always look forward to going into the classroom each day. The students continue to grow more passionate, talented and intelligent. Not a day goes by when I do not learn something new from my students. I hope I can continue this forever…
Question: That sounds extremely rewarding. Is there anything else you could imagine doing for a career?
Bill: If I didn’t teach, I would consider becoming an entrepreneur. I am particularly interested in social enterprise and social entrepreneurship — specifically, designing appropriate technology for people in developing countries. I’ve always been excited by the prospect of using knowledge to design thinking that delivers value to people who are under-resourced.
Question: We’d love to learn more about how you approach a new project. Could you tell us a bit about your personal process? How do you get started?
Bill: Given my design philosophy, I begin by observing and listening to the people who will interact with the design. When possible, I first use long periods of observation, since people often cannot articulate what they need or want or what is possible. Through observation, you gain tremendous insights into creative possibilities. Next, I engage the user in a participatory design process where we become co-creators. By combining their knowledge of needs, value, abilities and limitations with my understanding of the interaction/experience design possibilities, we will always produce a superior product.
Question: The point about observation and all it can yield is one I think many people take for granted and is an important one — as is the point about working so closely with the client in a participatory fashion. Do you find most clients open to committing to this level of involvement?
Bill: Not most, but I would say a growing number of clients are open to this level of involvement. But you have to accept where a company is in its growth process. They know it is critical for them to be committed to producing solid technology and services in order to compete in the marketplace, but for some companies, it requires a longer journey to get there than for others.
Question: What was the last UX design-related book that you assigned your class to read?
Bill: This may seem a bit unusual: Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, New York: Little, Brown and Company (2009).
I feel this is a must-read for anyone working in games, social media or behavioral design.
Question: Not unusual at all, given the importance you place on networking. With the book’s take on the power of social networks to influence so many aspects of our daily lives, how would you say it has changed the way we interact with design?
Bill: As I said before, humans are social creatures by nature and have always had the drive to communicate. However, we need to learn how to appreciate social networks at a sophisticated level, with good intentions. As we begin to design products and services for health, finance and security, it’s imperative that our intentions are good and always focused on how we can improve lives, while at the same time being mindful of potential negative consequences.
Question: Many designers struggle with finding that perfect balance between work and private life? Is this something you have experienced? If so, how have you dealt with it?
Bill: With four children and a wonderful wife, I’ve always tried hard to keep my private and professional lives separate. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do that.
Question: What were the most remarkable “A-ha” moments in your career? What were the most decisive moments that changed the way you approach UX projects?
Bill: Through a unique professional opportunity, I was exposed to the development of the first self-checkout supermarket technology, which was created without conducting careful customer research. If proper research had been conducted, they would have known that customers wished that lines were shorter and shopping was simpler, not that they did not want to interact with a clerk. As a result, the new self-checkout aisles do not shorten lines and often confuse customers.
This was an “A-ha” moment for me that companies need help, whether from an in-house user-experience expert or an external organization like the Design and Usability Center at Bentley. With so much money invested in products and services, it’s critical that companies define the problem as it relates to the customer, and begin the design process with careful observation and user research.
Question: Could you give us a verbal walkthrough of your office? What’s your favorite item in the office?
Bill: I am a big fan of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. I appreciate the story and animation — Tim Burton is truly a design genius. You’ll find a number of posters and other decorations from that movie around my office.
Question: If you could decide it, what would your legacy be in the field of UX? What is it that you would want to be remembered for?
Bill: I would want my legacy to lie in the success of my students. I find tremendous satisfaction in that my students are accomplishing such incredible things in this growing field. They help companies remain competitive, shape the industry and touch so many people’s lives in a positive way. That is legacy enough for me.