- Artwork by Eli Jorgensen
Jared Spool has been doing and defining UX long before many of us existed and/or even knew what it was. He invites us in to hear his fascinating yet seldom discussed UX origin story. He reveals how and why we’re all UX designers. He demystifies the arduous and often frustrating process of landing a job in UX. He articulates what it means to learn how to learn. He addresses the important, but oft-forgotten business part of the design business. He also inspires us to be great design leaders by illustrating what one actually looks like.
Jared M. Spool is a Maker of Awesomeness at Center Centre – UIE. Center Centre is the school he started with Leslie Jensen-Inman to create industry-ready User Experience Designers. UIE is Center Centre’s professional development arm, dedicated to understanding what it takes for organizations to produce competitively great products and services.
In the 43 years he’s been in the tech field, he’s worked with hundreds of organizations, written two books, published hundreds of articles and podcasts, and tours the world speaking to audiences everywhere. When he can, he does his laundry in Andover, Massachusetts.
A little known fact about Jared is he didn’t graduate high school or go to college, yet now he runs one of the leading schools for UX designers. He’s also an amateur magician.
- Jared’s Compelling UX Origin Story (5:56)
- How Do You See the UX Job Landscape Evolving? (14:50)
- UX’ers Have to Do What We Promised (17:31)
- Is Everyone a UX Designer? (24:57)
- If Design is a Team Sport, How Does the Team Win? (35:30)
- What Makes a Great Design Leader? (38:40)
- The Most Important Thing Designers Should be Learning (46:22)
- Best Advice for Designers Trying to Break In and Getting Rejected? (52:10)
- UX Superhero Name (1:09:23)
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Jason Ogle: Alright! Jared Spool. Maker of awesomeness. I like that. At Center Centre and I know we’re going to learn a lot more of that, but it is a premier UX school that he started with Leslie… And I always mess up her name. Lesley Jensen-Inman.
Jared Spool: Yes. Leslie Jensen-Inman.
Jason Ogle: Awesome! Yes. And so, they started that
How long ago was that Jared?
Jared Spool: 2012 is when we started the project. The school itself, we had our first students in 2006. It tells you how long it takes to get students in the door of a new school.
Jason Ogle: All just shows me how much work you all put in to really get this ready for prime time. So that’s amazing. Definitely a great school and they’re creating industry ready, user experience Designers. Jared is talk about this much. I think it’s the humility, but he’s an OG. He’s a UX OG and he’s been 43 years. He’s been in the tech field.
Jared Spool: You’re the second person in the week to introduce me that way.
Jason Ogle: What!
Jared Spool: I’m old enough to not actually know what an OG is.
Jason Ogle: Original Gangster.
Jared Spool: Original… I thought it was Old Guy. [Laughter]
Jason Ogle: You’re an Original Gangsta man. I’m super impressed. I wanted to be the only one to introduced you that way though.
Jared Spool: I’m sorry. I was at a conference last week and they introduced me that way and I’m like, I have no idea what that means. I hope it’s good.
Jason Ogle: And you’ve written two books. You’ve published hundreds of articles and podcasts and you’ve toured the world speaking to audiences everywhere. So a little known fun fact about Jared. And I always liked to do these. These are fun icebreakers. Is he didn’t, and I didn’t know this about you. You did not graduate high school or go to college and I’m raising my hand too, I can identify with that. But that is really fascinating. Yet now you run one of the leading schools for UX designers. That’s awesome!
Jared Spool: Yeah. I was a professor at Tufts for 14 years and when I got that gig, my mother said do they know that you didn’t go to college, you don’t have a high school diploma. So I don’t know. It’s become sort of don’t ask, don’t tell policy. Never bring it up. I don’t bring it up.
Jason Ogle: I love that with technology though it’s evolved so much to where that’s not as critical and especially in what we’re doing, designers and in this field. It’s really great. I think that if those things were required, we may not have some of the awesome things we have now. Defenders, please join me in welcoming internet sensation and teen heartthrob, Jared Spool. Jared, welcome officially to use User Defenders! I’m super excited to have you on the show today.
Jared Spool: Well, thanks for having me! I’m honored to be here. I’ve been a long time listener. First-time caller.
Jason Ogle: I love it. I love it. Thank you. I’m really curious because as much as I know and I do know some things about you, I’ve done some research around you, especially in preparation, but I really don’t know your UX origin story. And I have a feeling that a lot of our Defenders listening, not either. So I would love it if you would take however long you need to tell us your origin story, your UX origin story.
Jared Spool: Someone the other day asked me, how did I get into UX? And the answer that I came up with was that I really never did. It just sort of showed up around me. You know, it’s sorta like you, you find this empty beach and you go out there first thing in the morning and you lay out a blanket, you take out a book and you start reading it, you get really into the book and then at some point later in the day, you look up for your book for the first time and you realized the beach is absolutely packed. That is filled with people who weren’t there when you last paid attention to it.
And that’s sort of what my UX experience has been like. You know, I just became part of the community because I was there as I’ve been working in the field, it just sort of grew up around me. The sort of starting point was I was a software engineer, so I was developing software back in the 70s and early 80s. And the software that I was working on was some of the first personal computers. Like I wrote one of the first production email clients for PCs on the Apple 2 of all things. I wrote some early word processors first on the Apple 2, then on some computers made by digital equipment corporation that don’t exist anymore. I wrote a database system happened to just be in the right place to design parts of computers today that are still in service.
Like if you look at a PC keyboard, the old 101 key PC keyboard, you’ll notice that the main part of where you type is called the QWERTY array. That’s the session with all the letters and numbers and then there’s the function keys across the top and on the right hand side you have a numeric keypad. And then between the numeric keypad and the QWERTY array is an inverted T set of arrow keys and six function keys. They say page up, page down, insert, home and delete. And I designed those six little nodes out. And I worked on the team that figured out that the inverted T shape was the best shape for arrow keys.
Jason Ogle: So that’s pretty cool.
Jared Spool: It is cool. It is cool. My kids are not impressed by this fact at all.
Jason Ogle: Make me some dinner dad
Jared Spool: Exactly! I was in this space and I was and because we were working on the first personal computers, this was the first time that computers actually had to be what we would now refer to as usable. Up until this point, if you wanted to use the computer, you take months of training and you’d have to be an engineer of some type, you would learn how to execute programs by writing them.
And now we were shipping word processors and spreadsheets and email clients, voicemail systems and all these things and the users of them were just everyday people who were not trained and nobody knew how to build systems like that and we had to figure out how do you actually build things that don’t require training. And we take that all for granted now. You know, you open up your iPhone and the product walks you through this very simplistic model of how to use it and everything is sort of what we would refer to as intuitive. None of that existed when I started. And there were no rules on how to do that or what you had to do. And it was expected you to have weeks of training.
And you know, when I first started working on word processors, the leading word processor on the market was something called the Wag Word Processor. This was made by the Wind Corporation. And if you wanted to learn how to use that word processor, you would have to go to a week-long training session. That was the beginners, the basic word processing course. And in that week long session, through repeated drill and practice lessons, you would learn how to load a file, how to save a file, how to print a file, and how to change the ribbon on the printer. And if you wanted to learn how to do bold and italics, you had to say for the second week, which was the advanced course. And that’s how you learn computing back in the late 70s, early 80s.
Jason Ogle: Wow! Take it for granted now.
Jared Spool: Yeah. And so, I was sort of at the forefront of this thing that none of us knew anything about. Yeah, I was just being stubborn and a bit lazy. I never moved away.
Jason Ogle: That’s awesome! And you didn’t have
It’s not like you had research to lean on like you were doing it at the same time that you were building the plane while flying the plane so to speak?
Jared Spool: I was in the team that built the first usability testing lab. That was in an old air conditioning closet. Like when we needed to run usability tests, we had to turn off the air conditioning to the entire floor, so that the rumbling of the air conditioner would not disturb participants or cross up our recordings. And so, so we would piss off everybody by running usability tests, all the things that we take for granted, just running a usability test, the protocols, the way you ask questions, none of that was defined. We had to figure all that out. And today, is still done much the same way we figured out how to do it.
Jason Ogle: I’m glad you dove into the details around that. I know there’s a lot more, but it really took me back. I grew up around computers. My dad bought an Apple 2 for us in the 80s and then later on Amiga and which I really loved. That’s when that was my first foray into like coding because I learned the basics.
I want to thank you for being a part of making this intuitive for all of us, making us a lot more intuitive, you know, the hardware side of things and then of course later a lot of the software side of things too. But that’s a big deal. Thank you.
Jared Spool: Yeah. You know, I’ve got to work on some really cool projects. I got to work on stuff that ended up on the space station. I got to work on stuff that got embedded in Epcot Center. So I got my opportunities and you know, over the years, I just had opportunities to do all sorts of things. It was fine.
I was at Disney a few months ago. The team at Disney invited me to come and meet with them and take a tour. And one of the things that we took a tour of the Imagineering Library. And in the Imagineering Library, they have all of the architectural diagrams and all of the technical specifications for Epcot Center. And in there were documents that had my name on it, which was pretty awesome.
Jason Ogle: That is cool. You didn’t even know it right until…
Jared. I didn’t know until I was talking to the librarian and she’s giving me the store and I’m like, wait a second. Everything from Epcot Center is here. Yes. So that means that there was this information Plaza that was under spaceship earth. I worked on the design part.
Jason Ogle: That’s so cool. Well, that is an awesome introductions, Jared. Or there’s so much stuff that I think a lot of us don’t know about you. And so I think that’s really valuable and I’m glad that we started off this way. And let’s fast forward nearly 40 years now, in the early, you know, three decades plus where you started thinking about Center Centre and you started trying to figure out how this could be possible.
And again, as we just learned, you spent a good amount of time getting this prepared, getting this ready to make industry ready, UX design. And that’s a big deal. Do you see the process of landing a job in UX? Do you see that evolving? Do you see that getting better, getting worse? Like do you see different roles evolving in UX that we haven’t thought of yet?
Jared Spool: So there’s a lot in there. Let’s unpack that? So there’s a ton of changing, right? So when I started in this business, nobody even referred to it as UX. We referred to it as things like software, human factors, and you know, all these horrible terms that made no sense, man-machine interfaces because you know, women don’t get to interface with machines. And it’s funny because there’s parts of the world that’s still referred to MMI and still referred to human factors and things like that. But for now, we now refer to it as user experience and some form. So that’s all evolved.
But what’s very different now from when I first started was in many places, not everywhere, there’s a general recognition that better design makes for better products and services and that design is a competitive element of products and services. And that changes because when I started, we had to argue every day for our existence, right? We had to every day point out that if you let us do our job, we would bring benefit to the organization. Then people had so much trouble seeing that, seeing that we were not just taking up space somehow, but in fact we’re capable of delivering value. Over time, a lot of that has changed. And now while there are still many companies that have many managers in particular, executives that don’t understand it, don’t get it, aren’t sure why they need to think about user experience. There are a lot more to do.
And frankly, we can thank Apple for that, Apple and Amazon and now Tesla, we can thank them for making design something that produces value that makes money. That has given us a lot of leeway and now we’re in this different place. And so the skills that we need that are different are we’re not in a place where we have to justify our existence. We’re in a place where we actually have to do what we promised. And that’s a completely different ballgame.
Jason Ogle: That is interesting. Can you elaborate on that a little bit because I’m kind of identifying some of that right now?
Jared Spool: Yeah, we’ve been saying for years that if our products are well designed, we will be able to achieve whatever business goals this has much better. We can see the effects of that. We can see that in those instances when something we did was in fact better designed. Users were more successful and they were more loyal to the product or service and they were more likely to buy something. And then Apple took that and they ran with it. And they started producing products probably starting with the iPod, but then really getting there with the iPhone and beyond where it was pretty clear that it was the design of the product that was making itself. And that not only was it the design making it sell, but it was selling for two to three times as much money as comparable equipment.
You can buy an Android phone for one-third what you would pay for an Apple phone and people were still buying Apple phones. They can see the difference. They could feel the difference.
Jason Ogle: Good design is good business.
Jared Spool: Right! And maybe that’s not new. People have always spent money on luxury cars that when they could have gotten another car that does functionally this same thing for one third the price. But it was very clear when people were saying, well, okay, a phone is a phone, right? Well, no, not really. There’s this thing and now everybody wants to be a luxury brand. And I actually think it was the Apple store that really cemented this because at a time when stores were…
You have to remember what happened in 2010 when the Apple Store first opened, both Gateway and Dell had had stores and they were closing them because they were complete retail failures and instead of negotiating deals with Best Buy and at the time Circuit City and other vendors too, to just distribute their products through them. Apple opens this store and kidnaps the world.
And if you were paying attention from the business perspective, you notice this thing like. So retail stores are measured in dollars per square foot. And in 2012, the average retail store in a mall would make about $340 per square foot a year. Tiffany’s would make about $1,700 per square foot a year. Now you think about Tiffany’s, they sell very small things at very high prices and their stores aren’t very big. So the dollar per square foot makes sense that it would be very large. So where did the Apple Store fall in that range? It came in at $4,000 per square foot.
Jason Ogle: Wow!
Jared Spool: And business people everywhere paid attention to that because Apple decided that they were just going to do business differently than everybody else was doing business. And as a result they put in a genius bar and they had this very low pressure sales process and they didn’t pay their people on commission. The design of their store was designed for wind grin. You know, there were all these things that they did in the retail space, designing it from the ground up, not saying, well, we have to do what every other store does. And everybody wanted to be an Apple Store, right, every business wanted to be an Apple Store. And that’s designed approach to sales and all these things. The business world just completely flipped at that point. And said, okay, how do we do that? How do we become Apple? How do we make that happen? And now suddenly, design by the people who get that. And like I said, not everybody does, but by the people who get that a design is something that’s valued. So now they’re expecting us to go in and use what we said and create an Apple Store wide experience with the same sort of Apple store wipe returns. And most UX people are not equipped to do that. We always claimed we could do it, but actually it’s really hard.
And so there’s been a lot of sort of dramatic failures of user experience folks failing to meet the promises that they made. And then that’s ours. The businesses like what we tried to do UX thing and it didn’t work, so we’re moving on to something else. So that’s I think our biggest challenge. I have no idea. I actually answered your question.
Jason Ogle: That interesting! What I heard and what I’m processing with what you just shared is people expect good design now and that makes our jobs harder but better in a way, like right. Like it is harder because there’s a higher demand now for good design and yet it’s better because there’s a lot more opportunity now for designers to affect change. Is that kind of?
Jared Spool: Yes. But the demand comes from people who are not literate, right. So they don’t see quite, they have this sense that some design is great and some design is not so great. And that’s like somebody went and had this amazing meal at a fantastic restaurant and they had, I don’t know beef bourguignon. And it’s like, Hey Jason, you can make beef bourguignon, could you cook it up? And then now I have this expectation that yours is going to be as good as this amazing restaurant that I just had, because how hard could it be? I said they way there were beef bourguignon, then 10 minutes later, a beef bourguignon chef showed up. Let’s ignore the fact that it actually takes two and a half hours to cook. Like this miracle of making beef bourguignon somehow happens in 10 minutes. I didn’t know I was going to ask. So they obviously know how to cook it in 10 minutes.
And yeah, there’s all this stuff that happens behind the scenes that nobody sees, but that’s all hidden.
Jason Ogle: That’s right. We don’t see it. We don’t see all of the effort that these chefs, so these folks back there in the kitchen, what got them there. We don’t know that we’re just there. We were there hungry. We want a good beef bourguignon and I don’t even know what that is. That’s how fancy that probably is.
Jared Spool: It was Julia Child signature dish. Just going to put that out there.
Jason Ogle: Okay, interesting. So we don’t see what it took for them to get there to be able to make it that good. And I think this is an interesting segue into one of the questions I was going to ask you a little later, but it seems like it makes sense now. You do say, you say that everyone’s a UX designer. It’s like me saying I can make that beef bourguignon in my kitchen at home.
Jared Spool: You can
Jason Ogle: I can. It’s just not going to be as good as theirs.
Jared Spool: Sure!
Jason Ogle: How many people are mad at you for saying everyone is a UX designer and do you still believe everyone is a UX designer?
Jared Spool: I think at last count, I think it was about 4,700 people are mad at me for saying this. The instruments, you know, I don’t have a testing kit to ask.
Jason Ogle: You haven’t measured that.
Jared Spool: I haven’t measured that.
Jason Ogle: Fair enough.
Jared Spool: A lot of people are mad at me.
Jason Ogle: Why?
Jared Spool: A large portion of Twitter? Well, because they’re wrong. I can’t help that. There’s a big confusion in our space. There’s a whole bunch of things that we don’t talk about as a community that we need to be talking about and this is one of those things.
What we’re not talking about is this idea that people will make design decisions even when we’re not there and we can either say that’s a bad idea. You don’t want to do that. Or we can say that fantastic, let me help you do that better. Partially because many of us come from this world where we spent much of the last couple of decades trying to justify our existence. We feel like, well, if they think anybody can do it, they’ll never hire us.
Jason Ogle: Self-preservation,
Jared Spool: right. The problem that we have is that we are in a situation where the world has changed and we’re not adjusting to it. And the people that we’re working with now or off making decisions and they’re off trying things. And one of the things we don’t realize is every decision that gets made about a product is a design decision, right? Developer decides to, you know, he can’t wait for the UX person to tell him how to lay out the screenings, so he takes his own stab at it after all, how hard can it be, right? And he vomits the database onto the screen. And those were all designed decisions.
And from his perspective, it’s as good a design as any because he can’t tell the difference. He’s not literary. Literacy is basically understanding good and bad, right? And he doesn’t understand the difference between good and bad. So he puts together this design and it’s not good. We know it’s not good, but from his perspective, it’s better than anything he’s ever done before, so he thinks it’s great. And so, he’s happily doing that and we can say, you know what, never do that again. Let me do all the databases. But the problem is there aren’t enough of us and that’s slows things down. We’ve got product managers who are looking at several alternatives and one would produce a better user experience, but it would take longer to ship.
And the other one would be faster to ship, but it will produce a crappy user experience. Well, if they can’t tell the difference between a good user experience and a bad user experience, all they want to see is one takes longer and one is faster, but it may be stupid depicts the one that takes longer. Why would they pick that if it’s the same in every other dimension?
And so the issue is that we have really poor design winters and we have no tools in our community for disseminating better design literacy. That’s not something we talk about. Yeah, we talk about all sorts of things. Should we be skeuomorphic? Should we be flat? You know, what tools should we use? But we don’t talk about…
Jason Ogle: Should be code
Jared Spool: Should be code, but we don’t talk about should coders design, right? We don’t talk about should product managers understand the difference between users and how would we get them up to speed and deal? And do we accept the fact that they are already designers, but they’re not very good ones. We’re going to continue to try and create this wall where it’s like, that’s our job. Let us do this.
And you know, the arguments I get to this are, well, just because I cooked something, it doesn’t make me a chef. Well, no, because the definition of a chef is someone who runs a kitchen. The definition of someone who cooks something is a cook, you know, just because I put a band aid on it doesn’t make me a doctor. No, it doesn’t make you a doctor because to be a doctor you have to be licensed by the state and get past your medical exam. But it does make you someone who’s taking care of your health.
And you know, we have people who are designers. We’re not licensed professionals. Anyone can say they’re a designer. So what’s the difference between people who say they’re designer and people who don’t? There is no difference, right? What’s the difference between someone who sketches out a screen but has never called themselves a designer and someone who sketches out and gets paid to be a designer? The only differences somebody got paid to do it.
And so, all these people there, and if you take this even further and say, well look, anybody who influences to design is in fact a designer. So not only are product managers and developers, designers, but that person in regulatory compliance who tells us that we have to put this big I except button on the screen, right? They’re designing. And if we think about it even further, the person in HR that screens people for our team and just tells us whether we have a job record or not, they’re actually affecting the user experience because if we had a couple more really skilled designers, we’d get a different user experience than if we don’t. So those HR people who are giving us candidates to look at for hiring, they are designing, they just don’t know their designing.
And the person in finance is allocating the budgets for our project. They’re designing, they just don’t know they’re designing. And if we could actually show them how the affect of their decisions, affects the product we produce, they might make those decisions differently. And this is actually what’s design is, is rendering intent. It’s I have an intention to produce a great product, how will I go through the steps to make that product happen? Well, as part of the steps is I need to find designers to bring onto the team who have the right skills to produce the stuff. Well, HR is going to play a role in that. And if I need to have the budget to be able to do user research, then finance is going to have a role in that. And if they don’t understand how spending money on user research create creates a better design. I’m not going to get the design I want to build.
So all those people are designers. And once we acknowledge that the world changes. The world says, okay, how do we make some better designers? How do we make ourselves better designers? Right? So the whole quote is not just everyone is a designer. The whole quote is “everyone’s a designer, but not everyone is a good designer. However, everyone can become a better designer.”
Jason Ogle: I like that
Jared. And that’s the thing that I think everybody can start to get behind.
Jason Ogle: I like that a lot Jared. That really resonates and it makes sense to me. And I agree with you. I’m a part of a new team over here in Denver. As you know, the products that we have and that have been built have all been basically built by engineers, and I’ll be honest with you, I’m pretty impressed with what they’ve been able to do to create this super robust product, but there’s obviously a lot of need for good designers to get involved and to affect change. So it’s really interesting. A big part of our job is education. It’s the literacy factor. Like you just said, it’s we’re trained to do the work, but we’re also trying to educate and bring value. And so there’s that tug of war there. It’s like we want to be shipping, we want to be delivering and showing value, but sometimes you have to be patient. Just be the value that a UX team, especially a new UX team in an environment like this can bring.
You have also said that design is a team sport. And I liked that a lot because it is, and I think one of the wins we’ve been getting is doing these heuristic evaluations, bringing the product managers in, bringing the engineers in like and doing this together as a team. And it’s been really impactful to uncover all of these problems, isolate them, and uncover them as a team. So I really, I like how you say design is, it is a team sport. And I’m serious. If design is a team sport and it is, how does the team win?
Jared Spool: By delivering the outcome inward. So we’ve started using the word outcome. You actually, the phrase UX outcome to define a change that happens in somebody’s life. Hopefully, it changed for the better. Unfortunately, not always, right? And when we were working with a new team, we often start with, if we did a fantastic job delivering whatever it is. So if I was working with you on User Defenders podcast, I would start with, okay, if you and I do a fantastic job at this podcast, how is someone’s life made better? And we would start with that. That’s the first conversation have. We were starting with the change we want to see in the world, our intention. And then we can come back and say, okay, well what do we have to cover and what are the important things to talk about and how are we going to distribute it and how are we going to, you know, promote it and make sure the right people get it? And all of those things become part of the user experience, right?
And how are we even going to find time to do the whole thing? You know, and scheduling becomes part of the user experience. And so we start with that end goal and we work backwards. And people there’s a lot of talk about outcomes these days. We differentiate user outcomes from business outcomes. Business outcomes are reflection of user outcomes. If you do it the other way around, you get yourself into trouble, right?
If we say our goal is to put out a great podcast that people not only love, they share it with other people. Then the business outcome is that we’re going to get, you know, 5% more listeners. But if we start with why our goal was to get 5% more listeners because that’s how we make money then then maybe we would end up with produced a great podcast, but we would, might also end up with some sort of dark patterns of let’s trick people into downloading this thing they don’t want to listen to. But if we want it, but if we focused on improving someone’s life, then we don’t end up with the dark patterns. It naturally coordinates them off and we can get to business outcomes that support the UX outcome instead of trying to justify a business outcome with some sort of made up UX outcome that may or may not get the result. It makes sense.
Jason Ogle: It does.
Jared Spool: I love it when I make sense. It doesn’t happen that often.
Jason Ogle: I know we’re kind of rounding third here a little bit. Proverbially speaking, Jared.
Jared Spool: I see
Jason Ogle: You are too excited my friend.
Jared Spool: I have no idea. You have to sports ball thing, isn’t it? You were talking about basketball or something, right?
Jason Ogle: Yeah, that’s it. So I’m curious about design leadership because the importance thankfully has become very more recently but a lot more recognized in our field. What makes a great design leader?
Jared Spool: How they dress? What makes a great design leader?
Jason Ogle: Cooling moustache.
Jared Spool: Yeah. So we have an advisor at Center Centre. He’s the advisor for the school named James Tucker. He teaches our leadership course. And the definition of leader that he taught me is my favorite of all. The thing that makes someone a leader that differentiates a leader from anybody else is that leaders have at least one follower. That’s it. Right. And if you think of leadership as you’ve got someone who is willingly following you. So leadership and management are different.
Management is an appointed role. The organization makes you a manager, right? And you’re not a manager until they make you one and suddenly you’re a manager. You’re not the boss of me. Actually, they just made me the boss. Oh, okay. I guess you’re the boss, right? Yeah. That organization just, that has a role and managers walk around with a neon sign on their forehead that says, I can get you fired. And even if the manager is the nicest person in the world and they never would ever think about firing you, everybody still sees the neon sign on their head. Everybody who works for them sees the neon sign in their head because it’s just natural to the position. It’s an authoritative position in an organization that pays your salary. And if they suddenly decided to stop paying your salary, you know, that person has a key role with it.
But leaders don’t work that way. They get influenced because you want to follow that. I mean, let’s take the very recent US elections where there are, you know, in the democratic side, there are these two polarized, there are moderates and there are progressive. And moderates have Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who were sort of capturing their hearts and minds. And the Progressive’s had, you know, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris and Joe Biden and even Michael Bloomberg sorta. And there’s not clear if anybody was following him who wasn’t actually paid to follow him. But that’s a whole different story, right? So he was more like a manager. And not so much a leader. That’s a great example.
And the people who are choosing these folks, they get very wrapped up in their choice and they are there because for some reason they have chosen to follow that person. And they like what they’re saying. They think that what they’re saying makes sense and that’s who they’re going to choose to follow. And everybody’s got a different reason. And this is how it works in the workplace too. You know, if I come up with this idea, Hey, we should do a design system. What if we were to implement a design system and you’re like, that’s a stupid idea. Then you’re not the follower for my leadership on the design system.
On the other hand, if you said, Hey, you know what, that would be like that would be makes somewhat sense. Then now I’m leading you and now we’re together. We’re a thing and we can go to somebody else to, Hey, we’re thinking about designing systems and either they follow us or they don’t. Right, and maybe at some point someone would roll power, a manager might say, Hey, Jared and Jason, they got this idea for a design system. We should do that. Let’s listen to what they said. Then we borrow their role tower and for a moment, we’ve got everybody’s attention because the person who can get everybody fired just said, listen to Jared and Jason, but only for a moment because the minute that person leaves the room, everyone’s going to turn around and go back to doing their thing, if they don’t think this design system, this is awesome as we think the design system is. So anyone can be a leader in their organization if they have an idea that people want to follow and they sort of push that vision of that idea forward.
Jason Ogle: When you were talking about how people willingly follow leaders and people forcefully follow managers, I just thought I had like a visual in my head. It’s like the leash versus the magnet. Yeah, that’s exactly right.
Jared Spool: And you see this, one of the other things we’re talking about so many things that people don’t know. One of the things a lot of people don’t know is that I spent a year in the Obama White House and when I was there, Dennis McDonogh was our manager. He was the chief of staff. And when Dennis asked you to do something, you did it. And Dennis, you know, he had written in very neon letters on his forehead, I can get you fired. And that was the case, right? That was absolutely true.
President Obama was the leader. He had formed the group. We were in the US digital service. And he had formed this group and we were there to meet his legacy and to deliver better digital services to all of the American public, and he believes in that and we believed in him, but when we needed something that needed role power, we would go to Dennis McDonogh.
Steve jobs – Let’s talk about Steve jobs. Steve jobs, for all intents and purposes, if you talk to anybody was a horrible manager. People hated working for Steve Jobs, right? He was such a horrible manager that in orientation at Apple on your first day of work, they would tell you, if you found yourself standing at the elevator and Steve jobs walks up to get on the elevator, go find another elevator. Don’t get on the elevator with Steve because if he’s having a bad day, you may not get off that elevator as an Apple employee. Right? Okay. So people were petrified of it.
On the other hand, as a leader, people would walk across the earth for the man, right? They would follow him anywhere. They were so in love with his leadership.
But now, let’s look at Tim cook. Tim cook, for all intents and purposes, anybody I’ve ever talked to. People love him as a manager. He is an incredible manager, helps make the organization effective. He’s thoughtful. He’s, you know, he will listen. He’s amazing manager on certain issues, privacy, social justice, human equality. He is an incredible leader. He’s done amazing things. Technical leadership, I think the jury’s still out, right? Their products [inaudible 00:41:24]. They’re not the same. They don’t have the same thing. Maybe the most impressive thing is sort of what Apple has been doing with Apple pay, but that’s about it, right? Right now, it’s not the same leadership thought leadership that we saw under the Steve jobs.
Jason Ogle: ABL – Always Be Learning. And that’s a critical skill to this ever evolving field and it’s something that I often emphasize to the Defenders listening. What is the most important thing designers today should be learning?
Jared Spool: How to be better learners. The one skill that if you’re always improving it, everything else sort of comes along with it, right? And so, we go through school. In a lot of schools where go through school where there’s only one answer, whatever answer you’re going to put on the task is the right answer. And that helps us with a certain type of learning. But that doesn’t help us with all the types of learning we need to do.
At Center Centre, we teach using an experiential learning process. So students aren’t ever given tests or never, there’s never a test. But there are competencies you have to demonstrate you are competent and that demonstration is laid out, but there’s no right answer per se. You just have to prove to your full time faculty member, the people we call facilitators, you have to prove you’re a facilitator. I think you ingest Ivan on the program. She’s one of our great facilitator.
Jason Ogle: Yes. Great interview.
Jared Spool: Yeah. So you have to prove to the facilitator that you are competent at these things. So for example, in the user research practices course, there are five competencies. You have to be able to demonstrate that you can observe a usability test and take notes and bring them and contribute to the synthesis of that. You have to ask the first one, you have to plan out a series of user research, usability tests usually. You have to recruit participants for user research. We actually require that everybody learn how to recruit because it turns out that that’s a great way to learn about your users. You have to prove that you can moderate usability test sessions and you have to prove that you can run a session where you synthesize the results that people have observed in user research. So you have to demonstrate all five of those competencies to graduate.
There’s no test per se. You literally just have to show us that you’ve done it. And so we give you lots of projects for you to do that kind of work. And not only will you do it once, but you’ll do it twice, three times, four times. So you’ll have practiced it a handful of times before you graduate. And each one of those times is on real project work that you can put in your portfolio and share. That’s a very different type of learning than we’re going to give you this recipe for doing a usability test and you just have to repeat back the recipe. But we’re not going to actually have you do it. We’re not going to have you do it with real participants on a real work where things can go wrong and you have to figure out how to recover from those things. So that’s a different type of learning.
As designers, we have to learn about our users. We have to learn about how to talk to our users, how to interact with them. As designers, we have to learn about vulnerability. We have to learn about the fact that some of the stuff we work on is very hard. I mean, the work that I did in the White House was the hardest work I’ve ever done. We were making decisions that affected literally millions of people. And some of those people were very vulnerable people.
And you know when you work on, like I worked with the team that was working at the VA that was trying to fix the scheduling system that was trying to get vets into getting mental health appointments. When we got there, the waiting list for getting a mental health appointment was six months and there were vets literally shooting themselves and committing suicide in the parking lot of hospitals because they couldn’t get an appointment and be seen by a doctor.
And so, we are literally dealing with life and death scenarios. How do we prevent that from happening? And so you have to deal with the fact that you know, you have a hard day at work. Oh my God, this is a hard day at work. How do you work on that stuff? And now, we have to learn about second order effects and third order effects. How is something that we think is actually going to improve people’s lives, how could that be used to hurt other people, right? How do we create something that makes it great for our friends to connect in such a way that it doesn’t allow the dissemination of information by bad actors to actually sway and potentially destroyed democracy, right? How do we learn how to build services for people that doesn’t create a bigger divide between the most wealthy and the most vulnerable in our society, right?
So we always have to be learning things and what we have to be learning that just gets more bigger and more complicated. So if we are constantly focusing on our learning skills, we will be able to handle these bigger challenges.
Jason Ogle: Learning how to learn is a critical skill. Absolutely. And I also recommend defenders checkout Center Centre because they are doing great work. They are producing some amazing real world designers that are industry ready. Like that’s one of the things, like you said that the hands on aspect is really, really difficult to get unless you’re in an environment like that. So I highly recommend checking it out. We’ll have links in the show notes.
And last question for you, Jared. Unfortunately, we skipped our superhero stuff, but I think you might be okay with that.
Jared Spool: I’m fine with that. I’m not much of a superhero.
Jason Ogle: Yes you are. So my last question for you, and I know for a fact that there’s a lot of listeners that Defenders listening who are trying to break in, they’re trying to get their foot in the door into UX and they’re struggling, they’re getting ghosted by recruiters, which I hate that. Like have the decency to get back to somebody and at least let them off the hook. Please, if you’re a recruiter. But there’s a lot of talent. You don’t have to tell them why. It’s nice if you could, but at least just let them off the hook. But there’s a lot of that happening. There’s little heartbreak. I mean, it is an emotional roller coaster. I went through this just recently myself and it is an emotional, it’s emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually exhausting, this whole process. So, I’m curious, what’s your best advice for these folks? They’re trying to break in and especially those who keep hearing no. Or keep getting, you know, again, ghosted in the process.
Jared Spool: So there’s a couple of things. First, it’s not your fault, right? This is not you. This is a badly designed process, right? Hiring processes are designed processes and, but they’re not often thoughtfully designed and a hiring process that goes to you or cut you loose with a form letter without giving you any reason or any way that you could say, wait a second, you didn’t even ask me the most important thing, right? Or a hiring process that starts with, well, before we have a human talk to you, you have to prove to a computer that you are psychologically sound by doing this weird ass task, right? Yeah. Right. All of these things are designed but they’re not thoughtfully designed.
And you know, design is the rendering of intent and is the intent of the hiring people to actually turn people off of your organization and off of you. You know, because what happens the first time you bumped into somebody at a conference or a meetup and they say, so you seem pretty nice, who are you? And they say, I’m such and such, Oh, I work at ABC Corp. Say, Oh, I applied to ABC Corp. You guys were right jerks. You ghosted me, you made me take this test. You didn’t tell me why I didn’t get it and you never asked me anything about the work I can do. Right? And then you have the gall to get up in the front of the meet up and say, we’re trying to hide her. Please, join our company. Why would I ever want to work for you? Why would I want to buy your product? Right? So it’s not you. Right? So that’s the first thing you have that you have to realize.
And the second thing is that this notion that the way you get a job is you look for a job ad and it has instructions at the bottom, and you follow the instructions that you send in your resume and your portfolio and you send them the exact same resume and portfolio you send everywhere else because they didn’t tell you to do anything different. This is fundamentally broken. You’re basically entering a lottery. And that’s not the way people get jobs. The way people get jobs is through relationships. It’s through, you know, somebody who knows you and they also know somebody who’s hiring and they say, Hey, hiring person who we’re friends. I’m friends with you and I actually met this other person and I’ve seen their work and it’s pretty good and you should look at them and that referral makes a difference.
You know, there was a time not that long ago when if you wanted to apply for a job, you had to bring a letter of reference, you had to bring a written letter that was from somebody that the hiring manager knew or somebody they would have some sort of respect for. And that letter would say, how’s that person knew you were a person of good quality, a good character and you would do a good job. If you didn’t have that, you weren’t even considered.
Well, we’ve gotten rid of that whole notion of a letter of reference and we replaced it with these automated systems, which are just, you know, basically buying a lottery ticket and hoping the tracking system picks your name and the hiring manager sees you and somehow understands that you could do the job and you get a chance to actually share what you actually could do versus what your paper says you could do and so we have to fix that.
A lot of our work recently has been working with companies because here’s the dirty little secret. If you actually build a great hiring experience, you make your products more competitive because you spend less time hiring because a lot of the problems with this hiring process, I just had a hiring manager the other day tell me that for any given posting, he makes, he has 200 or 300 applicants and he’s filling one job out of this 200, 300 people and he takes the effort to look at every single one of those applicants. And while that’s okay, it’s a huge waste of time. If we can get you an applicant that can match what you need faster, you don’t have to talk to 300 people, you just need to fill someone for that job. You get that job filled and then we’ll work on the next job and we’ll work on the next job. And if you bring in great people and they prove to the organization that by having great people, we can produce better products, they’re going to be like get more people and so we’re going to grow and that’s what’s been happening. But it’s huge.
The other thing that you need to understand is right now because of the evolution of our field, we are biased towards more senior people. So when people are hiring, they have not built an organization that can effectively absorb junior people. People who are early in their career, who are working on their first jobs, they’re happy to get any job, but they need help, they need training, they need assistance. And everybody wants someone who on day one can hit the ground running and can just be contributing every day. And that’s great. But what you end up doing is you end up building these teams that have all seen your people in them, but the senior people are doing like production level work because when you get a big enough team, there’s a certain percentage of work which is basically just keeping the wheels spinning.
You know, producing wire frames, running user research sessions, and sure you want people who know how to do the job, but they’re a highly repetitive, which is not a bad thing, but they don’t take skills to do the 100 time or the 200 times the 300time that you didn’t have the first 10 times. And because they don’t take skills, having senior people do that work is not an effective use of personnel. You want your senior people solving problems that no one’s ever solved before because they have the most experience and capability to do that. You want junior people to come in. So what you want to do is figure out what is that 10, 15, 20% of your people’s work that you could give to someone who has less skills. But once you train them how to do it, they would be so happy just getting that experience under their belt and being part of this team and getting that and doing that work. And then you could no longer do that work and you can move on to a bigger thing that no one’s dealing with because you don’t have time because we spend so much of our time creating wireframes and creating sort of run of the mill user research and all these things that has to be done, but it doesn’t have to be done by our best people. And we can find people who are quite competent, who are quite capable, who will do a fantastic job, who aren’t the best designers in the world and are the best researchers in the world.
So if we can do that, then we can take the best designers on our team and the best researchers on our team and put them into the hard problems. Let’s go find out how vulnerable people are not getting what they need from our product. Let’s go figure out how to design for this problem that no one in our industry has ever designed for before. And if all we’re doing is copying a feature from a competitor, we can let one of our more junior people copies of these are from the competitor. We need to help organizations do this.
So unfortunately, the big answer to these people who are just starting out is, we’re not ready for you. That’s dead. Build the relationships. Go to the meetups, go to any inexpensive conference you can get your butt to, of which there are many. Meet people. Talk to them. Volunteer in a way that you would be visible to the organization. Like you’re the one who greets people at the door and talk to people. Ask them about what their work is. Ask them what the challenges they have. Ask them what they look for when they hire somebody. Get to know them. Get them to be interested in what you’re interested in because you’re actually interested in what they’re interested in, find that mutualness and then develop a relationship. And all of this takes time.
You know, one of the things we do in Center Centre is we don’t wait till the students graduate just to start helping them find a job. We do it on day one. We are always bringing industry people through the school. We hold our design leadership and strategy workshops at the school’s facility. So there are always designed leaders coming in to take workshops who are right there on the same floor with all the students. We open up the students’ courses to the public. We get projects from companies for the students to work on and then have to work with the teams. So by the time you graduate, you’ve met hundreds of design professionals who have all come through some facet of the program and interacted with the students and have taken an interest in the students because they’re seeing what their work is, seeing what their capability is and they’re like, Hey, when you’re ready to look for a job, here’s my card. You come talk to us. I’ll see what I can do.
And so our students all had jobs within six weeks because they’ve been making these contacts for a while.
Jason Ogle: You know, building a network while they’re learing.
Jared Spool: Exactly! And that what has to happen then you need to be doing that all through your education.
Jason Ogle: That’s an awesome answer. Definitely resonates with me because I honestly like I’m still thankful to, my turnaround was pretty quick. I was laid off and I was told in November I was laid off officially in January. I had an offer letter within two weeks at this other job and it was because of my network. It was because of reaching out. It is because of knowing who I know there and I know…
Jared Spool: I remember because you told me about this and then I said, Hey, did you talk to this person? You’re like, I should talk to that person. I think you already knew him.
Jason Ogle: Yup. Thanks Doug Collins.
Jared Spool: Yeah, I popped a note to Doug and I said, “You know Jason’s looking.” He’s like, really? And so you know, and partially it’s because I’ve become this nexus because I use my Twitter to connect people up and so I sort of know who’s got jobs at any given point and I try to use that network as effectively as possible and help people connect. I can’t do it all the time but I do my best. And but the reality is that that’s how it started. That’s how people get jobs. You talk to 9 out of 10 professionals in our field and 9 out of those 10 will tell you that they’ve got their job because someone connected to them, to someone else, not because they entered the resume watery.
Jason Ogle: Yup. Absolutely! And I want to say thank you to you also Jared for your part in that and for me personally and I know for many others and I think this is probably a good time to wrap it up and just thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me to share your wisdom with all of us Defenders. And you are a superhero. You claim not to be, but you are because you have made a difference and you continue to for longer than many of us can imagine, longer than many of us that have been even thinking about doing this stuff.
So thank you for all of the lives you’ve changed because you may not realize all of the retweets you do have people looking for jobs that you made a job board recently as well, and the education Center Centre like you changing lives. And I don’t know if you’ve ever really thought about it in that way, but people’s livelihoods, people are able to take care of their families, people are able to help the needy because of the work you’re doing. So thank you so much. And I want to say last but not least, fight on my friend.
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