Last week we caught up with Joe Natoli, best known around these parts as instructor of the very popular UX Fundamentals online course. We spoke about UX strategy, careers, success, mistakes, and a bunch of other stuff.
You can listen to this episode directly in your browser—just click the “play” button:
Matt: Welcome to the UX Mastery podcast. I have with me Joe Natoli, welcome Joe.
Joe: Thank you for having me Matthew, I appreciate it.
M: Very good. So Joe, you’ve been around the UX scene for a while now … why don’t you tell us your story; what you’ve done and how you came to discover the world of User Experience and how you came to teach it?
J: Well it’s an interesting journey. When I was in college, what’s funny about that is all the things we were learning at the time, all the things my instructors forcefully drilled into my head, we just called it all design. But I was very lucky in that I went to Kent State University and it was a very rigorous design program and the emphasis was all on Design as a problem-solving discipline. And the focus was largely on the sort of two-way communication that happens when you design something. When people look at it and react with it. And of course this was on the printed page for the most part. You know, is it communicating to them? Does it meet their expectations? Does it speak to the things that they expect? Does it motivate them to act? You know, how is that stuff emotionally and psychologically received? In other words all the tenets that we know right now as User Experience were sort of there, we just didn’t call ’em that.
M: So there are probably a lot of people here agreeing with you, nodding their heads and thinking he’s totally right; this UX thing is just a buzzword. Is that fair? Is it design just reinvented for the sake of marketing?
J: Well, in some respects, is it a buzzword? Maybe. A lot of times what happens over time is something gets clarified and you know, renamed for the purpose of doing a better job of explaining what it is and why it matters. So I also think that when that happens, there is a lot more specific focus on “Ok well what does this actually mean?” the problem with design, in general, is that it’s had a long-standing perception problem. Especially at the time when I first started practising it, which at this point was about 26 years ago.
It was seen as, it’s a visual, it’s decoration, it’s what you see on the screen.
M: So it has baggage?
J: Yeah absolutely. And I think when the sort of name change started happening, we started calling it Experience Design or User Experience or Usability started to become a word that was on everybody’s lips. I think it was a good thing in that it got people thinking OK this isn’t just about decoration, it’s not just about making things look good. It’s about whether that work accomplishes anything, y’know? For the people that are creating it or the people that are consuming it and using it in some way. In two-way interaction once we started doing things on screen as opposed to on paper it became a hell of a lot more important. It’s a totally different paradigm now people can interact and use what they see in a way that they couldn’t previously.
M: Because you got your Design grounding in the print world, correct?
M: So how do you think that experience has shaped what you do today?
J: I think that not only has it shaped what I do today, it informs everything that I do. I’m fond of saying, and this is going to sound like heresy to a lot of people and that’s ok. I firmly believe that the principles of design, period, for instance if you go out right now and buy the book ‘The Universal Principles of Design’; those things originated a very long time ago – they were true then and they’re true now. So to me the principles that dictate what makes good print design are by large the same principles that dictate excellent user interface design, user experience design; with digital products as opposed to physical products. Massimo Vignelli said if you can design one thing well, you can design anything well. That’s what I believe.
I believe design is design is design is design. You are either applying those principles in what you’re doing, or you’re not. And if you’re not then chances are you’re just decorating.
M: Yeah right. So tell me a little bit more about how you made your way into designing the User Experience of products for, you know, you’ve worked for a tonne of big companies over the years.
J: Timing and luck to some degree. I was working for a large advertising agency called Doner at the time and the internet was starting to be in full swing where business were starting to pay attention to it and there were rumblings of “OK maybe this matters to us”. And this was just beyond the point where the internet was grey screen, black type and that was it. It really got my attention, I thought this is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. I won’t claim that I knew anything about it, I certainly didn’t, but as it progressed and you started seeing rudimentary websites and then you started seeing them evolve. And you started seeing businesses try to stake claims. I was trying to no avail to convince the ownership, the executive leadership of this firm that the internet was something we needed to pay attention to. You know, interactive design, all this stuff, like hey we need to think about this. And they were older and a little less open minded and the response was kinda like “OK kid, go away and make me coffee or something”.
So I just sorta struck out and being young and as such, relatively over-confident I said Fine I’m going to go start my own firm. Because I was either naïve enough or brave enough to think that I could do it. So that’s what I did. I, quite frankly, took a couple of people with me and I said Alright we are now going to build this thing up and we’re going to call it an Experience Design firm and we’re going to do this internet thing. And at first year, I’ll be honest, we had no idea really what was possible. We were learning as we went because all this was very new. So I would sit in a meeting with a prospect and they would say “can you do this and can you do this?” Of course your answer is “Absolutely! Of course” and you go back to the office and you look at four people and you go “Ok, how we gonna do this?” “Does anybody know how to do this?”
M: And that’s classic sales, when you were in the Wild West of the early days of the internet of course that’s a good business idea… as long as you can make good on the promise.
J: Yeah and thing was, I’ll say this as well, it’s gonna make me sound maybe smarter than I really am or was at the time – it goes back to the principle we just talked about with design I really believed it was the same thing in a different execution medium. I really did, in my heart, so we started doing small projects, got some expertise, got some proof that maybe that was truly the case. And we were lucky in that the timing hit right about the time of the sort dot.com boom hit happened. So we got all kinds of work from all sorts of new ventures and everyone was really willing to take risks. The market was such that it was all about risk-taking, you know. Companies were being valued on their burn rate! So it was just an extraordinarily good time to do that. And as time went on we slowly jettisoned the print stuff and focussed exclusively on websites. From websites we went to “Well ok, we’ve got this piece of internal software we’re really struggling with, do you think you guys could help us with that?” and that was another light bulb moment. Different paradigm, different product but wow, same problems, same obstacles and I’m thinking this is really, something to tackle. And I think, what I figured out, during that time and of course over the years is that where I’m in a position to best serve people, companies, organisations, teams is being in that spot, where I can be the objective person in the room give guidance, give advice, be a sounding board, that’s where I’m most valuable that’s where I feel good, you know when things are really happening and I think historically, that’s where they find the most value from me. So over time I just sort of started focussing solely on “consulting”. Because it just felt like OK the longer I do it, you know you just get this increasing feeling of this is what I’m supposed to be doing because it’s helping people, there are real results, you know there’s nothing worse than spending a lot of time and effort on something and sort of not knowing whether it actually worked. You know, whether it helped anybody; whether it solved some problems. To me if there is no solution it’s just tough to keep going.
M: Of course.
J: You know, you don’t know whether you’re accomplishing anything or not for anybody.
M: So, let’s fast forward to 12 months ago to your UX fundamentals course launched on Udemy and that’s been pretty successful by all accounts – congratulations there. So tell me a little bit about the process of pulling that together and how it’s been received.
J: Yeah that was really something. There was no possible way I would’ve expected the response that I got. 30,000 students at this point, even to say that out loud is just unreal. This was a case where my wife, actually, said to me one day, she sort of found out about Udemy and she’s my business partner in another venture called Twofold which is a web and App design firm which is essentially hers and I help her. She said you should check this out because you’ve been doing these presentations and things and talking to clients for years and giving advice for years, maybe that content is valuable in that format. So I looked at it and I thought “OK, this is probably worth a try”. I thought I’ll take a shot at it, probably spend about somewhere between 4 and 6 months to put it all together and we’ll see what happens, you know. I did and Udemy promoted the heck out of it. I have to give a lot of credit to them and it just sort of took off and I thought Wow there’s a hunger. What it really told me is that there’s a real hunger out there for people to get a handle on what this is.
And think there’s 2 camps. Obviously there’s younger people who are just starting out or they’re in college and they’re trying to supplement their knowledge and I think there’s also a lot of people who are contemplating career changes. So the thing that I have to stress is that you put all this content out there and it’s come from two things. It comes from experience, right? That’s sort of a given. But it also comes from a heck of a lot of work that’s been done before by other practitioners, other people. I mean I don’t think there are too many of us who haven’t read Jesse James Garrett’s book ‘The Elements of User Experience’ that was a mind-blower when I read it. When I read Steve Krug’s book ‘Don’t Make Me Think’ mind-blower. My head just exploded. This is so right! So you share what you know, obviously, and what you’ve learned from other people and it just sort of took off.
M: Great. So you’ve got a new book that’s coming out, it’s called ‘Think First’. I had a bit of a look through it. And there was a quote that jumped out at me and it was “you will not find inspiration looking at the work of other designers”. Now I know a lot of people who probably spend a tonne of time browsing through dribble and CSS gallery sites and probably have a bookmark list of a tonne of sites they go through for inspiration. Tell me why you think that’s a dumb idea.
J: Well, I’ll explain it. And designers, back when I was in print design, print designers were the exact same way, First thing you’re gonna do is pick up How magazine or something and see what other people are doing. I’m not sure but I think it’s encouraged. This is something, another lightbulb moment where I read this somewhere and I wrote it down in my sketch book. “DO NOT LOOK AT OTHER DESIGNERS” and I remembered it and it’s always stuck with me. The reason it’s a problem is because you’re looking at the end result, but with no context. You don’t know what the initial problem was that was meant to be solved. You don’t know anything about the audience; you don’t know anything about the organisation, or what they were trying to accomplish. You don’t anything about what matters to the people who are using this App or interacting with this interface. You don’t know anything about the process in other words. And the process is the most valuable part; I say over and over again – “Great user experience starts, if you’re a designer or developer, it starts between your ears”. It has less to do with what you actually do on the screen than it does with how you think about those, in other words, how you think about context. Another thing that I say all the time – to my students and to anyone who will listen, is “Context is Everything”, if you’re operating without context, if you don’t know what the person’s situation is when they are using this thing, if you don’t know what they expect from it; what they need to get out of it; what they need to accomplish, what really constitutes success for them, right? As opposed to just task completion. If you don’t know what kind of value is supposed to come back to the business so it can stay in business and keep producing the product and keep making people happy, all you’re looking at is decoration. You can look at it and you can say it looks nice, it looks good, you may personally get a reaction where you go “I really like what they did there, that’s really cool”. But “that’s really cool” isn’t something you can hang your hat on in terms of providing value for people. Do you know what I mean, did I answer the question?
M: Yeah I think so. The title of the book though, I suppose is related; ‘Think First’. What are the alternatives do you suggest people don’t do if they’re not thinking; what are some of the mistakes that you see people making other than browsing Gallery sites?
J: I think it’s a lack of time. A lack of time and effort spent figuring out what the real problem is in the first place. It’s a lack of asking ‘Why?’. All of us who have done any kind of client work absolutely know the scenario where you go into the room, before you even go into the room, you get a request that says “We need to redesign this and it needs to include this list of stuff.” And that’s typically because it’s easier for people to jump to solutions, right?
So a client has an issue they get the idea that something needs to be redesigned they’ll jump to the quickest thing that they think solves the problem. What I’ve learned over the years is that very rarely is the problem that’s identified at the very beginning of the process the actual problem. It’s part of it, and usually it’s a symptom. Yeah there may be a problem with the interface where people are confusing actions, or the primary action isn’t obvious or the path forward through a process isn’t obvious. But a lot of times there’s something that is a lot smaller and a lot more distributed and a lot more widespread that is really causing the abandonment or the data input inaccuracy or whatever it is that’s happening. It’s usually death by a thousand cuts; it’s a lot of small things. And sometimes it’s nothing more than a label, y’know, on a field. Or a piece of instruction that’s written in a confusing way. Or the language that’s on a button. In other words we have a tendency to sort of look at everything “OK we need to redesign this whole App, this whole website, this whole system!” and it’s not always true. So to me asking “Why?” is the probably the most healthy thing you can do. When somebody says “We need to do this, this and this”, my very first question is always “Why?”.
M: So to play devil’s advocate, because that’s what I’m good at, a lot of organisations don’t like hearing those questions.
J: No they don’t.
M: So how do you handle that situation where they are going to get frustrated with you, you know. “we’ve asked you to come in and do this thing and it doesn’t look like you’re going to do it easily; you’re frustrating me; you’re asking a lot of annoying questions; I don’t want to confront the possible answers.” How do you tackle those kind of organisational and bureaucratic hurdles?
J: Well, what I say is always this, and it’s always the same response and believe me, I’ve encountered that plenty of times. What I say is “Look, it’s entirely up to you, what we do or don’t do, you are the boss you’re paying the bills, you’re footing all the expense for this and you’re the one taking the risk. But we can do one of two things, we can either solve this in a way that actually solves your bottom line problem; which either means you’re not making money or you’re not saving money. We can either make sure we define a clear path to doing that and make sure that it happens; or we can throw some effort at some things and hope for the best. If we don’t answer these questions, we’re doing the latter. And I’m ok with doing that if that’s what you want to do. I’ll tell ya that in my experience I know how this movie ends, I’ve been down that road before; I’ve seen it before where it’s difficult, it’s painful and you will not be happy with the end results. All I can do in this position is tell you what I think and it’s up to you what you want to do with that information”. Not in a way that’s disrespectful, I take great pains to say, it’s not because I’m the smartest person in the room it’s because if you’ve done anything long enough you see both the successes and failures and with the failures you see the same patterns over and over and over again. You know, so, all you can do is voice that. And they’re going to take it for what it’s worth. I will tell you that I’m at a point now where I’m a lot pickier about what I take on and what I don’t quite honestly. Because those situations are painful for me as well. So if I think this is going to be a tremendous waste of everyone’s time and effort and money, I won’t take the gig.
M: So what advice would you give to the guys, the readers of UX Mastery and the guys who are taking your course that are generally mostly falling into the beginner camp and aren’t in a position to advise in strategy because they haven’t had that kind of experience. What kind of advice to you give to people who are trying to break in and are just trying to get some runs on the board?
J: Well I think it’s certainly a much harder decision to make right when you don’t have that much experience. I think it’s good – I think you need to have some of those experiences, where you do go down a path and it doesn’t work. At the same time, what I’ve always counselled people to do, there’s still nothing wrong with asking that question, with asking why. Because what you will find in some situations is that they’ll hire you, they’ll bring you in to do the tactical stuff. There’s a problem with the interface, this needs to be redesigned, people get confused on this screen, whatever it is; they’ll bring you in for something tactical. If you can demonstrate that what you are doing offers strategic value as well, you will get a level of attention that you didn’t have before when you walked in the door.
If you can say “I want to change this button” that’s one thing. If you explain that you want to change this button because it’s the primary action on the screen and they’re losing a lot of possible conversion because people can’t recognise it as the primary action on the screen. In other words correlate it to “You’re not making money because of this.” Now you’re changing the conversation; you’re changing the relationship; you’re changing the way that they see you.
M: I don’t think that I’ve ever heard, I agree with all that but I actually really like the first thing that you said which was that it’s important to have those experiences of failure because I’ve never really heard or had that elucidated but it’s so true. I’ve been on projects that haven’t been successful and I tell those stories time and time again. It’s a great point but I hadn’t even really thought about that but you’re absolutely right. I guess that’s difficult for people starting out to hear or to accept because they you know, they want to get the theory down and then maybe do a couple of small personal projects and then they’re set and every project after that will be their portfolio hero but it’s not how it works is it?
J: No! In fact I’m really glad that you said that because if there’s an important piece of advice to be found I think that’s it. You cannot be afraid to fail. It’s a huge part of getting where you need to go. And it’s not easy right? ‘Cause it hurts.
M: Totally because it feel like you’re taking a big risk or making a big mistake and you’re going to run your career or something. So let me ask you, what’s the biggest failure that you’ve had in your career? You don’t need to name names, but you share yours and I’ll share mine.
J: Oh man! I’ll tell you what… I’ve had several, quite frankly. I will tell ya, there was one experience in particular, very early on in my career where I got a huge opportunity with a very large enterprise organisation, with 3 or 4 locations across the country. And this was when I’d just, this was about 2 years in when I’d just started my own firm. And I still had the arrogance I think of a young man and I still also had the need to prove that I was right. In other words I was deathly afraid of looking or sounding unqualified or failing or any of the things that we are talking about. I was sort of unwilling to be wrong. And we went down a path and I did not spend the requisite time figuring out who their customers were and how their industry worked and how they were regulated and lots of other nuances specific to that industry and that business so I proposed a whole lot of things that were completely inappropriate is the best way I can say it. I really did. And what happened is once we got to the point where we were actually doing mock ups with the small group of folks, when it came time to sit down with some of the operations people and the product development people and people who weren’t in the room prior to that, I – to put it bluntly, I got my ass handed to me. Because they said, they essentially went down the litany of things I was suggesting and said “We cannot do this because industry regulations are such that blah blah blah and I am melting into the floor as this conversation goes on. And all I can think to do finally after 30mins of this, I just fell on my sword and I said “All I can do at this point is apologise to you because there is a lot of digging that obviously should have been done earlier in this process and I did not do it. And it was horrible, but I never made that exact same mistake again. What you learn from that I think when it doesn’t kill you, when you don’t die; when your career isn’t over; when you get another project despite your grand failure it teaches you that this is part of the process.
M: It’s funny isn’t it because we get so many questions about what course should I do; what degree should I enrol in; tell me the best books to read and that stuff is important, of course and it’s great to have the right advice but nothing can prepare you for what you learn from messing things up.
J: No! You know what one of the greatest pieces of advice that I’ve ever gotten? I’ve dabbled in magazines off and on throughout my career, some of my own projects and with other people. I got the opportunity to interview Henry Rollins one time. Black Flag, Rollins band, author, spoken word guy, traveller, you know.
M: Yeah he’s really popular in Australia too, he makes plenty of visits here.
J: Yeah and the guys one of my personal heroes quite honestly, ’cause I think he’s very honest about his successes and his failures. I think he’s very down to earth person and his generosity is off the chart, I’ve talked to him several times throughout the years. But anyway, I’m talking to him and I said the subject was the fact that he’d started publishing books and he was doing all this stuff on his own. And I said what do you say to somebody who is trying to get any sort of venture of the ground for themselves in the DIY spirit and they just want to do it but they’re afraid. What’s your advice? What he said to me was you have to go out there and get your nose broken. He said that’s the first step and he said a variation of what I just said to you; once you realise that it won’t kill you and that you’ll learn from it and that it’ll actually make you better at what you do you’re a lot more willing to do it again. And I think that’s accurate, you can’t be afraid of failing, you just can’t.
M: So my story is that I was responsible for the redesign of a website that was very highly trafficked, had a huge community around it and a very vocal community and where I really let myself down was in stakeholder management. I didn’t have a good handle on the politics and personalities involved in order to communicate the design that was being done and also to get buy-in. That’s stuff that you only really get to learn by doing as well so it wasn’t really the tactical design stuff, it was the softer skills that I was just lacking at the time, and yeah the design that ended up getting launched, it was one of the personalities, one of the owners who was the most vocal and there was a manager getting locked out of the room and it was just unpleasant, it was a little bit toxic actually. In hindsight I felt responsible for not having managed all of them better. And you know they were all my bosses so there was only so much I could do, but by the same token, in that role, it really was my role to do a better job of taking them all on the journey; making it more inclusive and collaborative and then also doing more user testing. Because then when we launched it the community hated it as well. It was just bad all round!
J: So did this fall prey to internal positioning politics?
M: Yeah, look there were other dimensions to the dynamics between the individuals at play. It wasn’t all my fault I think. But I certainly take a huge amount of responsibility for not doing a good job of communicating design. And I’ve been really working on that over the years since that time as a real focus for me because I recognised it was an area I needed to improve and I’ve gotten better. It’s one of those things we can all always improve on but that was the point where I really had the realisation that it was a blind spot for me.
J: I think it’s a tough one, quite honestly. I don’t know if I go into it enough, quite frankly, but it’s a topic that I try to hit over and over throughout the book. The idea that to the degree possible you really do need to know as much as you can about all the players involved in this product. Who you have in the room in the beginning and throughout the project matters a great deal. Because there are going to be internal struggles that you know nothing about. You have to realise that every single person at the table, if they work for different departments, if they have different job roles they automatically have very different goals. They automatically have different ideas about what success is or is not. And a lot of time that success is directly related to their job; their position; their responsibilities; the pressure that they’re under to perform and to me, if you don’t get a sense of that, or try to get a sense of that. There is only so much you can do without treading into territory where you’re not welcome. But you want to get those people in the room, at least, to hear it out, to hear everybody’s position. If they are going to have arguments, I think it’s ok that they have them in front of you because you need to see, you need to know that that’s going on. Otherwise you can get yourself in a very precarious position later on. That’s something I really recommend, you always ask what other departments are involved in this and can we get them in this meeting or the next meeting just to sit and listen. And the answer may be no. But I think it’s a valuable question because a lot of times they’ll say “Why do you feel like they need to be there? And you say “Well I’m sure they have some stake in this as a result of… whatever.” And a lot of times they’ll say “Yeah, you know, I didn’t think of that but they probably should be in this meeting”. I think you just got to try and expose that stuff. Not just for your own sake but for the sake of success, you know, going down a path where you actually accomplish something. It’s not easy.
M: No. So, who is the book for first? What’s it about? I’ve got a lot of books on my shelf that I’m looking at right now and there’s not a lot of room Joe. Sell it to me now, as to why we need another UX book.
J: Same here! Ha ha ha. I’m going to tell you something, this is the question that never leaves your mind the minute you decide ‘hey I’m going to write a book’ – you’re constantly asking yourself, like why you? Why does anybody care what I have to say about all this?” There are a million awesome books out there because I read things and I go “Wow! There is no possible way that I could say this any better than that”. The deal with ‘Think First’ is, what’s different to me is that I really wanted to focus purely on the strategy part of UX. I really wanted to focus on the idea that it really is about how you think about this stuff. I wanted to touch what are traditionally disparate parts of the up-front process or all the strategic activities that happen during a project and I kind of wanted to put them all in one place and say “What you do past this point certainly matters, but if you don’t ask the right questions; if you’re not solving the right problems; if you haven’t considered all of this stuff; to some degree, even if you don’t execute it formally, you’re planting the seeds right now for success or failure. For me, I’ve never, I haven’t yet encountered a book that covered all this in this manner. The other thing that I have to say, at the risk of offending some people is that with some certainly great exceptions, there are some excellent writers and practitioners out there, I wanted to do it in a way that was down to earth; that dispensed with the jargon and industry slang and the positioning of UX people as the messiahs on high telling you how to do this. I think a lot times we have a tendency to talk above our audience more than we should. So I wanted to do it in a way that brings it down to earth and says ‘look, this is what needs to happen’. I also wanted to position it as, UX is everybody’s business. You know, if you have a product team that includes a product owners, business analysts, maybe some UI designers, developers, QA testers, everybody’s part of that process and if they’re involved in all the phases of a project everyone can and should get their head around these kinds of things because it informs your decision-making, so to me, this book is very different in that respect. Now that’s my belief, I’m sure the market will tell me whether that’s true or not. But that was my intent. I just wanted to do it in a way it hadn’t been done before.
M: Great. Well ‘Think First’ will be out certainly by the time this podcast is published so I definitely encourage listeners to check it out. Joe where can they go to get a copy of the book?
J: You can go to givegoodux.com/think-first. Of course the homepage will direct you in the right place to begin with but we’ll also, it’s going to be available everywhere. Amazon, Barnes and Noble, ibooks for Apple, Google Play, the list goes on and on. We’re doing both soft cover and ebook.
M: Great and I’m putting you on the spot a little here because we didn’t discuss this … but is there any kind of discount we can give UX Mastery subscribers?
J: You know what, there is.
M: Excellent, well we’ll put all the details in the show notes for this episode so thank you very much, that’s very generous of you.
J: Ask and you shall receive. No problem. I really appreciate you taking the time to do this and it’s the very least I can do.
M: Good stuff. Well if people want to catch up and keep track of what you’re up to Joe, apart from the URL are you doing the Twitter thing?
J: Yessir @joenatoli.
M: Very good. So go and follow Joe, he tweets plenty of good useful UX stuff so he’ll be a useful addition to your twitter feed. Thank you very much Mr. Natoli we really appreciate your time and congratulations on your book and the success of your course; it’s great to see you doing well and we’ll do this another time.
J: That would be great, I really enjoyed it Matt, thank you very much.
M: Good stuff.