A Chat with Bill Gribbons, Part 1

Although it's quite common for designers to question their profession, it's rare that they're able to receive answers from knowledgable experts. Given the chance to do just that, I sat down with Dr. Bill Gribbons to discuss universal design, eLearning, and more.

When it comes to establishing oneself as a design professional, few issues are more contentious than the role of higher education. Some believe it’s necessary. Others suggest alternate routes. The truth is, of course, that the value of a degree depends on what a student’s looking for. When combined with hands-on experience, masters programs can help students find their way in an otherwise vast, inaccessible profession. What’s more, these programs themselves potentially raise the bar for the future of professional education. And who wouldn’t want that?

So, there I was: my cab had just dropped me off in front of Bentley’s Campus just outside Cambridge, MA. The air was crisp and chill. The sun was high. Lots of students were hurriedly making their way to lunch.

I was soon greeted by a bright smile from a calm-yet-busy-looking lady named Joanna. She led me through a few quaint, old, New-England-style buildings where I eventually met Bill Gribbons, the head of the Master’s Program in Human Factors and Information Design (MFHID). Bill is a UX designer through and through, having worked in our industry for over 30 years. Although he talks quickly on the phone, in person his affect is warm and his tone is considered.

Suffice to say, our hour-long lunch flew by.

What follows is a transcript of what can only be described as the kind of lunch we all wish we could attend on a weekly basis: one in which a curious student is able to pose questions to a knowledgeable master. Bill’s in such a unique position that I also couldn’t help pry a bit with regards to the role education plays (and will continue to play) in our work.

Overall, I was both humbled and honored to take part in this interview and walked away more than a little inspired. Enjoy!


Hey Bill, thanks so much for taking time away from the classroom. You explained to me on the phone that one of the focuses of the Human Factors program at Bentley is to prepare students for work in industry, which leads me to ask: What do you make of the huge proliferation of independent consultants and consultancies in the UX world?

Thanks for making it out, Andrew! With regards to independent consultants and consultancies: The market is huge right now. So even our Design and Usability center here – in which we hire professionals as well as students to work with outside clients – grows about 30% a year.

Most of our clients have internal UX teams but they simply can’t handle the workload. They outsource it because they don’t want to take on the full time equivalent.

And while hiring an in-house designer has its merits, I find that high-level, strategic consultants can offer a more objective, broad-based perspective with regards to a business’s products or customers. Businesses think they know what’s right but they’re often too close to their problem. They have blinders on.

For someone to walk through the door (and I‘ve been doing this for 30 years) and just “see” the solution? Clients love that. User experience designers offer fresh perspectives on incredibly diverse industries – much more than just traditional tech, where we more or less grew up. Today, we contribute to retail, healthcare, publishing, and education spaces… it‘s really an exciting time.

I agree; it’s actually why I work as a freelance consultant myself! One of the projects to which I contribute has a big accessibility component which, as I’m sure you know, closely relates to the concept of Universal Design. Do you believe that Universal Design encompasses User-centered Design? How do you see the relationship between the two?
They have to be seamlessly integrated. So, this has been a problem I‘ve seen for some time and it‘s the reason that localization and Universal Design are key parts of our curriculum at Bentley. Twenty years ago, we thought of localization as a separate group –
– kind of like usability engineering, right? Didn’t we used to separate that out as well?
Exactly. As though international people were more drastically “different” than other kinds of users. But that’s not correct. Good design has to have a cultural component to it, just as we have to give consideration to people who have physical disabilities, cognitive disabilities, whathaveyou.

The problem that businesses here in the US have is that, particularly on the localization front – because we such a large, domestic market of potential users – we’ve felt that we could just start our businesses locally and then expand over time. That’s an “add-on” mentality. When you talk to businesses overseas – in Israel or Germany, for example – they build a global product from day one. That’s where we’ve got to go as an industry.

I believe that a large part of being a user-centered designer is being humble, admitting that I don’t know a subject area, that I don’t know my users best, etc. Do you think it’s possible to be a master in a field where we have to constantly admit our ignorance? Are you a “master” at UX design?
I always stress to my students that, after 30 years, I still consider myself a student. I say “the day you stop being a student, you should retire.” Because, again, we’re studying one of the most complex things imaginable: human behavior. How do you create something that maps to that behavior, in a natural way, and also delivers value? And then, particularly because of the idiosyncratic behavior you see out there, how do you accommodate larger populations? How do you deal with that? You’re never going to master it. And once you feel as though you have, you’re in trouble.

Students at Bentley learn about users alongside teachers.

I learn as much from my students as they do from me. For example, we had a couple of students that applied from architectural backgrounds. I asked them in individual interviews “What are you doing here?” to which they responded “We’re interested in the experiences that people have as they interact with a physical space.”

That’s when it clicked. How many times have you been lost in a museum? Or lost in a hospital? They’re never laid out as intuitively as we think they should be. You see the benefits of this cross-disciplinary approach when you visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C, for example. It’s not a museum, it‘s an experience. From the moment you walk in, they give you a card and you’re basically a person taking part in a story.

These exhibits started so small, though! I remember some of the simple, “immersive” experiences I had in museums as a kid, but what you’re talking about sounds as though it’s on a much grander scale. Like a Disney-World-sized scale?

That’s the nature of it: continual rediscovery.

Experience design grows in fits and spurts. There was a period about three years ago when the national library association brought me in to speak. I started a nationwide tour, speaking at library events about the experiences they create. Libraries are at a crossroads where they’re questioning their identity: are they even relevant in the digital age? They’re literally talking about the experience people have in the library.

Another example – one that finally made me say “This is it. UX is everything…”

Dr. Gribbons continues.

The end of the story is that we live in an “experience” economy, one where we expect things to be very powerful and deliver tremendous value. Over time, we expect things to be even more beautiful and deliver better and better experiences. And that’s true of everything thing in life, from relationships to products. What pleased us five years ago will not please us today. Although it drives manufacturers and producers crazy, it’s what fuels innovation.

Part of working in this field, in my opinion, is teaching people to have higher expectations of the things with which they interact. Was teaching students of design a natural progression for you?
I’ll be honest with you: I get a tremendous sense of satisfaction doing this. We’ve got 150 students in the program right now, and every year we watch them go out and do great things.

And I feel our students are really shaping the profession. We turn out more graduates here than anywhere else. Watching their contributions – and how their lives improve based on going through the program – gives me a tremendous sense of satisfaction.

But ours is a profession that’s sort of grown up in practice, you know? It’s never been codified, per sé, like engineering, medicine or law. These fields also grew up in practice but eventually they were codified and accreditation was offered. This is a big point of contention in our field. I think that 80% of the people in our field, myself included – even though I’ve got academic credentials – grew up on the job. If we as design professionals don’t get our act together – if we we don’t produce high-quality curricula and graduates – we risk our ability to shape the future. We simply can’t continue to force students to learn on the job.

As you and your students shape our future, where do you see that future headed? UX Design has come to the fore as a consequence of ubiquitous, networked technologies. Do you believe that these technologies are a necessary component of what we do?
I believe in an appropriate use of technology. Many times, in the final analysis of a problem, the solution isn’t related to technology all; it’s something more human.

We were examining a water project last year in developing countries in which “just digging a well near a village” wasn’t enough. The wells were sabotaged by local villagers after they were installed. Researchers couldn’t figure out why. It seemed as though they solved the problem; they had the technology of drilling the well and pumping the water and all that.

What they discovered is that, in relieving women villagers of their six-mile walk – six miles each way – carrying kilos of water on their head, they had also relieved women of the only time they had away from the men in the village. The final recommendation, then, included ideas for a micro-financing program and/or an educational program for women. At the end of the day, this solution wasn’t very technical, but it created value: women valued their time alone.

Ultimately, our work is not about providing people what they say they need or even what we think they need. If we listen carefully enough, we’ll know that customers don’t necessarily want “a faster horse” – as Henry Ford is often quoted as having said. They just want to go faster. Users just can’t step outside of the box that technology often prescribes them.

This gets back to what you were saying about being a lifelong learner: We simply have to realize that that box is ever expanding, right?
I once worked with a manufacturer of self-service checkout aisles, like those you might see at your local supermarket. There’re a lot of stories, now, about how stores are removing these aisles because of the backlash they’ve received from customers. People say it’s poor customer experience.

So we researched the aisle’s origin. Before the first one ever launched, the companies producing these kiosks never talked to customers. They only talked to store owners. So the product was built around business requirements, not user requirements.

This led us to conduct the first user research. We never heard from the users “Wow, I really want to checkout my own groceries and put them in the bag myself and pay the same amount of money.” What everyone said was “I don’t want to wait in lines. I don’t want the inconvenience of shopping. I want to get out of the store. If I could avoid the store altogether, that would be great.”

So here they were, telling us exactly what they wanted; they just didn’t know how to design the solution. That’s where our job begins.


Somewhere around here, the waiter cleared our table. Dr. Gribbons, Joanna, and I made a break for the dessert cart. I ordered coffee and he got a green tea (reputably the drink of all UX masters).

This Thursday, we’ll publish the second half of my interview. Check back then to hear how students have reacted to the MHFID program as well as where Dr. Gribbons believes design education is headed in the next few years.

In the meantime, if you’ve got any questions of your own regarding higher education or if there’s something specific you’d like to ask Bill Gribbons or Nancy Dickenson (the program’s San Francisco co-chair, and former head of UX design at eBay) just leave a comment below. We’ll do our best to ensure they see it!

About our guests

Dr. William (Bill) Gribbons

​ Dr. Gribbons is director of the Master of Science in Human Factors in Information Design and Founder and Senior Consultant of the Design and Usability Center at Bentley University. He has devoted the past twenty-eight years to helping students and clients create human-centered and value-driven user experiences

Nancy Dickenson

​Nancy Dickenson has been a leading user experience expert for more than 25 years. As CEO of FirstGiving, Nancy brought an integrated, user experience approach to strategic planning, team building, and executive management, and as the head of eBay’s Global User Experience Design and Research Team, she spent 5 years leading over 150 user experience professionals. Nancy is now coaching user experience professionals, consulting with clients, and teaching. She lives in San Rafael, California.

About the Author

Andrew Maier

Andrew is a lifelong student of the design community, who co-founded the design publication UX Booth in 2008 to share his journey. He currently serves as its Editor-in-Chief. When he's not heading user-centered design initiatives for clients, Andrew dabbles in civic design. He lives in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood.

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