A Chat with Bill Gribbons, Part 2

Design and education are both hot-button topics these days. So when the opportunity to interview Bill Gribbons – head of the Master’s Program in Human Factors and Information Design at Bentley University – presented itself, I didn’t hesitate to take part. Earlier this week, we published the first installment in my two-part interview series with Bill. The second part, in which I ask questions more directly related to design education, appears below. Enjoy!

Students say you’re a professor with “list of people” to whom you want them to attend. Is that true? Who comprises that list?
More or less! I’ve always admired Don Norman. I knew Don before he became a very successful consultant, and he’s one of the greatest cognitive scientists of the 20th Century. He’s a brilliant man who started in the academic world as a researcher.

Dan Arielly also makes my list. Are you familiar with his book, Predictably Irrational? He’s down at Duke, and he’s lectured at MIT as a visiting professor.

And Malcolm Gladwell, of course.

Another guy, Nicholas A. Christakis wrote a book called Connected. In it, Christakis gives a full history of not just why social networks exist, but how we create communities, societies, and cultures on top of them. It’s all centered around meaning and our desire to belong.

Gladwell’s critics say he offers “pre-packaged common sense.” But isn’t that just good information design? He makes things more accessible, which –
– that’s exactly what I was going to say. And there is a brilliance in that. Anybody who criticizes him is just jealous they didn’t think of it before.
It also gets back to a kind of “universal design thinking:” What he says may be commonsensical, but nobody has articulated it as well. It’s as if, once an author tells a story the “right” way, it enables a broader, shared understanding?
I think that’s the brilliance of Arielly, too. He takes something like behavioral economics – something that’s about as dry as it could possibly be – and makes it accessible. He even made it fun! And I don’t think he cheapened it, either. He didn’t compromise the integrity of it; he just made it accessible.

And is it Stephen Johnson who wrote Where Good Ideas Come From? That’s a big one as well. He looks at design and innovation historically.

Online learning sites such as Code Academy and Udemy threaten the business model of universities and graduate programs everywhere. What do you make of those?
I believe that about 90% of higher education will eventually migrate online. The asynchronous nature of it is a big win.

Unfortunately what students lose when they study online is that “connection,” that sense of community. Students learn as much – or more – from each other than they do from books. The modern university’s job is to facilitate connection. You can have your blogs and such, but the sense of community around them is simply not the same.

That’s ultimately why we have two campuses, one here and one in San Francisco: We want students to feel included and involved regardless of where they study. Next year we’re bringing thought leaders such as Nancy Dickenson (former head of UX design at eBay) to the West Coast. That way it doesn’t matter where students decide to study; they’ll join a community with a shared purpose.

Many graduate programs partner with various corporations in order to expose students to real-world problems. How do you determine (1) which problems to share with students, (2) which problems to send to Bentley’s Design and Usability Center, and (3) which problems to tackle yourself?
So, we’ve actually had clients on the West Coast for years who have been partnering virtually with our students here. Our job when engaging potential clients is to triage, to figure out the nature of their problem. If their problem represents a design exercise then we partner them with a design class. If it’s research, we dig deeper: Is it a problem that’s out there that’s failed and needs forensics or is it something more basic?

Nancy teaches a leadership class, so there we partner with companies in the valley who are looking at organizational issues. She and her students work within companies who are struggling with integrating user-centered design into their company culture.

But at what point does the line dissolve? Every interesting, exciting project I hear about has an element of the unknown. I recently found myself offering “business consulting” even though I myself identify as an interaction designer, for example. At what point do students work for pay and at what point should students pay to work (or “learn”)?
I think there are times when you can work from home I think there’re times when you need to be out there observing and learning. It’s got to be a mixture.

Of course you’re going to have educational institutions that will dig their heels in and “be brick and mortar” – that’s all they know. I also think they’re going to be other places that will go completely online. Students will have to find the work on their own time. Ultimately, though, the goal – the value – is in community: learning from and contributing to it.

Universities have to preserve community. And Bentley’s been pretty successful in this regard: even our students who have graduated from the program come back to participate. So we’re constantly creating workshops outside of the classroom, and graduates of the program frequently return to give back.

Then how do you price the program? Do you price it based on what it takes to run the program – the bare minimum – or do you consider the value you add by teaching a philosophy or maintaining the community?
Our tuition and fees are pretty much based on the institution’s price.

When alumni come back to the program, it’s free for them to participate in the workshops. But nothing in this world is “free;” alumni pay for it with their time. They often hire other students or offer internships. They’re inevitably building reputations. So while it’s not free, it works for everybody. So long as everybody stays together.

I sort of asked you “Why San Francisco” once before, but my guess now is that you’ll say “the more locations we have to facilitate community, the better.” Is that correct?
Yeah. What I’d like to do if we’re around long enough would be to create a hub in Europe somewhere. There’s a lot of interesting, different kind of thinking going on in Europe around this.
I’m interested in the difference between, say, what you guys and what a company such as IDEO offers a client who is looking to build a product. Is a consultancy’s model that different from a school’s?
IDEO is sitting at the top. It’s hard to suggest anyone would compete with them, really, because of this. They really nailed it. They go into Proctor and Gamble and work with the whole organization, you know?

So I think you carve out wherever there’s a market opportunity. We’re not working at that high of a level. Most of Bentley’s work is product related. Sometimes, if we’re contacted early on we might build out the research that will fuel many products, so sometimes the research spreads across many products. On the whole, though, our work tends to be smaller in scale than someone like IDEO.

Final question, then. This one is a bit more broad. User experience fits into an interesting niche between qualitative and quantitative data. Your team is known to be data-driven; how do you measure customer experience?
I think that’s a big shift in the field. We’ve historically been very qualitative, and we’re becoming increasingly quantitative.

Qualitative data is always going to be there. And, particularly on the innovation front, field research and interviews give us the raw materials to gain the insights that fuel innovation. You can analyze analytics all day long and it’s never going to tell you where people are coming from. You’ll never innovate out of that.

Remote methods of data gathering – what we’re doing today looking at very large data sets versus what we could do in the usability lab ten years ago – provide a different kind of insight. Bill Albert (who runs the Design and Usability center) and Tom Tullis (the VP of user experience at Fidelity) have a book called Measuring the User Experience. They teach in the program as well.

We’re seeing more and more of our students taking statistics, too. This is a cultural shift. Many students have traditionally come into the program more qualitatively oriented. So this is changing the profile and the makeup of the profession. I love students that come along saying “I love math” because I think there’s a place for both.

So do you, personally, lean more qualitative or quantitative?
I’m more qualitative. That’s the part I love. And that’s what I tell my students: at the end of the day, do what you love. If you love getting insights from data, go quantitative. Myself, I like the connecting to people. It makes me happy.

That’s why I love teaching, and you shouldn’t do something that’s not natural for you. You won’t be happy, and you won’t be good at it. The good thing about this field is it gives you the opportunity to do both.


Around here the clock struck 1pm, marking the end of our time together. Although I thanked him profusely for his time and attention then, I can’t help but reiterate the sentiment: Thanks so much, Bill, for sharing your wisdom with us.

Readers, what do you make of the future of design education? Do you get everything you need from books, blogs, eLearning sites, universities, and/or conferences? How do you stay current? And what advice do you offer those looking to learn? Sound off in the comments, below.

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Comments

  1. Great interview! Hard to talk about design education and not mention Don Norman and IDEO. I’m currently studying with a ton of books and websites like this one. I’ve taken some classes in person around UX and HCI, but I’m really searching for a program that is more in-depth and cohesive, while allowing me to work while I do it. To me, that is the biggest downfall in traditional education – flexibility.

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