Interview with Dr. Morgan of User Insight

March 26th, 2009
Published on
March 26th, 2009

Dr. Morgan of the Usability group User Insight

This past month, I had the exciting opportunity to sit down with a pioneer and expert in our field, Dr. John Morgan. During the course of the interview I asked questions about what makes usability such an important contemporary issue and how his experiences have shaped our industry.

What is your background in the usability field?

My life has been very serendipitous! I grew up in small town Iowa in the 1950s and attended college in the Boston area. My parents reasoned, and I came to agree when we sent our daughters to college, that young adults should leave home and seek their fortunes elsewhere. This early experience of moving outside of my personal comfort zone led me to accept a two year teaching assignment in the Philippines after college. Working with Filipino students focused my attention on social, cultural and political issues and led to a graduate degree in the Social Sciences.

My plan was to teach and do sociological research at a large urban university but the timing was off when I emerged from graduate school in the early 1970’s. While in graduate school in Chicago I worked part time in the math lab at Science Research Associates (SRA) creating new materials of instruction for children. SRA was at that time a wholly owned IBM subsidiary.

At SRA I was able to see how pedagogical ideas and theories were translated into innovative products that made a difference in the lives of millions of children. Without the video and audio equipment we typically use today in our usability research we were able to involve teachers and students in gathering requirements for new products and then pretest prototypes of these potential products before we made them available to K-12 schools.

Dr. Morgan gives a pretest to children from the Philippines

Dr. Morgan gives a pretest to children from the Philippines

During the Skill Modes in Mathematics project, I went to Alabama and Mississippi to try out math and language arts material on little children. We demonstrated in our research that these materials made a difference. I worked at SRA for ten years and then moved into mainline IBM in 1980.

IBM announced and delivered the PC to the world in 1981. At that time I was a human factors engineer charged with designing and delivering six easy-to-use financial applications including Account Receivables and General Ledger to small businesses. These small business owners needed the benefits of these financial applications yet they could not and would not pay to add a programmer to their staff to make the applications work. The software needed to be so easy that the current payroll and accounting staff could use the applications productively without much training. So we set up IBM’s first usability laboratory in Atlanta to make this happen.

Dr. Morgan continues…

The usability laboratory in Atlanta became an IBM standard for ease of use evaluations during the 1980’s and 1990’s. I had an opportunity to set up labs in the USA, Europe and Asia and to train IBM colleagues and their customers on how to conduct usability evaluations of their products and services.

A usability specialist proctors a practice usability test, 1989

In the 1960s and 1970s IBM, like most large technology companies such as AT&T, General Motors, etc. historically had human factors as an engineering practice. The primary focus was on making physical objects such as keyboards and screen raster rates easier to use. With the arrival of new business applications the need shifted to interactions between humans and machines and these dialogues needed to be in easy-to-understand English and not programmer jargon. We were those early usability pioneers at IBM who designed laboratories so that consumers could share their insights.

We learned a few insights ourselves over time from doing usability evaluations. Rather than testing a lot of consumers as we did initially or for long durations we started to see patterns after 5-6 users doing 60-90 minute sessions. This led to test, fix and retest or iterative testing.

What are the day–to–day tasks you do at User Insight?

In some ways my daily tasks as a researcher are very similar to what I did 30 years ago. I work with clients and users harvesting users’ insights and sharing these insights with clients so they can design or re-design better products and services for their consumers.

In another sense we at User Insight have found a better way to do usability. This way is good for our clients and good for us as a small company. Gone is the solo usability practitioner or human factors engineer. In earlier days I would have simultaneously worn the hats of client services rep, project manager, recruiter, facilitator, evaluator, analyst, report writer and designer. Today at User Insight I work in cross-functional teams with colleagues who have skills and experience in each of these areas. The User Insight approach gives us maximum flexibility of providing our clients with high quality research within a very short time frame at an affordable price.

User Insight did more than 100 different projects last year. We’ve structured our company so that at any one point most of us are working on multiple projects and because most of us are cross-trained in several different areas we can go to where the need is. This also helps us in several large international projects we are doing since we were able to deploy research teams to Brazil, Germany, Denmark, Ukraine, Russia, and Canada simultaneously as well as taking care of business here at home.

Usability tests are performed in various cultures to see how well foreign technology is localized.

Finally, you’ll notice that we are called “User Insight” not Morgan, Holtzclaw, O’Connor and Associates. We want clients and others to know we are fixated on the USER and will do whatever we need to do so that clients can hear and listen to their users.

In your opinion, what disciplines are related to usability?

Let me suggest an obvious and perhaps less obvious response. The obvious social science disciplines are psychology, human factors, ergonomics, anthropology, sociology and their sub-specialties such as cognitive psychology, HCI and ethnography to name a few. However, equally and perhaps more important are philosophy, literature, linguistics, economics, sociobiology, library science etc.

Why do you think usability is so popular in today’s culture?

I’m not so sure that consumers think of “usability” as popular. I think that most of us are overwhelmed and frustrated by products that don’t work the way we expect them to work or are not easy to use.

Here’s a simple but important example. There is a recent initiative that most of us will welcome and say “Finally”! Amazon late last year announced a project that questions the necessity of the ridiculous hard plastic containers holding everything from razor blades to digital camera flash cards. Amazon wants to make it easier for consumers to open items that are now hard or impossible to open. This is a small example of what we in the usability arena are all about.

What advice would you give to people interested in designing more usable websites?

Creating more usable websites starts and ends with users or consumers. So the best designers and usability practitioners working as a team should be continually interacting with users at the beginning and gathering the requirements and assumptions from the users’ point of view. These user requirements and assumptions should be prototyped and shared with users early and often so that usability becomes a process of continuous improvement rather than a summative event at the end of the development cycle.

On a personal and professional level I suggest that young designers and researchers find a practicing mentor who is not a “guru” or an expert who only talks about rather than actually does user research. It is in the practice watching and working with a good designer and research that we learn and improve our craft. Read widely but not just the books related to human computer interaction but read Studs Terkel’s Working and listen to Terry Gross’ Fresh Air to learn how to encourage people to share their insights.

Do you think that using a relatively small amount of users, say 10, to test our product we’re missing out on statistical accuracy? You mentioned your background in sociology and how you’re used to using much larger datasets.

A Usability lab circa 1987

A modern usability lab circa 1987

I was trained as a demographer to demand large sample sizes and to worry about validity and reliability. That’s the world of quantitative research. However, the research I do today is qualitative where our practice over the years suggests that we find most of the major problems after as few as 6 users. At least after a small number of users we are willing to make changes to a design and retest with the changes warranted by users’ insights and best design practices. Again we find that test, retest, test, retest again and again leads to a better product and a better experience for consumers.

What books would you recommend to people interested in usability?

Reader–posed Questions

WebDesignFanBoy asks: How do I convince small business owners that usability should be the primary focus of a project?

That’s a great question! The key phrases in your question for me are “small business owners” and “primary focus”. Small business owners probably argue that they don’t have resources to do usability research and that their attention is focused simply on getting the application done on time and budget. They might even concede that QA testing is needed and argue what will usability really buy them? Their primary focus is elsewhere certainly NOT on usability.

With all your persuasion you can present your case that every product eventually has a usability test called “first customer ship” and that they are possibly “poisoning the well their consumers will drink from” if they release their product before a usability evaluation.

Or you can politely argue the way Fram Oil Filter did in its 1970s commercial “Pay me now. I’ll change your oil for $39” Or you can pay me later and I’ll rebuild your engine for $2500”. The idea here is that if you spend a small amount of money on usability now you can avoid spending a large amount of money on a new release of your product later.

There is and always will be a contentious relationship between development and usability. So after all your imploring and persuasive logic about poisoned wells and payments now vs. later we have to find ways to make usability easy and affordable for newcomers. You are not alone in trying to find the magic talisman here. Check out guerrilla usability or discount usability engineering.

I’ll suggest one final thought we learned at IBM working with medium and large companies. Clients were more likely to buy our usability services after they failed or after their projects ended up in the ditch. Find the executives who have or are failing and they are more likely to listen to how usability might turn their situation into a success.

Brian asks: What are the most important elements of usability that you find are most often ignored in typical UI design projects?

Let me suggest several things that most clients (ours or someone else’s) often ignore.

Most clients test later rather than earlier. The summative usability test at the end of the development cycle shortly before launch means that you have a cursory understanding of where the problems are but you will only be able to address these issues in more training or adding customer support reps to handle the questions and complaints.

Most clients test their designs and interfaces only once. Users will gain maximum benefit and you will retain them if your have a plan of continuous improvement that involves these users early at requirements gathering and at multiple stages as the product progresses and changes during development. We and our clients now have access to prototyping tools to test often and early. We also have software such as Adobe Connect that allows us to share these prototypes with more people in more places than ever before.

Refining their understanding of who their users really are. We find that most clients do not have an adequate picture of their audience. Without better information recruitment of users is stymied. We often suggest that client create User Personas to better understand the complexities of their consumers. 

Testing only a snapshot of the product vs. the whole product life cycle. An example comes to mind. We convinced a client that by only testing the online support materials, a very narrow part of the DSL experience, they were ignoring all the previous experience the consumer had accumulated and what experience the user would have after resolving this particular support problem. 

Working with this client we organized a panel of 25 users who joined the group when they ordered and started to install DSL. We followed these users for 6 months as they experienced DSL. We also gave them weekly tasks to do and asked them to submit their work and comments frequently. Such feedback led to a richer trove of consumer comments and suggestions than would have been capture in multiple lab usability sessions.

That’s all folks! Who’s next?

Alas, these are all the questions we prepared for this interview. Thanks again for giving our community some of your time and your insight, Dr. Morgan! For anyone interested in a tried and true usability firm on the east coast, I highly recommend User Insight.

Do you have someone in the usability/user experience field who you would like to see interviewed? Let us know in the comments!

About Dr. Morgan’s company, User Insight

User Insight Logo

User experience research has been around since our president, Dr. John Morgan, built the first usability lab for IBM in 1980. But we are just now seeing a variety of companies embrace it to improve software, web applications and consumer goods products. With more choices than ever, why turn to User Insight? Because every project we undertake includes user feedback; it’s not just a buzzword on our website.