Global UX: An interview with Whitney Quesenbery

Gerry Gaffney Global UX Leave a Comment

Download (mp3: 6.9MB, 28:51) Whitney Quesenbery talks to Gerry Gaffney about global UX, storytelling, and the need to adapt to change.


Transcript

Gerry Gaffney:

This is Gerry Gaffney with the User Experience podcast.

Today I’m very happy to have one of my most favourite UX people on the podcast. I’ve been meaning to talk to her for ages.

She’s a past president of UPA (the Usability Professionals’ Association). She’s got an extensive background in usability and user experience. She’s worked for government and commercial organisations.

She’s co-author of Storytelling for User Experience with Kevin Brooks. Her next book, co-authored with our friend Daniel Szuc, is about global user experience.

In a former life she worked as a theatrical lighting designer and her most impressive work in this regard to my mind is the work she did with Laurie Anderson on the ground-breaking “United States Parts I to IV”.

Whitney Quesenbery, a rather belated welcome to the User Experience podcast.

Whitney Quesenbery:

Hi Gerry, it’s really a thrill to be here. I’ve been a fan for quite a long time.

Gerry:

Thank you. Why did you move from theatre into user experience?

Whitney:

Well, it just happened. I was very happily working in theatre, which I loved, and someone asked me if I could write a manual, and since everybody in theatre always needs a little more extra money, I thought “Sure”. And one thing led to another, and the next thing that happened was that I turned down a show because I got another interesting offer from Cognetics to work on a pre-web hypertext program called Hyperties. So I just kind of slipped sideways.

Gerry:

Do you think your background in the theatre predisposed you to be interested in storytelling?

Whitney:

Yah. [Laughs.] Yes.

Gerry:

[Laughs.] Sorry, was that a really obvious question?

Whitney:

Yes, I think it is, but it’s a good one.

I think one of the things that’s interesting is what I did was lighting design, and lighting design is really intangible. When you act, you’re up on stage and you are there, you’re acting. When you do scenery or costumes there’s physical things that you create. When you do lighting, you create something that only exists in the moment of production. You could turn the lights on and off at any time, but not until it’s all there in the same place with an audience do you actually have lighting design.

I think that’s a lot like being a user experience designer, which is that you’re creating something that isn’t really fully realised until all the pieces and all the players are together in one place.

Gerry:

Stories in the last few years in the UX field in any case have really gone from strength to strength, whether we’re talking about minimalist textual scenarios to more elaborate manifestations like storyboards and cartoons and the like. Why do you think UX practitioners have embraced stories so much recently?

Whitney:

I think it’s largely because there’s so much complexity in what we do. When I first started in this field there was a lot of emphasis on writing really good crisp, clear specifications that really documented everything about what the program had to do and how it had to do it. But those programs were a lot simpler. They tended to be frame-by-frame, the rules flowed pretty inflexibly from one to the other, and now we’re working on applications and websites that are much more fluid, much more complex, rely on the user a lot more and have a lot more variation in what can happen at any given moment. I suppose it’s probably technically possible to document each and every thing that might happen, but by the time you do that, you know, the moment will have passed.

So I think that stories and story-like things are a way of explaining to each other what it is we’re trying to do, to make sure that we all understand not only what the program has to do but the context in which it’s going to be used, how people will interact with it, and stories are a natural way to do that.

Gerry:

Do you find that business people and technical people are open to storytelling as a design or analysis tool?

Whitney:

Yeah, absolutely. I think sometimes people have to see it to understand it. But mostly yes. I would say we’re actually as UX people a little late to the game. There’s been a rich, rich tradition of storytelling in business as business leadership for longer than we’ve been doing user experience.

Gerry:

And in fact at one of the UPA conferences… I can’t remember the name of the keynote speaker, but he spoke specifically about storytelling in some big financial organisation… [Laughs.] Can you remember that?

Whitney:

[Laughs.] Sure can. That was Steven Denning. He’s actually been at UPA twice, once as an invited speaker and then he was so successful that we brought him back as a keynote. Steven Denning worked at the World Bank. He’s an economist by trade and has really been one of the small group of leaders in this whole storytelling in business, and he’s really gone further. He says that storytelling is the way to lead, that by creating a story you create a narrative that everybody around you can fit into and can begin to imagine for themselves.

So instead of creating a specification for how we want you to do something, you create something that’s open, that everyone can join into.

Gerry:

And his keynote address at the UPA conference that I attended was very inspiring, I thought.

Whitney:

Yeah. I actually met him several years before he came to UPA, at a storytelling conference, StoryCon. And I had lunch with him, and I said: “We really need you. Our field really needs you. Not just for the work we do but for how we sell ourselves.” And I showed him a couple brochures from some of the leading UX companies. And he picked them up and he looked at them, and they were all very earnest, you know, all about the labs and techniques we could do and a list of business propositions. And he said: “Oh, yes, I see you do.” [Laughter.]

Gerry:

I don’t want to talk too much about stories, but one final question. Where do stories fit in with the whole Agile thing.

Whitney:

Stories are part and parcel of Agile. I actually spoke at Agile last year, and one of the things, everybody warned me, was that I had to be very careful because a user story is something very special in Agile, which is it’s the placeholder for how you begin the conversation around what the piece, the unit of work has to do. They wanted to make sure that I understood that stories were already part of Agile.

I think that like many things in technology, that people tended to use users stories in a very cut-down way. That is they start by saying, you know, “A person wants to do a thing to achieve a goal.” And they’re about reducing the complexity of the problem. But the kind of storytelling that I like to do is really about bringing that context and complexity back in, so it’s sort of the soup in which that Agile user story floats. I also think that given the rapid and iterative nature of Agile, where you break something down into little pieces, that having a story that connects what you’re working on today, this iteration, to the bigger picture is actually quite helpful.

We actually found that not just in Agile but when I worked on a UML project using the Rational process. Everybody was busy doing use cases, and they’d gotten down to these very clean, lovely use case diagrams, and then there was a big rebellion among the analysts, who said: “We just can’t keep track. We don’t have a picture in our head of how all of these little things that we’re doing fit together.” I was their UX consultant. They called in their UML consultant. We sat down and he said: “Oh, but you should have done all the big picture stuff first, and you should understand how all the little use cases fit into the big story.” And Agile has gone through something like that as well with UX, where we now talk about Sprint Zeroes. Sprint Zero is a sprint in which you don’t produce code, but you work on setting the context for the code that will be produced in successive sprints.

Gerry:

I’m glad you mentioned UML, just because it was in my head as we were talking earlier because UML sort of promised that we would have some sort of alignment between use cases and scenarios, I guess, at that time, which was, I don’t know, ten years ago or whatever… more. I remember listening to one of the “three amigos” talking about this and being very excited because it seemed finally there was a technology and usability connection. It didn’t quite pan out, but maybe it has now with storytelling in later years.

Whitney:

You know, no technique will ever make the connection. People have to make the connection. You can force people to march through a methodology but unless they really understand how all the pieces of that approach fit together… if their approach is entirely UX without any thought to how the code is being built, that’s broken. There are all these pictures out on the web of three-legged stools and overlapping Venn diagrams, and they’re all true, but I think one of the challenges for me for UML was that it was so technical and so difficult that it really made it hard to bring those together.

We worked really hard at Siemens to build a methodology that put those two together and made them work together, and it was a constant battle to keep it going. I think Agile might be more successful because it’s shorter sprints, because it’s shorter units of work and it actually assumes that people will be talking on a daily basis, and that the large body of the knowledge about how you’re going to build this program actually comes out through direct communication.

Gerry:

Your forthcoming book is about global user experience or global UX. It’s co-authored with Daniel Szuc and it’s almost complete. Why do we need a book on global UX?

Whitney:

Well, I didn’t set out to write it this way but it turned out to be a storytelling book. We started this book as a series of case studies, and found that the case studies were rather bland, and that what we were really interested in was the conversations we were having with people around the back story around the case stories, around their practice, around the challenges they were facing. So we went to the publisher and re-organised the whole book and said: “Why don’t we do it as a series of interviews? Let’s talk to, not necessarily thought leaders but people on the ground, people who do a lot of global work, people who do a little bit of global work, people from countries that don’t get heard from as much, maybe, in US publications, and let’s think about what their practice is like.” So I think the book is kind of a snapshot of practice these days, and a little bit of a pointer towards the future. And, you know, some hints thrown in because people want to share their lessons learned.

Gerry:

I must say I thought that approach of taking the interviews that you’d conducted and stringing them together, if you like, or creating the construct out of those worked very well. I’ve just read very early drafts of the book but I’m looking forward to seeing the final outcome.

Possibly we should step back, though, and say what is global UX. What do you mean by global UX?

Whitney:

Yeah, we got asked that question a lot. We actually started with a quite open question, which is: “What do you think it means?” was one of our starting points. I think it was both, people said well is it something that was written by a team of people for use by audiences around the world, is it something that’s developed by a group of people from many places for use by people in different places. And the answer was yes, it’s all of those.

I think if there’s one thing that’s come out very strongly from the interviews for me, it’s that you can’t really design something that’s for use by people in many, many different places and contexts without having not just good research connection to those contexts but a good ongoing connection. Of course the user research is important up-front and of course all the due diligence research and what someone called basic hygiene, of making sure you understand the languages and the date formats and the currencies and things that are the beginning point of localisation. But if you don’t have people on the team who can have a good instinct for what will work in that situation in each of those cultural contexts then I don’t think that you… You might make something that will function well enough, but you’ll never make something that will feel local. And I think in some types of projects you’re aiming for one and in some types of projects you’re aiming for the other, so if you’re doing a global reservations site for a global hotel chain maybe you’re not as interested in being deeply local but in having a fairly universal experience around the world tempered to the local environments. But if you’re doing things that are very personal that are part of people’s daily lives, you probably need to not just meet the tick-boxes of globalisation but actually get deep into it. In that sense I think it’s a lot like accessibility, where you can do checkbox accessibility, where you go through WCAG or you go through 508 in the US or any other national laws and you tick off all the points on the guidelines. But that still might not be something that’s really usable, that really works for people who use different kinds of assistive technology. And I think globalisation is the same thing. You can tick off all the checkboxes but until you really get down and understand the people and their lives and the way they think and their daily environment you’ll never make something that really fits into that environment.

Gerry:

I guess that’s going to be scary for some people listening because they’re going to think: “Oh my God! Here I am working in my little company in whatever city I’m living in and now suddenly Whitney wants me to go and travel to the US or India or China or whatever and do international research.

Whitney:

Yeah. You know, some people do get to do lots of international research and travelling. And certainly we talked to people from companies big enough and international enough that that happens. But there are not many places that don’t have some sort of global influence today. I think if you look around any US city, if you look around probably many Australian cities and many, many other places in between, we’re pretty mobile as a population these days, so you can find people from lots of countries. We had someone who talked about working in a company that had 103 countries represented. Even a fairly small group just outside of New York that does financial services had eight countries represented on their staff.

One of the things that came out of the interviews strongly was that being global, thinking globally is partly a state of mind. It’s partly an attitude towards the world that says: “Maybe I’m not going to do genius design, I’m not going to design solely out of my own experience, but I’m going to look out at other experiences. In that regard I think it’s UX squared, right? If UX says we’re not the users, that in order to design we have to begin to understand those users, global UX just says: “And there’s even more of them.” Just like accessibility says: “And there’s even more ways that people can interact with your application.”

So, I think you can be global and never leave your house; you can be global and be a world traveller. But even if you’re working in a company that does have lots of money to go do wonderful global research projects, not everybody on the team will go out and do those projects, so one of the other challenges is how do you let the team that’s been out doing all that great work bring that information back and help inculcate the rest of the team, help them be immersed by proxy. We heard a lot of techniques for that including lots of pictures and debriefs… Bill Derouchey talked about having a big wall at Ziba of photographs that you just walked by, they were just there all the time and you saw the context for the places they were working on projects for.

Gerry:

You mentioned date formats and stuff… The Book Depository sends me summer reading emails in the middle of winter, and US companies are always listing dates in that weird format that you guys use when they send me reminders that I can’t interpret. Is it just too hard to be constantly vigilant even at that basic level of the continuum?

Whitney:

I think it’s largely a matter of habit. I think that there’s a couple of levels, even in what you’ve just said. Summer reading emails in the middle of the winter is annoying and doesn’t acknowledge that you live on the other half of the globe. Date formats are actually more dangerous because they can be misinterpreted. So, for me in my personal practice I think about: “What is it in my communication that might cause me to be misunderstood?” and writing today as 7/22/11. Well I guess that can’t be misunderstood because there’s no 22nd month, but if it was the 10th of the month, you know, 7/10/11 could be misinterpreted. So thinking about how do I make sure that we’re communicating in a mutual and clear way? Partly that’s just habit.

When I first started working in the UK I really struggled with not just date formats but styles of phrasing and spelling and all the other differences between our two Englishes.

Gerry:

And I’m sure Caroline Jarrett took every opportunity to confuse you.

Whitney:

[Laughs.] Yeah, she did try. We used to play a game when one of us was in the other’s country. We’d go to a grocery store and we’d walk up and down the aisles trying to find something that you couldn’t find in the other country. In the early years it was quite easy. As the years went on it got harder and harder to the point where I can get Marmite in my grocery store in a not particularly urban area of the US.

Gerry:

Do you think that’s depressing?

Whitney:

Aah… I think it’s both depressing and not depressing. I think one of the more depressing things that happened to me was I got to go to China, actually you were there that year, we were going to the first User Friendly conference, it was very exciting. I travelled for many, many hours on an aeroplane, I get off, I go through the whole immigration process, intake process, which is as gigantic and full of people as I expected China to be, and I come through the gates and I’m completely jet-lagged and exhausted and I look up and yes I see someone holding up the User Friendly poster so I know I’m not going to have to fight my way through the airport and she motions me to go over to the left and I look up and over her in gigantic letters it’s says “Starbucks”. And it was so disappointing that my first glimpse of China was Starbucks. Well, my first glimpse was the User Friendly poster, but…

Gerry:

I seem to recall in the Forbidden City there was a… was it a Starbucks that was in there as well?

Whitney:

There is, but I hear it’s gone.

The other thing that I think is sad is, it’s also just sad about progress… You and I went to the silk market which is a wonderful outdoor market and couple of years later it was torn down as part of urban renewal for the Olympics. But you know, the same thing happened in Philadelphia when they had a big fair there. So I think cities are constantly going through this process of letting the old get run down and then trying to brush it away and then somebody realises what’s been lost brushing away that history and try to hang on to some piece of it.

Gerry:

I get the impression, Whitney, and correct me if I’m wrong, that UX practitioners in the USA and presumably North America in general are concerned about outsourcing. A few years ago they were saying: “Oh, we’re UX people, we can’t be outsourced.” And now they’re saying: “Oh my God, we’ve been outsourced.” Is it a concern in the States, and is it a valid concern?

Whitney:

I assume that it’s still a concern in some places. For the book we did some… I did a lot of scanning of the web and I found quotes like people saying design can’t be outsourced. Is it a valid concern? I think there’s always disruption and I would hate to say no-one’s going to lose their job, but… Why is it that a designer from the mid-west of the US is competent to design an application that will be used by people in South America or India or Asia or Australia, and someone from those places is not seen as competent to design something that will be used here in the US? It seems to me that we’re moving towards a fully connected fully networked society globally, in which innovation can come from absolutely anywhere, and insights can come from anywhere, and that we’re going to have to adapt to that.

There was a horrific car accident in upstate New York a couple of days ago where a number of Amish farmers were killed, and I was reading an article about it this morning. It was talking about one of the farmers and it said that one of the things about him was that he adapted. He had a goat herd and he was making goat milk, and then the company that he was selling the goat milk to went out of the business and decided not to do goat milk anymore. And so he sold the herd and went into strawberries. And his colleagues, his friends were saying that one of the things about him was that when things changed, he changed. He simply adapted and learned a new craft and a new skill and carried on.

And I guess I wonder why anyone thinks that the world will stand still for them, because the world has never stood still for anybody. And I wonder why anybody thinks that any culture in the world has a market or a monopoly on innovation.

Gerry:

And I guess the reference to the Amish there is… Perhaps we might draw from that story about the adapting farmer that one can adapt to the world around one without losing one’s culture in any way.

Whitney:

Yeah. I think one of the interesting things is the Amish farmers who were killed were in a van. They don’t drive but they will ride. And they were in a van because they were part of an agricultural program and they were on their way to learn about no-electricity greenhouses.

Gerry:

To move to a more cheerful topic perhaps, you and Dano interviewed a lot of people in preparing the book, the Global UX book. Is there a recipe for success in the global marketplace?

Whitney:

Nah.

Gerry:

[Laughter.] Go on! Elaborate!

Whitney:

I think there’s no single recipe. That is, we didn’t get to the end of the book and say: “Well, what you have to do is have a team leader in each country and conduct research three times a year with the following techniques.” In that sense, there’s no recipe.

One striking thing that did come out of the interviews was how generally consistent the UX approach is, within the variations of the type of company and the size of company. Maybe that’s a bit of self-selection because we did do… you know, we picked people we know and rolled out from there. But we did talk to product managers and business leaders as well, and I think there’s a lot of consensus around how you do research and how you do design work. But each company seems to apply it differently. There’s some broad approaches, and we do talk about them. There’s the sort of global template, there’s the “let each country do it’s own thing withing brand guidelines”, there’s the “let’s be totally controlled from the centre”. But when we think about ourselves as individual practitioners or as leaders of teams doing design, I would say that the recipe for success is first to check your assumptions.

Even if you can’t do one single piece of research, you can’t leave your own small environment, let’s think about what are the assumptions you’re making on every decision you make in the project. Get the basics right, you know, the dates and language and things. But also think about slang. We’re moving towards less formal applications, applications that talk to us in sort of human ways. But when is that based on language that’s very local? Is that appropriate everywhere? Would you walk up to someone in the street somewhere else and talk that same way? Think about that, but also how do you simply be human? One of the things we get all worried about is that we will offend somebody, that we will somehow make a mistake, and I think that really paralyses people. Of course it would be nice to recognise, it’s important to recognise that people around the world are not identical. But you can also be yourself and simply be an open, curious and engaged human being, thinking about other human beings who are probably as curious and open about you. And I think that will take you a long way.

Gerry:

Indeed. Do you have any particular tips for the time-poor and budget-poor designers who may be working in their little corner office? Obviously they’ll look out for the Global UX book when it comes out, but what else? You said be open and check your assumptions but we all make assumptions every day, that’s a potential recipe for paralysis as well. What can they… are there practical steps they can take or books they can read or training they can do… What should they be doing?

Whitney:

Here’s a really simple one that’s easy to do from your web browser, which is if you’re designing an application for, let’s say banking, go look at banking sites around the world. Take a look at what they look like. One of the people we talked to was working on a project in the Middle East in Arabic, and didn’t have a lot of contact and didn’t have a lot of time, but the one thing she did was pulled up every website she could find that was the same type of website that was done in Arabic, and looked at some of the conventions they were using and thought about that a bit. And found someone on her team who could help her translate a little bit. Looked for sites that had an English equivalent so she could go back and forth between them for herself. The web has made it possible to jump huge oceans in a single click, and why not make use of that?

Gerry:

What’s the title for the book, Whitney, when it comes out? Have you settled on that?

Whitney:

Yes. It’s Global UX: Design and Research in a Connected World.

Gerry:

And when is it going to be out, or is that a fraught question?

Whitney:

No, it’s not a fraught question! We actually have the text to the editor which means that the machinery of publishing is in motion, and it should be out in early November.

Gerry:

Would you like to give away a free copy to listeners?

Whitney:

I’d love to.

Gerry:

OK. What’s the mechanics of that? Shall we get them to use Twitter or something? Should we get them to use Google + now that that’s launched?

Whitney:

[Laughter.] Gosh, is this something you have a general technique for doing.

Gerry:

Nah.

Whitney:

How about they tweet #UXpod #globalUX and they tweet something about what it means to be global.

Gerry:

Ooh, nice one. OK, so they do that and then we’ll, purely based on merit we’ll pick somebody and get them a signed copy of the book so it’ll be signed by Dano in Hong Kong and yourself in… New Jersey you’re in, is it? Or New York?

Whitney:

New Jersey.

Gerry:

Whitney, you’re coming to Australia for UX Australia in August, towards the end of August, and you’re doing a workshop, is that right? You’re doing the storytelling workshop?

Whitney:

I am. I’m very excited about UX Australia, too.

Gerry:

Yeah, it’s a great conference. What’s the gist of the storytelling workshop?

Whitney:

Most of the time is actually spent creating stories and then trying different ways of shaping them. So adding different elements to them; how do you take the same story and use it for different purposes within UX? You might be using it to understand users, you also might be using it to sell and idea. How do you take the same basic story and shape it up? How to you tell it in different formats? How do you frame it differently? So it’s just a chance to spend a few hours working through the mechanics of stories.

Gerry:

And you and Dano will also be presenting on Global UX. That’s going to be just a short talk, is it?

Whitney:

We will, yeah. We’ll do a romp through the key topics in the book.

I’ll tell you one of the things that’s really exciting to me about coming to UX Australia is that not only does the speaker list look fantastic, but many of them are people I either have heard of but never met, or people I’ve never heard of. And that’s really refreshing.

Gerry:

Yeah. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. It’ll be good. I’m talking as well, with James Hunter, on designing for children, so that should be fun too.

And I believe you put in a presentation for IXDA in Dublin in February? [Note: it’s actually called Interaction 12.]

Whitney:

Yeah, we’ve put in something for Global UX and I’ve put in something for storytelling. And I’m thinking about trying to come up with something to talk about this work I’ve been doing in civic design.

Gerry:

That’d be great because the weather in February in Dublin will be just fantastic.

Whitney:

[Laughs.] Yeah, I can imagine.

Gerry:

Whitney Quesenbery, thanks so much for joining me today on the User Experience podcast.

Whitney:

Thank you, Gerry.

Published: August 2011

A note on the transcripts

We make verbatim transcripts of the User Experience podcast. We then edit the transcripts to remove speech-specific elements that interfere with meaning in print (primarily space-fillers such as “you know…”, “um…”).

Gerry GaffneyGlobal UX: An interview with Whitney Quesenbery

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *