An Interview with Whitney Quesenbery
This is an interview with Whitney Quesenbery, one in a series of interviews with people in our industry who have made a difference in the usability field.
Whitney Quesenbery has a distinguished career in usability. She’s a noted author of two books, Storytelling for User Experience: Crafting stories for better design, with Kevin Brooks and Global UX: Design and research in a connected world, with Daniel Szuc.
Among other things, Whitney has given of her time by leading our industry as President of the Usability Professional’s Assocation, serving on two U.S. government advisory committees and by leading the Usability in Civic Life project, which aims to improve civic design projects such as voting improvement on ballots and related election materials.
Q1. What’s your background? Where did you go to school, what subjects interested you?
I started out as a theatrical designer in New York. What I loved about working in theatre was that it was live performance, which means that the audience is part of the event, and the show is never exactly the same from night to night. There’s a lot of technology in theatre lighting, and I was in the first generation of designers to learn on computer boards. The combination of technology and art was a great preparation for UX, where we are always trying to understand how other people react to things we create.
Q2. How did you get into usability field?
It was serendipity, really. I started by writing documentation for Hyperties 2.3 and I ended up working with Cognetics for 12 years on a wonderful variety of projects. All of our projects focused on making information usable – from large knowledge bases to complex data – so I got introduced to what was then called “usability engineering.” The terminology has changed over time, and we have a more varied toolkit these days, but the biggest difference between then and now is how much more common and routine user research and usability testing is today.
Q3. What is it about usability that you most enjoy, or find most rewarding?
I love the sense of discovery. Every project is a chance to learn something new. Most rewarding? That would have to be the opportunity to work on projects that can make a difference in people’s lives.
Q4. You recently wrote the book “Storytelling for User Experience,” what was the inspiration for writing it?
I’d been talking about stories in our work for several years, and wrote a chapter for Tamara Adlin and John Pruitt’s book on narrative and personas. Lou Rosenfeld nudged me into thinking about how this could become a book. I’d met Kevin Brooks at a UPA conference. With my user research perspective and his design innovation perspective, we brought together two important aspects of storytelling in UX.
Q5. As a frequent user researcher and information architect, what do you find are common issues or misunderstandings clients have about UX and IA?
Everyone struggles to figure out how the pieces fit together. It leads to silos, even within UX. Lou Rosenfeld talks about this in his plea for us to bring together all of the data and insights from both quantitative sources like analytics and qualitative sources like user research.
The other common misunderstanding, is that UX is a single process, one-size-fits-all. From my experience, it’s not. Every project is different, so the specific activities need to be adjusted, within an overall approach, to answer the questions each project poses. As a consultant, I work with companies with different situations, so I’m often figuring it out with them, looking for the best solution for their teams and how a new way of looking at a problem can help them.
Q6. From your experiences with how people use Personas and storytelling for UX projects, what key aspects seem to be the most useful, and why do you think that is?
The real value of both personas and storytelling is the way they give us a clear, human picture of the people we design for. It’s so easy to get caught up in all the mechanics of creating technology and forget that there are real people out there. The other really important value of personas is in helping us empathize with people who are not just like us. They let us understanding people from different cultures, professional backgrounds, with different beliefs or attitudes about our products. That ability to get outside of our own perspectives is critical to user experience. It’s why we do user research and usability testing.
Q7. You’ve been active with the Usability Professional’s Association for some time. What do you think are issues or opportunities with the UPA in relation to usability and UX today and in the future?
Every professional organization that I know of is struggling to find its place in a networked society. They used to be the way you met other people in your field for professional contacts, advocacy and education. Those monthly newsletters were a way to keep up with the field. But what’s the unique value a formal organization offers now? And how do they keep up with a field that is growing and evolving so rapidly? I don’t have the answers, but I know that a walled garden doesn’t work well in the face of so much competition. There are so many great online options and excellent local conferences that are no longer under the umbrella of a professional association.
Q8. What do you think the next year to two years will bring for usability and information architecture? Do you see them growing or changing, if so why?
There’s now so much in the business press about the importance of user experience and I see basic UX techniques like personas, card sorting, and usability testing being taught in so many courses that it’s starting to feel like we’ve passed a tipping point of some kind. So yes, I see it continuing to grow. But, I also think they will keep evolving. For example, we’re learning how to integrate usability into the agile development approaches. And I’m seeing a wider range of methods for usability testing to meet the needs of global and mobile projects. The world doesn’t sit still: we can’t either.
The other big trend is related to how fast the field is growing, because it’s growing everywhere. So we will have to learn how to collaborate with colleagues around the world. I learned a lot about the issues working with Dan Szuc on Global UX: Design and research in a connected world. As a small example from my current work, one of my projects focuses on accessible voting. We collaborated with OpenIDEO on a challenge to develop new ideas for how to design an accessible voting experience. The designers who participated were from Great Britain, Turkey, Cambodia, Australia, India, just to name a few.
Q9. What’s next for you and your career in the next year or two, what would you like to focus on?
I’m interested in how we create technology that is inclusive, so that we don’t continue to create digital divides that leave some people behind. I’ve been working on a book with Sarah Horton about how to design for accessibility. It won’t be a technical book – there are already lots of great resources out there for that. Instead, we’re trying to articulate how we can think about design in a way that leads naturally to more accessible products. Like the concept of “mobile first,” if we also think about “accessibility first,” we’ll end up with websites and apps that work better for everyone, because they are more focused and simpler.
Thank you Whitney!