Eric Reiss is a user experience thought-leader, consultant, and author. He wrote his first book over 30 years ago, and his subject matter spans diverse areas from antique gramophones, to Egyptology, to user experience. Today, he runs a user experience consultancy, FatDUX, headquartered in Copenhagen, Denmark, with offices and associates throughout Europe and the Americas.
CareerFoundry CEO, Raffaela Rein, interviewed him about his career, his books, and the meaning of user experience design. As someone who has been in the field for decades, Eric knows a lot about the subject, he has a great way of approaching user experience, and shares some great examples to get you thinking about UX.
Eric’s career - from theatre to tech
Eric’s first book on how to repair and restore antique phonographs is now in its fifth edition. It’s been in print for over 30 years, has sold over 80,000 copies (not bad for such a niche topic), and definitely contributed to his UX career: the book oddly enough landed him in the advertising business. Someone from Danish Sugar Factories noticed his talent for explaining technical things in accessible language and offered him work.
In a way, he’d been working in user experience for years already. He moved to Copenhagen from the US about 40 years ago, and worked as the Stage Director at the Royal Danish Theatre for 10 years. He says working at the theatre is all about creating a positive user experience. When he found himself being recruited into the ad business, he thought, if nothing else, it pays better than the theatre.
His mixed skills were a great match for the developing field of UX - he’d studied computers to some extent at university in the US, and understood the way that computers ‘think.’ He also understood the importance of good user experience from his time at the theatre. And finally, he could communicate ideas nicely, and was already a published author.
By the early 80s, he was already applying UX principles in the field of tech. In 1983 he wrote the first Danish language adventure game for the ZX Spectrum. Then in the late 90s, he wrote one of the first books on Information Architecture, and in 2001, he started his own UX business. They offer service design, including a lot of screen-based interaction design.
In 2006, he founded a design firm, FatDUX, named as such, he explains, because fat ducks are juicy and tasty, but also because DUX stands for Design of User Experience - an acronym used in California many years ago.
Can you tell us about UX and what the term means for you?
User experience has always been around, it just wasn’t always called that. Back in the mid 1980s I was already working in service design, or as we called it then, ‘Scandinavian Service Management.’ That was very similar to what we would today call UX design.
User experience is a name that I rather like, but nowadays I feel that lots of people are trying to ‘own’ it in a way it can’t really be owned. There are content strategists, information architects, and interaction designers, etc. And some of these people think they are the main user experience person. Yet although they all contribute to some part of the user experience - none of us are truly ‘user experience designers.’ I can’t do everything that is required, but I can certainly do some things.
The turf wars can end up confusing the community and discussions can get very academic. Lots of different people want to define what it is and isn’t. I regularly see really smart people write papers saying that something is or isn’t user experience. The business community doesn’t fully understand these discussions either. They often lack an actionable definition which means they don’t know how to put things in motion and, at worst, assume user experience is just another silly buzzword.
I see user experience as being very much the net effect of a series of interactions, you may call them touchpoints. There will be a lot of interactions - some are small like clicking a button, some are large like reading a report, or for example, even the smell of a perfume could be considered an interaction. There’s also a tendency to assume that user experience is strictly online, I don’t believe this is true either. As user-experience designers, it is our task to choreograph these interactions in a way that benefits both our client and the users.
One story I like to tell, despite not being very religious, is from the Gospel According to John. He wrote about how Jesus turned water to wine at the wedding at Cana. According to John, Christ performed the miracle to convince his disciples that he was the true messiah. But he could have used any miracle to do this, it just so happened to involve alcohol. Now don’t tell me they didn’t enjoy drinking the wine – and that is very much user experience.
Also, some people say that X,Y, Z is part of customer experience not user experience. I think the two are very much related but customer experience is part of user experience, not the other way around. For example, if I go to the store to buy cat food, I am the customer because there’s a financial relationship involved. I’m interested in the shelf appeal of Whiskers. How hard is it to open the package? How hard is it to get it into the cat’s bowl? I’m the customer.
But the cat is the user. He’s the one eating it. So, whereas all customers are users, not all users are customers. If you go to buy a car, you go from being a potential customer, to a customer, but then 10 years down the line you’re an owner. You no longer think of yourself as a customer for Ford or Chevy, you’re the owner or ‘user’ of a car. I think again there are a lot of people who want to make a name for themselves or own the term user experience, but I don’t think that’s healthy, I don’t think anyone can really own it.
How do you explain the value of UX to people?
In short, we live in a world where products have a tendency to look very similar. If you’re buying a Windows laptop, what’s the difference between HP or Acer any other? Not really very much.
Even Apple, which used to be very different, looks a lot like its competitors these days. So, as things tend to look (and act) more alike, how are you going to differentiate? It’s not a case of adding more features - this model has another button, or lights up, or has an option to find it if it gets lost. These are not good metrics.
Let’s take a simple example. There are two pizza parlours. They’re right next to each other, and sell identical pizzas at an identical price. One place just takes your order and gives you your pizza, then, out the door. At the other place, they remember your name, they might say ‘Hey Eric, great to see you again! Do you want your usual pizza today? We’ve just got a shipment of great pepperoni straight from Italy, taste this, you’ll love it.’
Which one would you go to in the future? The one where you experience good service, right? Most likely - because service is one of the most visible aspects of good user experience.
If you want to convince someone that UX will give them a benefit - ask them how else they can differentiate their product in a saturated marketplace. If not through user experience, what else can you draw upon?
I actually think that many Bible stories build on some interesting aspect of user experience. As parables, if you don’t take them literally you can learn a lot from them. People often say ‘I don’t believe in God’ but that’s not the point. We’re talking about the basic human behavior, and that is the essence of user experience.
There are three kinds of interaction; there’s there stuff we can do something about, the stuff we can’t do anything about, and then there’s stuff we can’t do anything about, but can at least make it more bearable. For example, I can’t stop it from raining, but if I’m organizing a picnic I can at least make sure there are umbrellas, a pavilion, or some other kind of shelter so the people don’t get wet if it happens to rain. We want to avoid the interaction of the wet rain falling on top of our dry guests. If we choreograph things properly, we create a better user experience.
What career advice would you give to someone starting out?
I’ve received a lot of really good career advice over the years, but I think the best advice I ever got was to take risks. Some of the most interesting jobs I’ve had are the ones where I took a chance. I embarked on something that I didn’t know enough about - that’s okay if you’re a quick learner. And you only learn by taking chances - if you continue doing what you know how to do, then you don’t grow.
The first female American Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, was originally hired by President Carter’s team back in 1978 when she was fresh out of school in Washington, DC, to act as a liaison between the White House and the US Congress. I’ve heard that at that time, she kept going in to her boss and saying ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.’ After several instances of this, he apparently said to her, “Shut up, Madeleine, or you’re going to cheat yourself out of a really interesting job!”
The jobs I’ve been hired for have rarely turned out the way I thought they would. I didn’t end up doing the things I thought I was going to do when I got hired, but that’s not a bad thing. I say take risks, take chances, believe in yourself, and be willing to work really, really hard because it’s not always easy.
Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that few agencies truly focus on user experience. You see many advertising agencies that leverage UX to interest their clients in “look and feel” creatives. Digital agencies are doing the same, usually to get clients to buy expensive software and programming services. But few really care about user experience. Over again I see information architects and content strategists being asked to do wireframes. I think wireframing is the least of what a UX person truly does. So, if you go for a job interview and the first thing they ask is ‘can you wireframe?’ then I’d encourage you to walk out the door. You don’t want to work there.
If you’re interested in learning more about user experience, you can check out the following books by Eric Reiss:
- Practical information architecture: a hands-on approach to structuring successful websites
- Usable usability: simple steps for making stuff better
And sign up for our free 7-day introduction to UX design course!