What UIE is All About

Jared Spool

December 2nd, 2005

“Oh, you should talk to my son. His company does all that computer stuff.”

That’s the advice my mother gave one of her Thanksgiving dinner guests who had just complained about some frustration he was having with his home computer.

“Oh really? So, what is it your company actually does with computers?” he asked, as he turned to me probably hoping that I could magically restore whatever data loss he’d suffered.

So started my annual ritual of trying to explain to my mother’s friends what UIE does. Short answer: we don’t fix broken computers. Well, sort of.

Here’s the long answer, which doesn’t really play well at my mother’s dinner events, but did play very well with the Procter & Gamble executive I was talked to yesterday, who basically asked the same question (however for different reasons):

User Interface Engineering is a think tank exploring user experience, design, and the usability of technology. Our long-term mission is to improve the quality of people’s lives by eliminating all the frustration that comes from the introduction of technology. We figure that’s likely to take a hundred years or so.

Our thinking is, a hundred years from now, UIE won’t be producing all of the technology. Instead, we want to be a major source of the information technology designers and developers use when creating and developing their ideas.

Right now, our thinking is focused on three areas:

  • Design: What designs works best for users? What were designers trying to achieve with their choices? How did those choices actually work out for them? What can we learn from what they’ve done?
  • Research Practices: What techniques and practices are most effective for analyzing what to design, how the design works, and pinpointing what to change?
  • Organizational Structures: What kind of organizations produce the best designs? If you’re going to start a new group, what kind of skills should you staff for? Should your user experience efforts be centralized or distributed? What can be outsourced or off-shored?

To answer these questions, we conduct a lot of research, mostly using observational techniques, to determine how people interact with technology today and what changes in design, research practices, and organizational structures are likely to make improvements. This research has produced some interesting work:

Initially, we funded our research through consulting projects. As we’ve accumulated knowledge, we started sharing it to others through our events and publications. Over time, these have also become effective fund raising tools for further research.

We’re doing less and less consulting as the years go on. We now do more “advisory” work, where we guide teams using the knowledge we’ve acquired. This leverages our assets better while being more cost effective. It’s a good complement to our events and publications, as it gives teams direct access to the fruits of our work.

The cycle is now: conduct research -> share what we’ve learned -> fund more research. Buying our reports, attending our events, and calling on us for advice is the best way to help us conduct more research.

However, we’re still not the right people to call if your hard drive craps out. My mom’s friend needs to find someone else.

One Response to “What UIE is All About”

  1. Craig Stabler Says:

    Jared,

    I attended your Roadshow in Philly and enjoyed it very much. I manage a team of UCDs and I’m working on trying to find the optimal team design. My take on your opinion is that you favor the decentralized model (education, not legislation, etc.) as opposed to the other end of the scale, with much more emphasis on a larger centralized group. Right now, I have 2 onshore UCDs and 1 offshore UCD. My team focuses on the intranet. My group has another team we work very closely with that focuses on usability / IA standards and user experience advocacy. Are there certain factors we should be looking at when determining the best organizational model? Thanks

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