Surviving UX with Eric Reiss

A transcript of Episode 171 of UX Podcast. James Royal-Lawson and Per Axbom talk to Eric L. Reiss about how the environment we work in, and the way in which we communicate what we do, creates a constant struggle.

Photo taken by Peter Vermaercke



James: You’re listening to UX Podcast coming to you from Stockholm, Sweden. I’m James Royal-Lawson.

Per: And I’m Per Axbom.

James: We have listeners in a hundred and seventy-two countries from Mexico to Angola. A hundred and seventy-two, Per, that’s — next time it’s going to be fun because this is episode 171.

Per: Oh, so we’ll have the same number of countries as the episode number.

James: Perhaps, perhaps. Exciting things await.

Per: Unless another country just adds themselves just to spite us. Today we’re talking to Eric Reiss, an American business and information architecture theorist, content strategist, consultant, and author. Known for his work in the field of information architecture. He is the CEO of FatDUX Copenhagen as well as the CEO of FatDUX Group.

James: Yeah. And Eric was the chair of the EuroIA Conference from its beginning in 2005 until 2014 when he handed it over to a rotating panel of chair people. He is — well, we talked to him about a lot of the challenges we face as an industry and getting to really maybe how we can survive it.


James: I actually have your Usable Usability book in my office.

Eric: You do? It’s a good paperweight. We love it from that.

James: It is for — well –

Eric: And also for propping up monitors. That’s good.

James: And it’s also good — it’s also good — of course but I mean it’s a great read. But also, I like it having it around because the aspects of that book that I think people who visit me and sit there, they can actually pick up and just open it up and have a little read, and something — little light bulbs come up.

Eric: I’m glad you said that because I was approach by the publisher and they said, well, we want to book on usability and we want you to write it. So, I’m not really a usability guy. I mean not that I don’t know anything about it but that wasn’t really my specialty and so, no, no, everybody else has a usability book. We need one in our portfolio and we want you to write it, so I don’t want to write a usability book. So, no, no, Eric, you — you’ve got to write a usability book and listen, what you want to do is write a book on user experience and I would love to write that book. No, no, no, we don’t want that. So, I wrote a book on user experience and they got to put usability in the title and everybody is happy.

James: Which is — which is many ways it’s kind of what we do, isn’t it? The blending and mixing of things listening to what people say they want and then interpreting it, understand it, and presenting something that actually does the job anyway.

Eric: Yeah. And it’s all very well and it’s out in four languages now, so I assume that people are getting something out of it and as you said, James, the whole idea was to do a book for people who didn’t necessarily have a background in this but to get them to start paying attention to what was happening around them and how they interacted with devices or with servers at restaurants, and so on. It’s service design. It’s traditional website usability. It’s a lot of different things. But you don’t have to be an expert. This was — as much for the project managers or anybody who’s on the team, so that they can make a more valuable contribution rather than the usability guru coming in and say, well, we did our testing and this is what we found out.

Per: But when you say, I mean you wanted to write a book within user experience rather than usability. I mean how do you view the user experience? What are the boundaries of that — of that subject, because that’s something we argue so much about in the industry I think because some clients even see graphic design as UX?

Eric: Well, I think it is. I don’t think that any of us can truly call ourselves UX designers although that’s certainly a convenient title. I think — I very much see user experience as being this great umbrella that covers a multitude of disciplines and what we’ve seen in recent years is that people are gravitating from one area to the other and have latched onto UX as a buzzword and they said, oh, I’m a UX designer and they maybe are or at least part of UX but certainly information architecture and interaction design, and service design, all of these things come under the canopy; search engine optimization. The story I’d like to tell is — I like bible stories. Bible stories are really, really good because they tell you an awful lot about human nature and the one I like is from the gospels according to John. Now, I’m not a very religious person mind you. I’m just taking this as a good story.

But so John explains, well, and so Jesus shows up at the wedding in Cana and He converts six vats of water into wine. Now, you have to very careful. This wasn’t for the guests. This was to convince his disciples that he was the true Messiah. Now, as far as I’m concerned, any Messiah that chooses to create alcohol as their first miracle. He’s got a plus in my book but don’t tell me they didn’t serve it at the wedding too, yeah. That is user experience and it has absolutely nothing to do whether it’s on screen or not. I think that is another problem that our industry is facing that people think, well, pixels aren’t involved then it’s not UX and that’s — I don’t think that’s true at all and ultimately limits our ability to get through to companies who generally have a broader view of things than just, oh, well, we have a website or we have an app.

James: I think — yeah. I agree with that. Well, SEO — a while back that became something that — the C suite understood. They recognize the phrase and UX I think has been an enabler and we’ve actually — they’re starting to hear that phrase and they’ve heard of UX now. They don’t know necessarily what it means or what involves but there’s been a door opened and I see that’s been good for us as it’s enabled to do a lot of good work. But it’s destroying us as the same time.

Eric: It is because I think the people are latching onto it as a buzzword. You have mediocre WordPress designers who say, oh, now, we’re a UX company because that’s cooler than — I do websites in my bedroom after I get home from work. The — because people don’t truly understand what UX is or have a very narrow view of it then there is a lot of confusion on the top levels and one of the problems I see is that many of the definitions we have are extremely academic and not particularly actionable and so you say, all they say, well, happy customers buy more. Okay.

Yeah. I kind of get that but what do you actually do as a UX designer? In my company, long time ago came up with a very simple and very actionable definition that is much more tactical than the — more grandiose things and this isn’t to say that any of these academic descriptions are wrong. They’re not. They’re very good and they’re very smart people who have thought this through. But I see user experience as the sum impression left after a series of interactions and there are interactions that you can control in some way. There are interactions that you need to acknowledge. Okay. It’s grey outside in Stockholm today. It may rain.

You can’t stop it from raining but then I can reduce negative interactions by saying, all right, I’ll go get my umbrella before I go out this evening. And most important of all, you need to jam — examine the journey between these different touchpoints or interactions or whatever you want to call them, and that part of the customer journey people don’t talk about a lot. They talk about the individual interactions and I thought it was very well said by our keynote today, Stephanie Hughes, who’s an architect in the built world. She said, well, you can’t really design an interaction. I could argue with her on some of these but I understand her point and it is true. We can — we can certainly choreograph the interactions. She says, they architect interactions. We can’t necessarily control that interaction a hundred percent and therefore it can’t truly be designed. You can argue with that too.

But my point is, if you have actually looked at these interactions, what do we have in the customer journey or what are people doing? And you can as granular as you want if you just designing a website then you can look at actual clicks and site maps and all this kind of stuff if you’re doing service design. Well, maybe you’re looking at a period of couple of hours in a store or a couple of days at a hotel, or half a year during a long sales process for a complicated thing. You need to start grouping all these interactions because you can’t do everything equally well and so we’ve developed a very simple model. It’s simply a cross, a double — a two access four quadrant graph and at the top, this is stuff that we can do something about. These are interactions we can control, stuff at the bottom, and use with things that we can’t control.

If you look over on the right and say, this is stuff that’s actually important to the business model and all the stuff on the left, screw it. And if you are not doing things in the upper right quadrant, things that you can’t control that are important to the business then you’re wasting somebody’s time and you’re certainly wasting a lot of — a lot of money. So that’s something that the business community has understood and I think it’s part of the reason that we’ve been successful in explaining user experience as we practice it at my company.

Per: It’s interesting when you say, it’s important for the business because something that we talked a lot about these days in UX is the ethics of design and the impact of what we’re doing because we’re actually building the future in a sense and so things happen along the way that perhaps hurt people even though they are profitable. How are we as designers responsible for countering that and perhaps looking beyond what is just the business model but also in the interest of the people?

Eric: It’s ultimately not in the business’s interest, not long-term interest to treat — to treat their consumers as consumables and that’s kind of what they’re doing by collecting personal data and so on. A couple of weeks ago, I was privilege enough to be part of a hundred and fifty people that were sequestered for 48 hours and we wrote something called, The Copenhagen Letter on Tech. And I –

Per: I signed it.

James: I signed it too.

Eric: And you signed it? Well, that’s good.

James: I signed it as well.

Eric: I’m not quite sure how this happened but when the letter came along for me to sign, the only spot on the paper was where John Hancock has his big signature on the Declaration of Independence, so here I am sitting right at the middle — I was very proud to have been part of that process. There were — I mean there were a lot of people that drop out along the way but we were still sort of a core group of about 50 people who hashed this out and we did say, look, we have a lot of power as people who understand technology and we can use it for good or we can use it for evil, and we have the responsibility to create products that we would want our loved ones to use. We do not think that it is in the long-term interest of business to treat their customers as consumable goods or research objects.

Now, here we are sitting in Sweden, one of the most innovative companies in the world is Swedish and that is Volvo. They invented the three-point safety harness in 1957. Well, my God, it took 30 years before we started to see these in cars — and of course, it was a lot of bitching from the Americans as, well, I don’t like — I don’t want to be controlled in that way and so people found all kinds of hacks so that they didn’t have to wear their seatbelt. I mean if they want to be stupid and kill themselves in accidents, I’m thinking, well, maybe that’s another form of natural selection.

But back in the early 90s, Pehr Gyllenhammar who was the CEO announced, look, Volvo is now done using organic solvents to clean metal parts. We’re not going to use organic solvents in the paints and other processes in creating these automobiles and he was sort of hailed as, oh, the first of the green manufacturers. But there were a lot of manufacturers and some of them were my clients that, well, that’s nonsense and that’s never going to work. But the truth is, Volvo did very well by making these decisions because even though they weren’t mandated by law at that time, when they did come along, Volvo didn’t have to change a thing. They were thinking sustainability long before the rest of the industry. I think that that’s a really, really interesting development and something that other business leaders should be thinking about that maybe doing good can also be profitable.

James: I think — you can see how — not just that we’re reaching at point of maturity as an industry where we’re reflecting on it and doing things like the Copenhagen Letter but also how there’s more and more mainstream reports into addiction to gambling sites, or kind of screen use the effect of — children using screens or how society — elections. I mean there’s a lot more of this insight and data bubbling to the surface and being aware of and I suspect a lot of companies — a lot of industries are going to be regulated quite heavily in the near future.

Eric: Oh, I think so too. It’s interesting you mentioned addiction because that was one of the things that we specifically discussed in the Copenhagen Letter. We as technologists and as designers do not feel that it’s ethically correct to consciously produce products that are designed to addict. Now, we can’t stop addiction. I mean if people want to play a game that — and feel a compulsion to play this game every day, we can’t stop that but if we are actually creating a game that is encouraging addiction then we’re probably doing something wrong.

Per: But say we are unconsciously designing it and then we realize afterwards that, oh, my God, this creates addiction. Then do we have the responsibility to pull it back?

Eric: Well, there’s a degree of latency there. I think there are a lot of the tech community doesn’t really think through the ultimate long-term effects of the things that they do and hopefully things like the Copenhagen Letter will inspire people to think twice about what they’re doing and to sometimes question the motives of the people who are hiring them. Now, are — I have a lot of the — those of us who sign the letter probably get ostracized by some part of the community other than business community or somebody else and I kind of don’t care. But on the other hand, I’m 63 years old and my wife and I live comfortably. So, I’m not particularly worried about getting fired. I fired more clients than clients fired me.

For the younger designers, this may be an issue. I know that there are some — a couple of people that said, well, no, I can’t sign that because my employer wouldn’t like that and say, well, okay, fine. I want to tell this person, maybe you should think about finding another employer. Because ultimately — I mean I think we all agree, yeah, we want world peace and to end hunger and we want to make the world better. But on a micro level basically we want to know that our time on Earth has been spent in some kind of a productive way and then maybe we left the world a little better than it was than when we came in and these are the types of values that we try to teach our children and children learn by example, and so maybe we need to be setting a better example, so let’s work for companies that do have a higher ethical code and I’m not talking about just some stupid code of conduct that they’ve stuck on their website but companies that truly live up to the ethical norms that they purport to have.

James: I do wonder as well about how with methods such as lean or lean and agile those kinds of methods — the way they are applied in our industry encourages quickness in doing things fast without thinking, without reflection, without kind of realizing the full implications maybe because you haven’t — you haven’t designed in any time to deal with that kind of thing.

Eric: Right. I was at Dan Brown’s research or discoverability workshop this morning and he talked about programming in or planning in time for noodling. And noodle — use your noodle. That’s American slang for, use your brain, so if you’re noodling that means you’re thinking about something and he’s absolutely right. We sometimes don’t give ourselves enough time. When I was working in advertising it took a lot out of me to write an annual report or a corporate brochure, whatever. And my employer had sort of booked me in for four major projects within the space of four weeks. Now, in terms of the timing and the budgets, four weeks was what I was going to need but I have absolutely no time to recharge my batteries and it was a very, very difficult time to get through all four of these projects. I think that we do need time to think. We need to have time to go for a walk and we do need to have time to go and take a swim or cook a nice meal for our family, or whatever we do — read some fiction. My God, I’m so tired of people hearing telling me about all the tech books they’ve read. When was the time anybody read poetry by Baudelaire?

Per: Everybody is talking about, yeah, we need to teach kids programming in schools now and I’m thinking, when everybody says that today I actually respond, let’s take the time reading poetry as well because you need that aspect of course also.

Eric: Oh, absolutely. I’ll tell you, the best — the best programmers I know are people who are pretty musical. They play instruments, they read, they write poetry. I don’t think that — if you ask people who have never talk to a dev, what this person is, they’re all very geeky and they’re weird and they live under parked cars in some place and then you sort of come out and then there’s lots of cold pizza and warm Coca-Cola.

That’s not the way the tech community is at all. But we’re not very good at communicating this. I think another one of the problems that our industry faces in general not only are we not being very clear about what user experience is but we are so eager to be honest and transparent that every damn sentence starts with “it depends” and whatever, come on. It depends is an extra click in the verbal click stream as far as I’m concerned.

Of course, everything depends but we’re so eager for this transparency and honesty that I think that we actually make a lot of potential clients uncomfortable. If you talk to somebody from advertising. I don’t — I don’t know how popular Madmen was in Sweden but you’ve got Don Draper who comes in there all cool and says, yeah, just give me a ton of money. I’m going to make it all wonderful. And they said, no, I’ll save that. I’m not going to put the rest of my sentence on tape. I should do with — and you can sleep with my secretary too but that was advertising back in the 60s. But that is very comforting. You — if I deliver my car for servicing, I don’t want them to try out his socket tool shit and look at what I’ve got, and he said, no, I said, can I pick the car up at 5:00 and is it going to run?

That’s really all I need to know and that’s what Don Draper is very good at doing and the advertising account executives are very good at sort of zeroing in on what is that pain-point for the client in solving that? I think this is also why they’re generally better on strategic work than for example a lot of the dev houses. The dev houses? No, no, we’re going to talk about UX and AI and, blah, blah, blah, and the cloud, and it gets very confusing because mostly the clients have never heard these terms before. If they have, they’ve either had them explain by somebody who didn’t understand them or they didn’t understand the explanation they got plus there are 10 more — acronyms or whatever that or abbreviations that they’ve never heard of before and I think that make some very uncomfortable.

Per: I really liked that message actually taking responsibility for communicating in a coherent and not just hiding behind “it depends”. I think that’s something that we as designers should need to hear more.

Eric: That’s certainly is our failing I think both in terms of information architecture but in more general terms in terms of user experience and here again, I’m — this goes from everything from graphic design to SEO to basic code. We’re not — we’re not communicating it very well. We’re trying to be honest and transparent and I think we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. The other thing is that before we started the interview, James, I think you asked, well, so what’s the difference between the state of UX in the United States and in Europe? And despite my American accent, I am in fact German citizen. I live in Copenhagen, Denmark and have lived there for 41 years.

So, I feel that I kind of understand what — what’s been going on this side of the pond and what I can say is that when I talk to clients in the United States, I hear a lot of really strange definitions of user experience and you’d think that these were carved in stone. I say, no, no, this is the way it is or you get some kid fresh out of school with a — with a — I mean the ink is barely dry on their master’s degree and they’ve been reading the books that we others have been writing and they think, well, we read these books, so we’re really smart. There — they don’t have the empirical experience to solve problems in the same way that those of us who have been around for a while can, so there are — there are a lot of preconceptions in the United States that I don’t necessarily see in Europe.

So, you can say, well, all right, Europe is backwards because we haven’t had a common vocabulary. If you talk to the French, we can argue for hours about what we even call user experience or information architecture and in France, you’re not supposed to use words that are adopted from other languages. You need to invent a word in French — and that’s fine, and I think it’s great for the preservation of the language but it does make it very difficult in terms of creating a common vocabulary and thank goodness, unlike say 30 years ago, where you almost had to apologize for speaking English. Today, we all have our national language mine is Danish. My international language is English and if you don’t speak the local language you speak English and nobody makes any two bones about to use an American idiom.

And I think that that’s helping us create a common vocabulary and because we have smaller conferences such as EuroIA. Which is — this is actually the largest one with 300 people — For years when I was chair, we capped at 200 because we wanted people to create a network. And it was very important that there were long breaks and people got to talk and when we started, 13 years ago, there were a hundred people who met in Belgium who never meet each other and now we’ve got two of them on stage now who have been bosom buddies for 13 years who are up presenting about services design. That’s nice. I’m very, very pleased to see all these relationships and that’s helping us at least consolidate the message. It’s not quite as diverse as some of the stuff that I see coming from United States which is very categorical often and I’m not sure. I’m not sure they’re as advanced as they like to think they are. I apologize to the Americans out there. You’re good people. You’re heart is in the right place.

Per: It’s a generalization, so I mean –

Eric: It’s a — it’s a gross generalization — yeah.

Per: But it’s always interesting because it’s something we tend to think about. I mean we’re so influenced by The States and Europe where it look to — I mean Adaptive Path. I mean the ones we were looking to for answers back in the day but — and now perhaps we’re moving more onwards in our — by our own.

Eric: Adaptive path did wonderful work. Frog did wonderful work or they do wonderful work. There are a lot of good agencies out there and then there are an awful lot of agencies that are closing almost daily because they are basically small Wordpress shops that don’t truly understand it and suddenly they find out that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. They don’t really understand enough about user experience to make it valuable to the — their customers.

James: Yeah. Their off-the-shelf factories rather than designers.

Eric: That’s right. Yeah. Let’s find a template that kind of fits and change a couple of colors.

Per: Thank you so much for sitting down with us, Eric. This was excellent conversation.

Eric: Well, thank you very much.


Per: Thinking back and reflecting also on Eric’s seatbelt story, the Volvo car seatbelt. I mean, yes, it’s really important for UX and we always say this. It’s really important for the UX-ers to understand how you contribute to business value and that’s how you prioritize but I think you also need to understand that you need to argue your case sometimes even to business minded people because there’s often a clash between short-term and long-term goals, so while conversions, clicks, and time on the site will benefit a business in the short-term. It can harm it in the — in the long-term because people get upset and you lose reputation and trust and stuff like that, and so I would argue that UX-ers must think more about the long-term and the sustainability which was the seatbelt story said that, well, Volvo stayed ahead of the current. They thought about how people could get hurt. They invented the seatbelt and then they were ahead of the entire car industry for many years because they did that before everyone else — before the regulation even came.

James: And we — I mean the way that we’ve talked about this in the past — Melissa Perri was one of the ones that brought this up with us in respect to prioritizing a backlog. It’s kind of — you take impact on users and multiply it by the value to the business and that then gives you a value which you can use the prioritize your backlog.

We could potentially — Thinking of a concrete way to help people out there with this because it’s not easy. If you sat there and you’re ask to improve the click through ratio or whatever of a button or a conversation rate of a — of a — of a particular transaction path then that’s an awkward situation as a interaction designer or a UX-er or whatever we’ve called ourselves.

So, if we — if we then take value for business — if you — if you take everything we’re working on if a — if it’s a feature or a particular clump of research or whatever, the object — and we say, okay, let’s write down values for business both for long-term and short-term and let’s also write down impact to user — to the user, to the — to the customer short-term and long-term. So, you’ve got — you’ve got something for both of those things on both sides to help you build up a better picture and perhaps help you communicate better the value or the risk to your managers or to your — the business side of your organization.

Per: Exactly. It’s the impact risk assessment really and what it helps you do is like to say you have five options and you’re using this tool to evaluate how good are they and the top most options, they convert a lot more than the other options, so people will buy more — you can — the AB test show that. But at the same time, you’re looking at the impact to the user and you’re realizing, well, they could potentially get hurt because they will do something that it would — they didn’t expect or something will happen that they may not realize will hurt them in the long-term and so you have to choose the third option of the — of the five, the third most converting option because you think about sustainability. You think about the long-term effects.

James: Yes. The more I think about this now the more I like it because we would normally base our work on usability testing. Now, what tests well with users. And that’s been purely interaction design most of the time that someone who’s managed to get through a series of — a sequence of interactions and then we’ve got AB testing where it’s pure numbers, how many people have kind of jumped through the hoops to get to the other side on mass? And this though that becomes another dimension to it, a really nice dimension that we can say, okay, this is the — this is absolutely the most usable — the highest usability of the options. This is absolutely the highest converting of the options but when we add the long-term impact for users and business this is the one that actually carries us over the line.

Per: Exactly. And what you said there long-term impact for users and business because you have to realize that if it hurts users, it will hurt the business in the long-term because they will leave.

James: It might be the case that you do need to implement one of the short-term solutions with a higher short-term value because of other business considerations such as revenue. You might need — you might need revenue sooner in order to finance revenue longer in the future, so –

Per: Right. But then at least you’re aware of what you’re doing.

James: Yes, and you also got the plan is there for implementing the next one along which does actually have the longer — the higher longer-term benefit, so you’ve — so you’ve got to be writing a business plan.

Per: Yes.

James: Which is actually — this is interesting in itself. When we — when we talked about UX and Eric did say at the beginning of the interview about, it’s a canopy. We’ve talked about this too. UX is a canopy expression. It’s not really — it’s not really a — an occupation in itself but when you’re doing interaction design or you’re doing — you’re doing in graphic designs stuff at the interface level of UX, that’s one thing — but to be able to do really good job or even to be able to say, no, to particular jobs — if you’re evaluating companies and their stance and how well they live up to what they say they live up too. You need to be kind of more of a business counselor and someone who is — someone who is willing to prove the business and find out the — what they’re really working towards.

Per: Yeah, exactly.

James: And that’s not always obvious. I think — I mean me and you — when I’m doing workshops and in particularly with analytics that I get questions like, well, what reports should we do for the — for the organization? So why do we even need to do reports? Well, because the business have asked for the reports. Why? What do they want them? We don’t know. It’s a — You very quickly get to that “we don’t really know why we’re doing what we’re doing but we do it”.

Per: Yeah. So, it also encourages you like we were talking about as well to slow down, to reflect, to think about the different possibilities of the work you’re doing and we come across that a lot now that just that act of just having — I don’t know, a wind down making sure that you do something else not just design.

James: Yeah, exactly. We got a — I think we’re becoming more and more aware I think about how small our worlds are. It’s kind of interesting how we went from not realizing our worlds were small to thinking we have really big worlds with social media and connections all over the world to suddenly realizing, oh, it’s still quite a little place we live in and for us to do a good job at designing. You’ve got to have I think at least an openness for how things are and that you get through experience. You get through basically trying other things, trying something new, reading something different.

Per: Yes, exactly.

James: Breaking out of the mold.

Per: I read a lot of novels now. I’ve stopped reading all these business books because I realized I need other impressions. I need to build my empathy bank and understand other things.

James: Listen, it maybe not just builds your empathy bank but also just keep your mind open.

Per: If you’ve enjoyed listening to UX Podcast, then please add us in Apple Podcast or wherever you like listening. Show notes and full archive of past shows you can find on I’m Per Axbom.

James: And I’m James Royal-Lawson.

Per: Remember to keep moving.

James: See you on the other side.


James: Autumn.

Now colder shadows… Who’ll turn back the clock? 
Goodbye bright summer’s brief too lively sport. 
The squirrel drops its acorn with a shock,
cord-wood reverberates in my cobbled court.

Winter has entered in my citadel;
hate, anger, fear, forced work like splitting rock,
And like the sun borne to its northern hell, 
my heart’s no more than a red frozen block.

Shaking, I listen for the wood to fall;
building a scaffold makes no deafer sound. 
Each heart-beat knocks my body to the ground,
like a slow battering ram crumbling a wall.

I think this is the season’s funeral,
someone is nailing a coffin hurriedly. 
For whom? Yesterday summer, today fall -
The steady progress sounds like a goodbye.

This is a transcript of a conversation between James Royal-Lawson, Per Axbom and Eric Reiss recorded for UX Podcast at EuroIA in September 2017. To hear more episodes visit or search for UX Podcast in your favourite podcast client.

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