Web designInterview

Erika Hall on problem solving in web design

Erika Hall on creating interfaces to solve problems

The director of strategy at Mule Design talks about creating interfaces to solve problems, cutting industry 'crap' and milking snakes.

Please introduce yourself.

I'm a problem solver. I love analysing and solving problems for people: the thornier the better. That's why co-founding a strategic design studio like Mule was ideal. It's hard to define exactly the kind of work I do. The title we came up with for me is director of strategy. I oversee the research, content strategy, information architecture and interaction design parts of our work: in essence, all of the more analytic parts of brand strategy and interface design.

What's your take on UI? Should startups obsess about it above all else?

The most delightful and enchanting interface won't make a lick of difference if you aren't solving a real problem. Because any interface, any interactive service, is one more thing for busy people to learn. You must make the experience easy, pleasant and memorable because there are a million alternatives. Even people working on enterprise software have to compete on ease of use because consumer technology has reset expectations.

We love Unsuck It - what's the finest piece of business jargon you've encountered?

Unsuck.it points out the absurdity of some business jargon

Clear communication is the interface for human interaction. Business jargon is the linguistic equivalent of junk and clutter. I created www.unsuck-it.com, a humorous lexicon, to point out the absurdity of some of these phrases that people use mindlessly or because it feels smart to do so, and to shame them into speaking and writing more plainly.

The worst I've heard lately is 'growth hacker'. It's all over the Silicon Valley, referring to a marketing person at an early-stage startup. I guess if you are an insecure person working in a company full of engineers, you have to fancy yourself some sort of hacker. Read George Orwell's essay, 'Politics and the English Language'. It's the only content strategy document anyone working in English needs.

You've written a book, Just Enough Research. What's the secret of successful design research?

Bothering to do it. Really, a lot of folks who don't come from a research-driven design background like I do may not have exposure to research, or they may think it's part of a very slow and heavy process that isn't appealing to people who want to develop a product using a light and quick methodology. I wanted to provide an easy entry point that frames research as a set of tools to help you clarify and meet your goals, not a straightjacket that weighs you down.

The other secret is to be collaborative. Even in organisations that conduct research as part of product design, the researchers are often set apart and highly specialised. Even the most exciting research report is less effective than participating first-hand in asking questions and coming up with new insights. And don't be formal; be intentional and ethical about what you're doing. Use those critical thinking skills.

You co-host Running From The Law on Mule Radio Syndicate. Why do a podcast all about business law?

Running from the Law focuses on legal issues in design

Over the course of my time at Mule Design, I've been involved in a lot of contract negotiations and our lawyer is now a close friend. He's also a distance runner. I do triathlons. We combined forces to talk about some of the common issues that arise in business law and toss in some fun stuff about training and exercise. People seem to like it. When you're in business, legal issues can seem daunting.

What's next for you?

Well, we are working on expanding our strategy practice at Mule. I am very excited about that. I really just want to help increase our industry's focus on what constitutes a productive use of time, and frankly, reduce the number of pointless things that get put out into the world because no one really thought hard enough about whether their assumptions were correct. I am all for fun and purely enjoyable things. But we have enough crap and not enough time and attention.

You've blogged about snake milking. What?

I enjoy what I do very much. Sometimes it gets frustrating, so it helps to think of other jobs to put things in perspective. Snake milking, extracting venom from poisonous snakes by hand, is quite useful. The venom has pharmaceutical uses. But to me, no professional interaction, no matter how tricky, is as difficult and personally unpleasant as milking a snake would be.

This article originally appeared in net magazine issue 247.

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