An Interview With Caroline Jarrett

An Interview With Caroline Jarrett
With over 17 years of experience working as a Usability and User Experience consultant for her own firm Effortmark and speaking at various conferences worldwide, Caroline Jarrett has long been considered as one of the leading experts in the field. She has also co-authored two of the best-selling books that, in my opinion, should be on every usability and user experience professional’s bookshelf. I am, of course speaking about Forms that Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability and User Interface Design and Evaluation. This week I have had the pleasure to interview her prior to welcoming her to speak with me at Malta’s first Usability Conference – An Evening of Web Usability which we will be organizing on the 7th of February at the University of Malta.

1. You have originally graduated in Mathematics from the University of Oxford before pursuing an MBA with the Open University. What inspired you to shift from this domain to user experience?

After Oxford, I got a job as a trainee software engineer and rapidly moved into project management. I did a combination of project management and software engineering for a long time, but was always much more interested in what computers are for than in how to put them together. That led naturally into a move into usability and user experience.

2. Were there any major obstacles that you encountered along the way and, if yes, how did you tackle them?

Not really. I was very lucky that when I started my business, in 1994, I got lots of work with the UK tax authorities (at that time, the Inland Revenue; now HM Revenue and Customs) working on the biggest change to the tax system in the UK for over 50 years. I’ve been working on and off with tax ever since. My contacts with the tax people came through delivering systems to them for processing paper forms using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) techniques, which led to a fascination with the problem of how to design forms that are easy to fill in and easy to deal with. That’s still my favourite thing to work on: forms, but now it’s mostly web forms and web surveys.

3. You’ve spoken at a variety of conferences. What have your experiences of speaking at conferences been like?

It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to meet people who share a passion for improving user experiences. I’ve learned so much from travelling the world and finding out what issues we share, and what is special to each country or industry.

4. You worked on two books, both of which were co-authored, can you tell me about the experiences you had in working on “User Interface Design and Evaluation”, and “Forms That Work”?

“User Interface Design and Evaluation” came out of my experiences as a tutor for the Open University. I started as a tutor in project management, then as my professional interests changed over to user experience and human-computer interaction (HCI), I moved into tutoring on that. I did my own MBA as a distance learning student with the Open University, so that gave me insight into being a tutor myself. Then I got invited to be the tutor representative on the course team and then I got invited to help create a new version of the course, a post-graduate distance learning module in the MSc in Computing for Commerce and Industry. I really enjoyed being part of a team with my academic colleagues: Debbie Stone, Mark Woodroffe and Shailey Minocha. And that was rather successful so we got asked to edit it into a textbook; Debbie and I did that together.

The book is aimed at people who want to go from zero to being ‘beginning practitioners’ on their own. It came out in 2005 and the bits about the web look a little out-of-date now, but if you’re designing a computer system, an application, or something that’s not a web site then it’s still got plenty of good advice in it today.

“Forms that work” came about because of my fascination with forms. I was part of a private mailing list for user experience people, and I used to post mostly about forms. Gerry Gaffney, who is a user experience guru in Australia, was also on that list and he wrote asking about a book on forms and I suggested to him that we might write a book together. He only lives about 15 minutes from my sister. We met, got on really well and were thinking about it. Then Jakob Nielsen, who was also on the list at that time, contacted me and suggested that I write a book on forms. In the end, it took a long while to write but we’re proud of it now.

5. You have become synonymous with Web Form Usability. Why web forms?

Any forms! I love paper forms even more than web forms. It’s not so much that I love the forms, it’s more that forms are really important and often rather bad. So working on forms is a good way to make improvements.

6. And now you are working on “Surveys that Work”. When will it be available? Is there any insight that you can give us on what one might expect to find in it?

Lou Rosenfeld, who is going to publish the book through his publishing company Rosenfeld Media, keeps asking me those questions as well. He’s very encouraging and keeps thinking up wonderful ideas to help the UX community and his authors. I’m definitely making much quicker progress than with the forms book, and I’m hoping it will come out towards the end of this year.

One of Lou’s ideas is to have a blog, so if you visit the book’s web site you’ll find that I post about it from time to time.

And if you’d like a sneak preview of the content, have a look at these slides.

7. You founded Effortmark in 1994 and business is still going strong. What type of services do you render and how have they evolved in these 18 years?

I’m a user experience consultant, which means that I advise clients on how to make things easier to use. I’m particularly interested in three areas:

  1. Improving forms
  2. Value from surveys
  3. Tuning up very large content-rich web sites

I offer advice, do training, or use whatever user experience technique seems to me to be the most appropriate for my clients’ challenge.

8. And what about clients? Any particular insight that you would like to share on client trends and needs?

For a long time now, my main client has been the Open University. I don’t have any academic connections with them any more, I’m purely working with them on user experience consultancy. Could be anything really; recently, we’ve been creating a Mental Model of the enquirer experience. Tomorrow I’ll be commenting on some wireframes for a change to one of their major websites. Then I’ll be leading a workshop to help a group start to work with their personas.

Another key client is Kantar, the market research and insight arm of WPP. Kantar is huge and I’ve found it fascinating to work with them. One great project I can talk about was a pilot study of using EEG/neuroscience techniques to try to assess the level of respondent engagement during a rather complex survey. We did a presentation on that at the European Survey Research Association conference in Lausanne in 2011. The slides are here.

I’m very lucky to work mostly with clients who constantly ask me to do new and innovative things. These days, my clients ‘get it’ about the importance of user experience; the challenge is about helping them to do all they want to in today’s climate of needing to move quickly, and tight budgets.

9. What aspects of UX do you think are the most important?

Definitely, incremental improvement. I thought that one of the key ideas in Web 2.0 was ‘perpetual beta’; Lou Rosenfeld has been coming back to the theme recently in his presentations on ‘Redesign must die’. And Steve Krug says similar things in his book on usability testing, Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-it-yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems. The best UX work is about constantly tweaking, constantly looking for little ways to improve – and never saying “there’s no point in doing that now because we’re going to do a major redesign soon”.

10. But if you were to summarize UX in just one word, what would it be?


By which I mean: keep focusing on who uses what you produce. That may be the users of the web site. Or it may mean: the stakeholder who uses the document or your report. Or it may mean: the project manager who needs to plan when things happen.

And without doubt, the best way to learn about your users is to watch them try to use things. Watch, think, and make small changes to improve. That’s the essence of UX work.

11. What advice would you give to anyone who is interested in pursuing a career in User Experience?

Steve Krug always says that there’s no point in asking him because he started so long ago that his experience wouldn’t be relevant to anyone starting today. I feel somewhat the same way, but I do think that one aspect of my experience is relevant which is: go for it. It’s a wonderful field to work in and I’d encourage anyone to try.

12. How do you predict the evolution of UX over the coming years?

I think we’ll stop being so obsessed with “Web” as being the beginning and end of user experience, and start to think more about user experience as including everything – the cyber parts and the non-cyber parts.

13. Thanks, Caroline. I’m looking forward to our ‘Evening of Web Usability’ in Malta.

It’s been a pleasure. And I’m thrilled about being part of the evening. It will be great to meet you in person, and also find out about UX in Malta.

  • Maya Middlemiss

    I really enjoyed reading this interview – I specialise in recruiting participants for UX testing, and I am very interested in better understanding the craft of the tester and ensuring we build robust screening techniques to deliver precisely the right people for the appropriate stage of testing. If anyone can point me at further resources or advice I would be very open to that, and if you require accurately-recruited users for any phase of testing please do not hesitate to get in touch.

  • Jake Rocheleau

    Hey these are some wonderful UX design tips. Love the blog.

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