At Smartlook we’re always trying to come up with clever ways to enhance User Experience (UX). Readers of our blog will know that we offer technological solutions to help solve common UX problems such as our mobile app analytics tools or our website visitor recording tools.
However, technology can’t solve UX problems alone. To effectively solve UX problems we need to deeply understand the problems we’re trying to solve. In order to do that, it helps to be able to plug in to thought-leaders in the UX space who have successfully tackled problems similar to ours.
Today, we have the opportunity to do just that. We recently chatted with Joe Natoli, a CX / UX consultant, prolific author, public speaker and teacher about his experiences in the CX space. Let’s jump into the interview.
Joe, thanks for joining us here today, it’s great to have you on board. Where did your journey in UX / CX begin?
The journey is hard to summarize, but I’ll try. Where this all started for me — particularly the Evangelist part — came from a meeting with my high school guidance counselor where I was a senior. I grew up in a very small town in Ohio that you could drive through in three minutes, which is a tough place for a sensitive artist to grow up in. So I went to this guy and said )
“I want to do something art-related with my life.” He looked me straight in the eyes and suggested I join the Army. Again, small town, so to him I’m just another useless dreamer. I got so angry that I told him to f**k off, and decided I’d figure it out myself. Found graphic design in the Kent State University catalog and took a shot; it sounded creative, and it sounded like something I could get a job doing.
Why that story is important: the degree to which design and UX is still very misunderstood, marginalized and unappreciated — and how that makes people who do this work feel every day — is a large part of what fuels me. It is my mission to remove that burden, that pain, from everyone involved. From teams struggling to coexist and collaborate to young designers and UXers dealing with Impostor Syndrome (which I have in spades), I’m the guy who’s here to tell you it can be done, it can work, this can be overcome. And because I went to the very best, most rigorous schools of hard knocks, I can also show you how.
I often say that my job as both a consultant and teacher/trainer is to be part therapist, part motivational speaker. I seem to be becoming the Tony Robbins of UX 😉
Anyway, I graduated with a degree in Graphic Design. I had been working at an agency the last two years of my college tenure, which was invaluable on-the-job learning. I bounced around a few design and ad agencies, and then this thing called the Internet happened. I couldn’t convince the old men who ran the agency I worked at that it wasn’t a passing fad, that we needed to get into this work. So I jumped ship and started my own “Experience Design” firm. Wild West, nobody knew anything… so we said yes to every “do you know how to” question and figured it out as we went along. Grew to six employees, then sold the company to an IT firm in 2004. A few years later I went back to independent consulting, teaching and product team training.
The “UX Evangelist” term was inspired by Guy Kawasaki, who viewed the work he did with Apple (and beyond in his own ventures) as evangelizing. That struck an emotional chord with me, because I’m passionate about this stuff — I truly BELIEVE, all caps, in the power of great design and great user experiences. And anyone who’s seen me on stage will recognize just how much I identify with gospel preachers 😉
Things that may seem trivial — helping someone complete a work task more quickly or accurately or efficiently — have an enormous cumulative effect on that person’s quality of life. Removing the “death by a thousand cuts” people experience over and over in their lives and their work creates space for more positive things. More experiences, more life. That matters.
When and how did you realize that User Experience is going to make such a substantial impact on online businesses? What did you do to change the way you, and the people you help, think about UX when it was only emerging?
Well, when the term UX was coined, I’d already been doing it for several years. Since college in the late 80s and early 90s. So although the name was different, and the mediums for delivery expanded, the work and the purpose was the same. I’ll explain.
KSU (college) was a very rigorous design program and the emphasis was on Design as a problem-solving discipline. And the focus was largely on the sort of two-way communication that happens when you design something, when people look at it and react with it. And while this was pre-Internet, printed page, the questions we were taught to ask were UX questions: Does this communicate to the intended audience? Does it meet their expectations? Does it motivate them or help them to act? Is it helping or hurting in terms of their ability to get what or where they want?
In other words all the tenets that we know right now as User Experience were there — we just called it design.
And to reference my answer above, when I jumped out on my own that was largely due to being exposed to people like Alan Cooper and Don Norman, who were talking about interaction and UX. Every word out of their mouths hit me like a bomb: YEAH, THAT!! That was what I wanted, because I kept feeling like what they were talking about was exactly what Design was (as I knew it) — just applied to a digital medium, meaning software, and Intent-based Software as a Service.
So all I did was what I was already doing: pushing clients to take a harder look at the people their communications and products needed to serve. To design those things around those needs, so that value was communicated, and value came from use of those products. Which meant money coming back to the company.
In those 30 years of working in UX, you mentioned that you worked with Fortune 100 companies, government agencies, and small startups alike. In your opinion, what are the main differences when approaching UX for different organization types or sizes?
Huge enterprises are very different from small-or mid-sized companies only partly because of their size. The real, massive difference is in the distribution of everything: leadership, communication, chain of command, product teams, etc. Multiple locations across multiple countries and time zones. Layers upon layers of communication (and miscommunication). Layers upon layers of legacy systems coupled with newer technology. An increased need for speed in a physical manifestation that makes it nearly impossible to move any faster than a snail’s pace, if only because so many humans are involved at every step. As a result, problems and obstacles to UX grow exponentially. They’re big, they’re deep and the real cause of those issues is almost never what it appears to be.
And here’s the thing: I LOVE that.
I love those challenges, I love that complexity. The tougher it is, the more excited I am. Because remember, I’m an Evangelist — I’m the guy who firmly believes that huge enterprise organizations can be as flexible and fast and as agile as a startup. That may sound crazy, but it’s what I’ve been helping organizations do for quite awhile now. Now, it’s possible, but it’s definitely not easy, or simple. Change comes in inches in these scenarios, but once you get there, the velocity at which teams can design quality products and deliver great UX can really surprise you.
But it also requires abandoning perfect-world processes. It requires being brutally honest about what’s working and what’s not, and it requires a willingness to set fear aside and think and work differently. But it absolutely can be done; my clients are testament to that.
What are some of the main differences between UX then and UX now? What do you think about the progress and evolution of UX, and how did it affect different business aspects, including UX design, throughout those years?
The only thing that’s changed, in my opinion, is the mechanics of the delivery medium. The specific constraints that are introduced by new devices and operating systems and platforms. The trolls by which we execute our work certainly grow and change. But the fundamental psychological principles that drive human behavior haven’t changed. They’re affected and manipulated in different ways, of course — but human cognitive behavior has remained constant. So the principles that dictate good design and UX — many of which go back to the early 1900s — are still as dependable and as true as they were then.
I say that because I think it’s very easy to get distracted by this panicky idea of “how is UX changing?” Media outlets ask this kind of stuff all the time because it gets clicks; IS UX DEAD? I hate all that stuff, because none of it is true. The work we do will always be here, always be needed, and will always require us human beings to do it.
You mentioned that you are speaking publicly about UX for almost 30 years and that you see it as a way to give back what others gave you early on in your career. Who were your main influences at that time, and how did they help you get where you are now?
Alan and Sue Cooper, first and foremost. There is no way I would have career without their firm, Cooper, or without having been exposed to Alan’s early books (The Inmates are Running the Asylum, About Face). He is still my point man for a great many things, because we share an impatience for bullshit, for artifice. Alan was the first person I was exposed to who unabashedly called it like he saw it, and did not mince words doing so. Reminiscent of my Father, who’s whole thing is tell the truth. Clearly, plainly, honestly.
Others as well, of course: Don Norman, Steve Krug, Kathy Sierra, Jesse James Garrett. People I worked with who took time to teach me and let me run with it, like David Flynn and Mike Matthews, art directors at agency jobs I held. Brian McIntyre, one of my earliest business partners and mentors.
There are a number of these folks who took time out of their lives to teach me, to let me take risks on the job and learn by doing, to answer my questions, to write back, to answer the phone. I have never forgotten and will never forget their generosity. And I see it as my duty to pay that forward as often as I can.
You’ve started coaching students online through your online courses, eight of them to be precise, including UX & Web Design Master Course. With over 140,000 students under your belt, it’s safe to say that you influenced a considerable number of people. For others out there putting courses together online, what are some of the biggest UX considerations you need to make? Many people putting courses online are subject matter experts but lack a background in UX. What advice would you give those people to help ensure the success of their online courses?
First, you have to just do it. As a quote I love by W.H. Auden goes, “Look if you like…but you will have to leap.” If you believe you have something valuable to offer, then do it; take the shot. There’s room for everyone, and no one will say what you say the way you can say it. No one will teach the thing the way you can teach it. Get rid of the idea that there are enough ‘experts’ out there, that it’s all been said or done.
Next, learn how to promote yourself. Because that — bringing people to your courses, your training, whatever — is 70% of the battle once you launch something out into the world. I am ungodly fortunate in that my wife, Eli Natoli, strategized and guided every aspect of that work. She is a marketing coach for entrepreneurs, and has several cases online at Udemy. She developed the promotion strategy for every course I’ve ever done, and for my books as well. She wrote an incredible book called the Service First Framework that details exactly how we got to 140,000+ students. In the foreword to that book, I wrote that she built the ground I walk on. I cannot emphasize enough how very true that is.
I do the easy part — the subject matter stuff. That comes natural to me, and with experience your skills and ability to create valuable content certainly get sharper. But unless you can make people aware of it, tell a compelling story, give them a sense of (and then a taste of) its value, you might as well be talking to yourself.
So to anyone contemplating creating a course, writing a book, being a consultant — do yourself a giant favor and check out Eli’s work. I’m living proof.
Are there any pieces of advice that you’d give to someone who is just starting learning about UX and UI? What would you say to yourself if you were just starting out now? Is there something that you’d do differently now as opposed to when you were starting out?
It’s tempting to say you’d do things differently, but here’s what I know to be true at 51 years of age: there are no wrong turns.
Every decision you make, good or bad, leads you to where you’re supposed to be. There’s only one way things could have gone: the way they went. Making peace with that early on in your life and career is tremendously important. What could have been or should have been is irrelevant, because if you’re spending time an effort and emotion on those things, you’re not dealing with what IS, right now. And that’s what will hurt you.
I’m going to share something I recently talked about on the User Defenders podcast, because it’s exactly what I want to say in response to this question.
One of the questions I’m asked almost weekly is “what’s the most important skill a UXer or Designer can have?” And my answer is always the same:
Because I can promise you one thing: you are going to get knocked down. That’s not an “if,” it’s a “when.”
You will get knocked to the canvas, to use a boxing metaphor. You are going to get handed some things, personally and professionally, that will make you think “there is no way I can deal with this. My life is over, my career is over. I shouldn’t be doing this, I was stupid to think I ever could…”
There are all sorts of unkind things that you will say and think to yourself in these moments. I know everyone reading this knows what I’m talking about. And I know you’re thinking of some of your best lines right now. We all do it, and we’re all really good at it.
Now…say what you will about Sylvester Stallone, but I have always been and always will be a big fan of the “Rocky” movies. Because as clichéd and as trite as they can be, the spirit in those stories is real and true. All those lines that Sly delivers with such overwrought drama resonate with billions of people because they are pulled from truth, from reality: “Nothing is going to hit harder than life.” FACTS.
Yes, you’re going to get knocked down. But what you do about it is what determines your success or failure. Is the moment going to happen? Yes! No matter how smart you are, or how well-prepared you are, or how hard you work, what a good person you are…it’s going happen. You’re going to have setbacks, small and large. And there is only one way through any of them: to get back up. Especially when you don’t think you can.
Henry Rollins is another one of my all-time favorite people. And I’ve been lucky enough to have had several conversations with him over the years. A lot of people think different things about Henry, but in my book he’s one of the kindest, most generous, no-bullshit people I’ve ever known. And one of the key parts of one conversation in particular has always stuck with me. We were talking about writing and creative endeavors and the fear involved in doing so. About how no matter how hot that fire inside is to want to do it — write, paint, make music, act, etc. — the fear of starting and carrying on is ever present. And it stops most people from ever trying in the first place.
This is a guy, by the way, who was living out of a tool shed at one point in his life while booking band shows, writing books and starting a publishing company.
I said, “what would you say to somebody who’s feeling intimidated or beaten, or is just feeling like, ‘man, there’s just no way I can get there?’” And he said, “As crass as this sounds, you have to go out there and get your nose broken.” Because, when you do, he went on to say, here’s what you learn:
First, you realize that you’re not dead; it didn’t kill you. You realize that you’re still breathing, you’re still putting one foot in front of the other and it teaches you something about yourself. Because at the time you’re thinking, “there’s no way I’m going to get through this.”
And then you do get through it… and you survive. You live to fight another day and you get to try again. You get to do more. In the case of business, you get hired again after a long layoff. Another client gives you a shot after the last one fired you. After every fall, no matter how high and how hard it was, you get yet another opportunity to do something. And you learn a great deal about yourself, what you’re made of and what you can overcome in the process.
The light bulb goes off: “Okay, so if I don’t quit, opportunities still continue to present themselves…but only if I continue to keep going and be available for them.” If you quit, you lose. If you throw in the towel, you’re done. It’s over.
And that is nobody else’s fault, no matter what the situation is.
I will reiterate: it’s going to be hard. In some cases, it’s really going to hurt. You’ve got to go forward anyway. Because you will never get the reward unless you move past the pain. Unless you force yourself to get up again, go again, try again.
There is nothing I can tell you that’s more true than that.
Now, here’s something that I don’t talk about, but I think it’s relevant here. I have four damaged vertebrae in my lower back. Not just damaged, broken. The outer ring is literally broken and deteriorated in multiple spots, with the jellied stuff inside poking through.
That feels exactly like you think it does. All day, every day.
I sat in a consult and with a surgeon who said, “look, they’re literally broken, which means they’re not going to heal. Now, can you have surgery? Yes. Is it going to fix your problem? Probably not. And then you’re going to be back in here every other year to have another surgery — because once you stabilize your spine, it’s like a domino effect.”
So… I vote no. That is NOT happening, for as long as I can possibly put it off. Which means that every day, I have two choices.
One — I can relentlessly complain about what I’m feeling and how hard it is to move through moments and do certain things with what feels like a chisel poking and scraping around inside my spine, or
Two— I can just get on with it and say it is what it is. Give it less credence, pay it less attention. Because it’s not going to stop; it’s not going to go away, it’s not going to get better. Me being angry about it or bitching about it changes absolutely nothing. Which means it isn’t worth that energy — energy that can and should be directed toward something positive, or at least something more worthy of attention and care.
You just have to keep going. That’s resilience. That’s what it takes if you want to do anything well for any sustained period of time.
Fantastic Joe! Great ending. Thank you for taking the time to chat with our blog readers today about your experiences in the UX industry. To our audience, if you’d like to learn more about Joe you can follow him on Twitter or head over to his website here.