Andrew Crow recently had an email conversation with Cordell Ratzlaff, Director of User Experience at Cisco. They discussed his recent move to Cisco and switch from interface design to user experience design plus what user experience managers should know about user experience management in large organizations.
Cordell was behind the Mac OS X at Apple and is now leading organizational change at Cisco through product design for Cisco’s voice, video, and web collaboration products. Cordell will be speaking on at our upcoming MX San Francisco conference on April 20-22.
Andrew Crow [AC]: Your accomplishments at Apple are well known. But with your new position at Cisco, you seem to have made a transition from interface design to user experience. What caused that shift in focus and do you see that as being a trend for other designers?
Cordell Ratzlaff [CR]: I’ve always just wanted to design products that people fall in love with. And that requires considering every possible way a person interacts with a product, from branding and packaging through installation, use, upgrade, and disposal. One of my pet peeves is with the specialized labels that have evolved within our profession. We have user interface designers, usability engineers, user experience specialists, visual designers, interaction designers, etc. The distinction between these many roles is fuzzy and confusing to those both inside and outside the design profession. Personally, I blame the information architects for this—they think they need to classify everything.
I encourage designers to get as broad a range of experience as possible. Design products for as many markets, demographics, product types, and technology platforms as you can. Don’t be afraid to take on tasks outside your traditional role. The best designers I know are good at many facets of design. It certainly doesn’t hurt to know about branding, marketing, business models, and technology as well.
AC: Director of User Experience is a pretty high position. Are companies like Cisco starting to embrace design in ways that they traditionally have not?
CR: This is definitely a trend, and a good one at that! More and more companies appreciate the strategic value of design and see design as a way to solve business problems. This is a great direction for designers, but it means we all have to get more business savvy. There are a few things driving this trend. First, technology is a commodity. The cost of technology and the time to bring it to market are both decreasing. Technology leads are fleeting. Google launches a new feature. A few weeks later, you’ll see it on Yahoo. When technology and time-to-market are no longer competitive advantages, design—and the experience it provides to customers—can be a strong differentiator.
Second, companies such as Apple and Nintendo provide great case studies of how a design-focused culture can have a direct affect on the bottom line. They’ve raised people’s expectations for all product design, even beyond the consumer market. People who work in large corporations go home and enjoy the experience with their iPods and Wiis. Why should they expect anything less from the tools they use at work?
Finally, never before have competitive landscapes shifted so quickly and unexpectedly. The telecommunications industry is a great example. A year ago the industry was made up of lumbering giants competing to see who could suck less. Today they’re going up against Microsoft, Apple, and Google.
AC: What about the opportunity at Cisco was so interesting?
CR: It was all about the opportunity to have an impact. It’s relatively easy to do good work at companies like Apple or frog design, which have cultures that are tuned to turn out great design. Cisco offered a challenge to do the same level of work in a setting where design has not been part of the equation. The opportunity to impact Cisco’s product design and create a culture that values and fosters great design was very appealing. I wouldn’t have taken the job, though, if I hadn’t seen a strong commitment from senior executives at the company: That they were serious about making design a core competency and willing to invest the necessary resources.
AC: How are you using your experience at Apple and frog design to help transform Cisco from a technology infrastructure company to one that delivers compelling consumer experiences?
CR: Much like the way things are done at Apple and frog design, we first defined the experience we wanted people to have with our products and then assembled or built the technology to deliver it. This was a big change for Cisco, which had previously been very driven by the technology itself. We revamped our product development process to include user research, design, prototyping and usability testing very early on, and used these activities to drive feature requirements and development.
After we established a user experience vision that was aligned with Cisco’s business goals and technology, we built prototypes to show how the vision would be realized across our product portfolio. People got excited about where we were going and everyone focused in the same direction.
Since a big part of the vision is to provide a consistent user experience across our products, the prototypes showed what our products’ user interface would look like and how the interactions would work on different platforms. A side effect of this approach was increased collaboration among product development teams, who were dependent on each other to accomplish this goal.
Along the way we’ve worked to dispel the myth of the distinction between “enterprise” users and consumers. We’re all people, and our expectations and values don’t change when we walk through the office door in the morning. We may do different things at work than what we do at home, but why should people settle for a lesser experience with the tools they use at work than they do with their iPods, and Wiis?
AC: How much of that transformation is winning the hearts and minds of people there? What have you found to be successful tactics?
CR: Ninety percent of the effort is about affecting culture change. The design work is actually the easy part. Transformation tactics that have worked well include:
- Inspiring people with a clear vision. A shared vision that people are excited about will take on its own momentum
- Setting high standards and sticking to them. We’ve sought out opportunities to point out that the old way of doing things is not acceptable
- Persistence. Change is hard and corporate inertia can be difficult to overcome. It’s much easier to manage the status quo than to enforce change. Senior leadership communicates and reinforces the benefits of making this transformation every chance we get
Delivering and celebrating successes along the way has helped everyone see that all the hard work associated with the change is worth it.
AC: Is there one thing that you are passionate about? How does this help drive you?
CR: Making things simple. We have more options and choices than ever before, but attending to them all squeezes the time out of our lives. Great product design is achieved through what we leave out, not what we put in.
AC: Cordell, thank you for your time, I look forward to hearing you speak at MX.