In this exclusive interview, business process re-engineering consultant and usability evangelist Robby Slaughter chats with Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler about web-based courseware systems, mobile computing devices, usability, and the future of higher education. Read this interview and you’ll learn why dramatic website redesigns can be detrimental to user experience, why innovation most often arises from working with something old in a new way, and what the future holds for those of us dependent on technological innovation.

TCW: Robby, thanks for taking time to chat with us today. For those of our readers who don’t know who you are nor what you do, tell us a little about yourself and the company you work for.

imageRS: I run a process consulting and methodology engineering business, Slaughter Development. We help organizations to analyze workflow and rebuild business processes through a comprehensive, bottom-up, stakeholder-driven change methodology. Since most of our business is based on individual client relationships, I mostly work with part time contractors on a project-to-project basis. There’s usually between 3-5 people actively engaged at any one time.

TCW: Your website says you specialize in usability, software development, process and methodology, technical communication, and data architecture. That’s an awful lot for one man to handle. Can you tell us what tasks you are you are best suited to perform and why folks might want to consider hiring you instead of someone else?

RS: In the technology industry, we have one overarching problem: widespread, unwitting incompetence. I meet people who call themselves designers who have never heard of kerning or affordances, self-professed programmers who can’t code Fuzz-Buzz, methodological “experts” who can neither define sampling nor detect bias, technical writers and speakers whose ability to assemble phrases would embarrass their second-grade teachers, and database administrators whose pinnacle of knowledge are wizards in Microsoft Access.

This phenomenon means that it makes more sense to be a competent generalist so that you can advise, consult and refer people to specialists where necessary. Too many technologists are competing with somebody’s nephew or the secretary who is reading a “dummies” book. I’m best suited to help you analyze and understand what you are doing, and if we need a high-level specialist, I can help you find the right expert.

TCW: What projects have you completed, for what companies and where can we see your work?

RS: I like to say that a portfolio is like a picture of a field of icebergs: the landscape has changed since the photo was taken, and most of the work is beneath the surface therefore invisible. But I have written hundreds of thousands of words, lines of code, developed over a hundred different websites, done speaking engagements, led training sessions, and taught at major universities. As much as I like talking about myself, I’ll spare your readers the full biography. Google is available if you really want to know more.

image TCW: Mobile communications devices (previously called personal digital assistants) are finally starting to take off in the US, thanks in part to Apple and the iPhone. In the past you’ve said you invented the first PDA-centric courseware system. I’ve seen some of these from companies like BlackBoard. Tell us a little about this project, what your role was, what happened, and why it matters today?

RS: Starting in 1999, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Anthony Petrosino at the University of Texas at Austin on research regarding the use of Personal Digital Assistants in educational environments. At the time, these devices were primitive, mostly with monochrome screens, limited storage, and no Internet connection, but were still a fraction of the cost of desktop or laptop computers. In the meantime, web-based courseware systems (such as BlackBoard, WebCT, Sakai and Moodle) were just starting to be used for content delivery and student engagement. I suggested that since most of this interaction occurred while students were not actually online, we could take advantage of the “disconnected nature” of PDA’s to provide a form of PDA-based learning.

At the time, the existing courseware tools assumed a full-screen browser (or a custom application) and an always-on Internet connection. I built a complete courseware tool from the ground up which featured electronic syllabi, threaded discussion forums, a private messaging system, a formative assessment tool, and even reading materials including PowerPoint lectures and electronic texts. Students could synchronize their device using cradles at their schools. We did several case studies at the University and elementary school level. You can still see the final version of the site (in 2002 glory).

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Technology marches on, so $200 handheld devices don’t make much sense in a world of $200 OLPC’s. This project proved, however, that with a little intelligence in the device and only occasional Internet access you can provide a comprehensive electronic courseware experience. Our students were able to review slides, read hundreds of pages of text and pictures, take part in discussions (using detachable keyboards and complete take-home quizzes. Even modern classroom environments still struggle with this level of interaction; the Sakai-based tool OnCourse which I use with my students at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI) does not provide the level of portability nor (in some areas) the quality of usability for course management which I created nearly a decade ago for PDAShare.

The important lesson of PDAShare is that the power of technology far surpasses typical use. We could give every student an iPod Touch, but most of the interaction desired by educators is constrained to the content and experiences defined by the curriculum. This is possible with obsolete hardware. We need to learn to look past the shiny, sexy features of the latest gear and focus on the fundamental opportunities. Innovation often arises from working with something old in a new way.

TCW: As a former student at IUPUI, I know my best educational experiences were usually provided by non-tenured instructors. When I’ve returned over the years to take some advanced classes, I’ve not been very impressed. Schools seem to be behind the curve with regard to teaching students about technology. What classes are you currently teaching at the university? What classes do you think are needed, but aren’t yet being taught?

RS: Currently, I teach two courses at IUPUI: Web Design and Systems Analysis.

The principal question for me is whether university educators should focus on fundamental concepts and enlightened discourse about the topic or particular details of current approaches such as specific tools, techniques and vendors.

For example: Adobe Dreamweaver is hot right now, so should our classes use that program extensively or advocate only generic text editors for writing code?

For example: Should we explain in detail how to create CSS sprites as it is the clever idea of the moment, or emphasize a more philosophical and less technical discussion of separation of presentation and content?

For example: Should I teach students about the (copyrighted) Rational Unified Process, explain how to use Microsoft Visio to draw UML diagrams, or engender a broader conversation about software, systems and design?

I personally believe that the university is not so much intended provide a toolkit of skills, tricks and hacks, but instead to engage creative and intellectual capacities and foster deep contemplation and discussion. There are some facts which must be learned by memorization (like common CSS properties) but I really am much more interested in students who can explain the difference between italic and emphasized text, than those who can recite all the CSS positioning types on command. Dreamweaver, likewise, is a perfectly wonderful tool, but I feel that teaching students to use that application is biasing them toward a company. Open source programming languages seem to be a better choice for teaching concepts than using those donated by a vendor. Doing that is about as academically appropriate as insisting students take notes using only Bic-brand pens.

This is not to say that students do not need these skills and nor that there is no place where they should be taught. Universities have a long, intentional tradition of neutrality and academic freedom, and locking on to one vendor or one technique eats away at that storied principle. I would like to see institutions like IUPUI clearly mark all courses as “academic” or “practical” and avoid mixing the two. The latter could be evaluated differently, especially with regard to traditional issues such as plagiarism, proper citation, and grading. The university needs to certify that you understand, say, database design. Whether you pick up some knowledge with Oracle or MySQL or Microsoft SQL Server is your prerogative and while the school might provide resources, you should not receive the same kind of grade or authoritative report of your progress in these areas.

Our program is in flux now, but I think the most important area to change is to increase cohesion between courses in the sequence. Too many classes have unclear or unenforced prerequisites. Curriculum expectations are not solidly defined. An old expression states that “teaching begins when teachers close their doors.” This may be the reality, but the future of education is open. I hope that my courses and my teaching will be audited, reviewed and improved by others more in the future.

TCW: I know you are a usability evangelist. Like me, I’m certain you have a list (written or in your head) of five things that just drive you nuts about the web. Share with our readers five usability challenges that should be easy to tackle, but for one reason or another, are making the web harder or more confusing to use than it should be.

RS: Here goes…

  1. File Uploads – We still transfer files between local storage and the web with a painful, senseless user experience. Instead of having to click a “browse” button and an “upload” button, you should be able to drag and drop files to the browser. You should be able to view your local hard drive inside a web application just like you can using the OS dialog for a desktop program. Every file you create should *automatically* have a private, well-formed URI, which through an appropriate authentication mechanism can be shared with an application. The distinction between browser and non-browser interaction needs to end.
  2. State Synchronization – We have all typed a witty comment onto a blog post or half-filled a request form only to have a distraction or a browser crash destroy our work. Our bookmarks, cookies, passwords, and preferences do not follow us from computer to computer. (Google Toolbar and Delic.io.us help a little) The back button is comically ineffective, allowing us not to see our history but only the list of pages in the current session which we actively selected (Try it: above, click “People”, then “Conferences”, then Back, then “Jobs”, then try to get back to “Conferences.” Forget getting back somewhere tomorrow.) Not to mention three click-monte.
  3. RSS – A technology which is two-thirds reassurance (it’s not just simple syndication, it’s Really Simple Syndication) should tip off even the most gullible surfer. RSS feeds don’t syndicate, they demand to be picked up on a certain interval. There’s no agreement on how to handle presentation (such as, referencing a URI to a CSS file), so lots of people just inject style directly as HTML hidden in CDATA. You now have to test your feed with different readers, which creates a new dimension on top of testing your site with different browsers. There is a much better and trivial solution: create a new SMTP header for syndicated content, and just send messages when the data is ready. Your client can collect it the way it always has, and use the header for authentication and filtering. If you really want to expose your information architecture to end users, then make source XML available.
  4. Multi-page Articles – Why must I click through several links advance through your article? I have a scroll bar, place all the content on a single page. This may limit the number of times you can interrupt me with advertisements, but I didn’t come to your site for this purpose. I came to read the article. Every extra click and page refresh you require is a waste of my time.
  5. Redesigns – The web development business (and the marketing VPs who employ them) is obsessed with cosmetic makeovers. The dramatic destruction of an old site with a new site that does exactly the same thing, only newer sounds like a great idea. However, doing so alienates countless users who are accustomed to an existing model. Instead, upgrades should be gradual, with new features introduced as optional instead of mandatory. When faced with a new design, users should be able to safely exit to the old familiar approach as they learn your new system. Stop pulling the rug out from under your users. Believe in their ability to change, but help make that change as painless as possible.

TCW: What about usability outside of the web? Do you have any usability nightmare stories you could share with our readers? What usability problems drive you mad?

RS: Finding usability problems in the real world is about as hard as imagining a barrel that contains fish. The Starbucks I’m in right now has three power outlets for a dozen, laptop-ready tables. Pairs of cushioned chairs face each other at 90 degree angle, so even a short meeting causes neck pain. Cords for the window shades are positioned behind furniture, so an average-sized person must crawl around obstacles like a coffee shop archaeologist to reduce glare. Once you start to see the world in terms of usability, it’s hard not to find something to fix everywhere you go.

TCW: You’ve been participating in conversations on the ultra-popular microblogging website Twitter. What do you think of Twitter? And, do you think it’s really useful?

RS: To quote Jeb Banner, “Twitter is an amazingly useful waste of time.” Mostly, Twitter is tremendous fun and not of great value. But I believe it can be helpful; I have gotten business (and made purchases) off of connections built solely on Twitter.

The arbitrary 140 character limit of Twitter enforces brevity; when combined with the public nature of the service Twitter can be an information platform for pure and powerful ideas. Certainly, Twitter makes everyone a citizen journalist in miniature, such as how TwitPics of the Hudson river crash scooped traditional media. If anything, Twitter is a primitive form of “whuffie” (social hard currency) advanced by Cory Doctorow in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. We’ve already seen popular bloggers receive free products from manufacturers in hopes of positive reviews, perhaps Twitterers will actually receive some kind of payment for their contribution to the community based on follower count.

TCW: As you may know, I’m a proponent of adding social networking functionality to web services, websites, and software products. Do you see a movement toward including the user in software development? Are there any organizations you are aware of that are doing it right?

RS: Yes, there is a movement toward including the user in software development, but that change is glacial in pace and a source of almost interminable friction. Those who create software, whether they are marketers or developers, tend to treat users as an *other* who inherently lack their vision or technical capacity. True user-centered design requires a radical release of ownership. It is not yet clear if there is a business model in this approach to building software.

Nobody is doing this right, but a couple of people are close. In specialized markets, for example, User Centered Design seems to be taking hold. SmartBear and Atlassian make development tools for software developers and have aggressively incorporated user ideas. Perhaps parts of the open source movement are achieving this by arbitrarily calling themselves their users. For example, if you’re working on Chandler, I bet you love Chandler, even if it confuses most everyone else.

TCW: If you had a crystal ball, what do you think it would show you about the next five years of technological innovation? What changes do you expect to stick (social media, video, etc.)?

RS: The next five years will see the near-complete absorption of all media into the Internet and the complete devaluation of content. Information is already free (as in speech) and will eventually become worthless (as in [stale] beer). We’ll stop using the phrase “social media” and all of the various branded clients and mediums will mesh into a general space. You won’t “twitter” or “blog” or “email” or “text” anymore, you will just be online and perhaps tag content as privately intended for particular recipients.

Since Moore’s law seems unstoppable, we’ll also see an unbelievable increase in automatic content association. Manually identifying people in photographs will sound as archaic as uploading a Polaroid does today. You’ll be able to search videos for text written in other languages by speaking it in your own. It will be effectively impossible to misplace or even destroy information.

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The combination of the above will create huge economic and social problems. Millions of people who produce content or manipulate information by hand will find themselves out of work; analogous to the entire industrial revolution occurring the span of a year instead of a century. Likewise, total accessibility of information will eliminate privacy. (See this article for an early version of this phenomenon.) Appear in the background of a tourist photo or talk loud enough to be overheard by someone else’s mobile device, and your spouse will inescapably know you are buying a surprise gift—or flirting with a coworker.

Somewhere after the five year mark, we will pass the singularity. Then things will get really strange.

TCW:Thanks for taking time out to help our readers get to know a little about you. Are there any online resources you’d like our readers to know about? And, if they’re interested in talking to you (or hiring you) what’s the best way to contact you?

Go to any page; after it loads, paste [ javascript:document.body.contentEditable=’true’; document.designMode=’on’; void 0 ] into the location bar of your browser, and then edit that page. Now ponder.

For more on my work, visit me online.