Interview with Joy Mountford, by Amal Dar Aziz, March 2008
AZIZ: What got you interested in computers and interface design to begin with, given your initial formal training psychology and aviation?
MOUNTFORD: Well I think I was interested in finding the most difficult problems to solve, and at that time in history there was a lot of interest in how to make displays and controls for aircraft effective, and the bottleneck in all those things was the design and displays and the controls, and what happened if you don’t design it well. So I got interested in how to solve those kinds of problems. Every 10 years or so there’s a shift in the affordability of those technologies. I managed to follow nicely the, you could say, commoditization of these computers which went into purposes from military to commercial, to now at a very much consumer level. The next shift now is in this very portable, wearable stuff. So I think it is more that the technology was exciting, and that we noticed that it could be used at anytime, anywhere, with anyone. The design space got bigger and bigger and more interesting. Designing on small handheld devices is much harder than designing big things. The challenge is the interesting crossover in needs, views, and also cheapness. That is why I became interested in design – I am fascinated by how to get things to work well.
AZIZ: What are the challenges in interface design today?
MOUNTFORD: The embedding of technology into everyday objects is just down the corner, and one part of that challenge is that the display technology will be capable of being soft, and flexible, like some sort of optical LED-like sensors that are being used now. And once we can have a flexible display, literally flexible, I think that will be pretty amazing. We can become display surfaces and information sensors, and information informers, just by wandering around. The liberation from the device that we hold now is to go into soft displays that we can wear – on the neck, jewelry, whatever. Now there’s an interesting challenge because you don’t know, or you will eventually get to the point where you won't know the context in which these devices will be used. So for example when you go into a conference room, you have to ask somebody if there’s an Ethernet connection, whether this is a wireless network, etc. If there’s a conversation between the environment and you, the question is: do you query the building? I don’t know the answer. I think we need a mix of both, but then the problem is, how do you know what you are querying? What are you carrying, using?
AZIZ: So where do you even draw the line of what are private and public spaces?
MOUNTFORD: I think the challenge for design will be about that. Would you pay a lot of money for a service that hides you? We have to know what the benefits and costs of them are. Will you pay for a high-end service? One of the interviews I did several years back was for a magazine that wrote about the future of vacations, and what they basically said was that the current trend now is to go to luxury hotels completely unconnected to the outside world. We used to say we need spaces with TV, with air conditioning, and the Internet. And now the very high-end people go to resorts and islands, and they don’t want a cell phone, TV. You pay more for having nothing. Because you want to be alone, and you screen it all out. You’re paying more for that now than you used to. It used to be the opposite. You wanted to add – and now people want to subtract.The questions is, when will that be the case for the everyday person?
AZIZ: How do you think prototyping has changed in the past 20 years?
MOUNTFORD: Well, when I worked at Apple in the mid-80s, my first project was what color should a menu change to when it’s highlighted. I did it with taped-on foil overlays on glass. In between each question I flipped the middle window over to a different color, because we didn’t have color monitors to actually know what should be done. It was just weird.
Then we moved very quickly into VideoWorks, which became Director. And that I think was the most amazing shift. Because now people could see interactively, and not just with blocks, and paste-ups. And then I think there was another shift when we got things into Hypercard, because you could address other devices. We could not prototype anything physical then. I mean, they were kind of weirdly hokey. So we did a lot of cast models. And that was really what industrial design was all about: form factors. Now we have both: the tools to see what it would look like, and a different set of tools to make various different choices. In the old days it was so expensive to change anything. It was really expensive: manufacturing lines were not very good at the engineering problem. Japan used to do a lot of cheap work for Apple because they could quickly turn out products. There aren’t any limits now.
I don’t know what we’re building anymore. Because when you think about what’s an application or an applet, it's tricky. A "product" used to mean an object you could hold, and now you have to think about things like helpful mechanisms as individual products as well. You could never ship out a “helpful mechanism” or services in the past. But now you can ship things overnight, stick it out on the Internet, and hundreds of people, within a few seconds, are trying out your product. It's so great that the Internet community is self-managed. People will give you feedback for free. There’s a culture now of “overnight products.” Which is exciting but also very dispersed. Things just happen overnight.
AZIZ: Not only products are changing overnight, but what consumers want is also changing at the same rate. How do designers respond to that?
MOUNTFORD: There’s people that follow, and people that lead. Sometimes you’re different because you’re the only one with a device, then sometimes you’re different because you’re the only one without it. I know people who don’t have mobile phones, and they make a very public statement about it. They have kids, and you think, my god, how do they make this work? I grew up without a telephone, and in America people laugh at me and ask, well how did you do anything? There’s a whole system that isn’t available because you don’t have a telephone. Well, we wrote letters, and we made commitments, such as saying that in a week’s time we would pick someone up from the train at a specific time. What happened if they were not there? Well, then you went back home [laughs].
AZIZ: How did the University Design Expo at Yahoo! come into being?
MOUNTFORD: I started it because I couldn’t find enough people to hire. And the problem is that if you look at resumes, you don’t know much from looking at them. So we thought, hey, let’s start something where we learn more about the university, and influence them to teach the stuff we need them to teach. It actually started by asking for an interdisciplinary class at the university, which at that point, 20 years before, was very unusual. We wanted to get the arts people to work with the science people, and the designers to work with the engineers, which was just unheard of. One of the first classes started at Stanford, taught by David Kelley and Terry Winograd. We gave a small amount of money and said: “run a class.” And obviously 20 years makes a big difference.
Our goal was to hire. Then we had too many people to hire! But it was inspirational for the rest of the company, because suddenly we had this small window, and we were like wow, what are they doing? Everyone at Yahoo! got excited, looking at the wave of interests reflected in students' project. The feedback I was getting from professors was that, the needed to do more of this, so that their students are trained and qualified to go into industry. The students said it was the best thing that had ever done in their lives – maybe that’s a slight exaggeration – but they said it was important to them because they worked in teams, instead of one-on-one.
The first project, 20 years ago, was to design a family-oriented computer system. To a certain extent, this is what we have now: devices that are small, medium and large. The small one is what we call a TV, then you have the device that you do your work on, and then you’ve got the one that drives everything. I was trying to get the students to think about how to get these three devices to work together. We still don't have this figured out. The question really is how can the design language be optimized between the devices. I wanted to see a design language to get them all working together.
Nowadays, students don't just storyboard their ideas: they can actually build them, experience them, and go to users. And that’s a great insight for most of the students. Suddenly someone not themselves is using their product. Everyone of us thinks of others to be like us. And then you realize, oh my gosh, they’re not. We’re very fortunate, we’re very spoiled, we’re very literate, and you now realize that you have to design for other people, because you are, in fact, a minority. Engineering students see a person holding their device for the first time -- holding it upside down -- and not knowing what to do with it. They just sit there going, oh my god! Those insights are very fascinating to watch.
AZIZ: What are your favorite prototyping tools?
MOUNTFORD: I think paper and pencil are really the most important, and the reason for that is that you can use them without any difficulties except for the fact that most people these days don’t know how to draw anything. In the good old days we used to teach engineers how to draw. I don’t mean draw a beautiful picture, I mean like draw a rectangle for a screen. Teaching them how to draw was essential. You and I could sit and draw, and then stick our drawings on the wall or on paper. And what immediately happens is that one person says “No no no, that’s not what I’m thinking about.” I think that’s really interesting. The tools are a mechanism to initiate communication, and the faster that you can do that, the faster you’ll get a better product. Your can always use paper. I know some people would say it isn’t really a tool, but I think it is.
I think in prototyping the most important I’ve learned is to choose the visual language that satisfies it, to capture the maturity of the idea. When I see a piece of paper, I know the prototype isn't "real". As you refine your prototype, it becomes more “fancy,” elaborate, and well-designed. And that language should be apparent when you give it to people to look at. We spend some time at Yahoo! getting our executives to understand that when we draw something, it’s the beginning of a project. And when they see something that’s a mock-up, or a Photoshop screen, that a little more finished than a drawing. And I think it depends on what kind of thing you’re trying to prototype. If it’s a piece of hardware, things like Arduino are very good tools for that.
If you learn a tool, you learn it really well. But whatever you learn will be dead 10 years from now. I think all it is is that you need to show your idea, changing over time, whether it’s a flip book, or a Flash file, or some Java code that you’re showing. The trouble is when you see a “real” application, everyone thinks it’s finished. Now we have an interesting question about prototypes: do we want to show every single prototype?
It’s hard to know which tool I’d want….I'd want the software one, the hardware one, and, of course, paper and pencil.