Explore the intersection of design, usability, and digital quality in this insightful podcast with Irene Pereyra, a UX designer, director and instructor.
Winning With A Bold Approach to UX
About This Episode
Irene Pereyra has led program management and UX initiatives as the co-founder of Anton and Irene, a Brooklyn-based design firm. Irene has lectured at more than 100 design conferences and educational institutions, and is the co-chair of the Interaction Design program at Harbour Space University.
(This transcript has been edited for brevity.)
DAVID CARTY: The idea of the nuclear family is common in Western culture, two parents, 2.5 children, and a dog living in the suburbs. Wait, whatever happened to that other 0.5 child? Anyway, that perception is not everyone’s reality, especially when you apply it on a global scale. Irene Pereyra spent her childhood living in a communal house in Amsterdam in the 1980s, with a progressive household that shared most of their living space, and even some social activities.
IRENE PEREYRA: In the ’70s and ’80s in Western Europe, it was quite common for people to live communally, like, in the middle of the city. So my mom decided that it would be a healthy and good idea to live in a house with a lot of different types of people. So we moved in when I was six, and there were other children, other adults, and we shared everything from kitchens to common spaces to gardens to rooftops.
CARTY: Irene shared her upbringing in her short form documentary, One Shared House. In it, she discusses how the push to communal living was motivated by housing shortages and rent increases, a parallel she sees in Western cities today.
PEREYRA: There is a whole new wave that started about 15 years ago, which they call co-living, and it’s basically solving exactly for that problem. Which is that a lot of young adults can’t really afford to live in the center of the city anymore because they’re priced out, so their alternatives are either to live very far away or to commute or have a roommate, which is a different type of arrangement, obviously. So the current way in which, for example, in big cities like New York or Tokyo or San Francisco or Copenhagen or London is that basically you have your own space as a private space, and then you share communal spaces that you probably don’t need access to all the time. But if you are together, you can then actually have more of that type of space than you probably wouldn’t be able to afford if you lived alone in any urban setting today, because it’s just astronomical right now for a lot of young people.
CARTY: Sharing a communal living space as a child might have allowed for less privacy, but it opened her up to new curiosities that continue to inform her career path today.
PEREYRA: What shaped me a lot from growing up that way is that I was exposed to a lot of different types of adults with their own unique interests. So a lot of the things that I gravitated towards as a kid, which was things like electronics and computers and fixing things, my mom was definitely not interested in any of that, but there were people in the house that were. For example, one of the adults had a darkroom in the house. So I was intimately familiar with that process from a very young age. Then there was another adult in the house who had one of the first Apple computers. This was in the ’80s, right, so not many people had that. So I was experimenting with that. And I remember using her dot printer to print out things that I had drawn in ASCII with different characters because it was still back in the days of coding and DOS. So having creative adults around, especially on the side of computers, definitely sparked my curiosity and interest in computers and design and photography and things like that. They’re not your parents and they’re not your friends, and also not really your role models, but there are just a lot of people around that care for you and show you what they’re interested in. And I was a curious kid, so for me, it was a great great way to live.
CARTY: This is the Ready, Test, Go. podcast, brought to you by Applause. I’m David Carty. Today’s guest is documentarian and user experience director and designer, Irene Pereyra. Irene is the co-founder of Anton and Irene, a UX design firm, and she is currently the co-chair of the Interaction Design Program at Harbour.Space University. Her work with household name clients all around the world has been recognized by the Webbys, the Emmys, and the European Design Awards, among others, so she knows high quality design when she sees it. She shared some of those insights in her book, Universal Principles of UX, 100 Timeless Strategies to Create Positive Interactions Between People and Technology, which published in March.
While our digital experiences are evolving over time, some of the basics of UX are timeless principles. That seems like a great place to start our conversation.
Congratulations on your book, Universal Principles of UX. It’s very pleasing to the eye and easy to navigate, so that’s very appropriate. But I wanted to start off with a quote that you include in the book from Henry Dreyfuss, and it’s really almost prescient to today, right, but let’s get into that. Quote, “When the point of contact between the product and the people becomes a point of friction, then the designer has failed. On the other hand, if people are made safer, more comfortable, more eager to purchase, more efficient, or just plain happier by contact with the product, than the designer has succeeded.”
It’s unbelievable to me to think that quote is 70 years old from the same year that MIT introduced the first digital computer with random access memory and real-time graphics. So when you apply that Dreyfuss quote to today’s user experiences, what stands out to you How does that translate to today?
PEREYRA: It’s one-to-one, right? Like, he was really talking about it from an industrial design perspective, but there’s a reason why a lot of UX designers, especially if they work in house at places like Meta or Google, call themselves product designers, because we now see digital services and websites as products. So a lot of designers who work on the web or work for interfaces call themselves product designers.
So in that sense, the work that we do isn’t very different at all from the work that Henry Dreyfuss did. It’s just that his products were physical products and our products are virtual products. But the process that we go through in order to get to a good design that really resonates is identical. It really hasn’t changed. And it’s even to the point where you can compare it to the way architects erect a building, right, and how they design a building. It’s even the process of design is shared by a lot of different disciplines.
CARTY: Yeah. In the very first of your 100 Timeless UX Strategies is that the user comes first. And it’s a simple concept, but one that many businesses seem to get wrong developing products or features that maybe users don’t want or are just confusing to use. How can organizations better communicate with their customers to improve the product, and do any real-world examples come to mind?
PEREYRA: Yeah. So I think the big problem with a lot of companies is that we tend to think that the products we make, whether it’s your own product or you’re working for a client, are for us, right? So we design things that we like with the things that we think matter, even to the point where it’s like the colors that we like or that our wives or husbands like. And that’s a big problem, because we are not, most of the time, the audience for our products.
So it’s very important that rather than designing things that we think are great, that we actually try to understand what it is that the people want who will be using this product. And there are many different ways in order to make sure that you do that correctly, and I can talk about that for hours. But it’s basically as simple as just empathizing and understanding who these people are. And the easiest way to do that is to find these people and be around them and observe them and interview them and ask them questions, and really try to understand how this product will affect their life or influence their lives, and what might help them in a way to either do it more efficiently or just easily, or also maybe even something that’s totally invisible to them that feels so effortless that they don’t think twice about it.
But the only way we can do that is if we know who these people are and actually talk to them, and not just imagine what they might be like.
CARTY: Right. Don’t make assumptions, basically. And now, in the book you get into the distinction between UI and UX. People often conflate the two. I’ve been guilty of that over the years. I’ll try not to do that in this podcast here.
But can you shed some light into the work that occurs in these two disciplines, and how one or the other or sometimes both can fail the user’s experience with a product?
PEREYRA: Yeah. So if you think of it as maybe something that’s more familiar to people, like the way an architect would work, an architect designs the blueprint and designs the building, but they don’t go in and paint the walls and arrange the furniture and decide what the inside looks like. That’s where the interior designer comes in. So a UX designer typically is very similar to what an architect would do on a project. So you decide how big is this building? How many doors? How many floors? Where are the stairs? Obviously, in a digital sense, so how many pages? How do we navigate through these pages? How do people travel through all this content or get to do the thing that they’re trying to do as quickly and easily as possible? So similarly to how an architect at the end of this phase delivers a blueprint, UX designers deliver wireframes which look quite similar to a blueprint. They’re black and white wireframes, literally, what it says.
And then the UI designer comes in, and the UI designer then takes that blueprint and applies the brand. And the brand is made up of things like the colors and the typography and making sure that the information hierarchy and the sizes and all of those things work across all these different screen sizes that we’re working with.
So both are very important. Both are needed. They’re quite different disciplines, obviously. Typically, also quite a different type of person who does that type of work with different types of skills and interests. However, as a caveat, there are companies where one person does both, and they are a UX/UI designer. And that really depends on, obviously, the organization and how big that organization is and how big the thing is that they’re set out to design. So some people do both. I don’t believe in that so much. It’s a little bit like Jack of all trades, master of none.
It’s good to have a very specialized discipline that you are very, very good at. And also, it frees up your space and time and mind to maybe go that extra mile that you wouldn’t be able to do if you had to really focus on both constantly all the time. Imagine if you’re building–you just finished designing the building, and now you have to go in and paint the walls and decide what carpet to put in. That’s a whole other part of the process.
CARTY: It introduces more possibilities for mistakes along the way, right? If you have two individual people who specialize in those disciplines, they might be able to catch an issue that the other might miss, right?
PEREYRA: Yeah. And I think also you have a different–you have to advocate for different things in those two roles.
So if you are a UX designer, you really have to advocate for well, what does the user really want? And you have to make sure that you keep letting the team hear the user’s voice, right that we’re not making random decisions that would negatively impact the user. Whereas, the visual designer and the UI designer is far more interested in aesthetics, which is very important as well.
And that’s also very important that that voice is heard in the meetings as well, that they can push for that. And the medium, the happy medium between the two, is really where the magic happens, where you have two people that feel very strongly about two very different things that both end up determining what the overall user experience ends up being for the final user.
CARTY: One of the pearls of wisdom in your book is attractive products are more usable, and that suggests that despite a sometimes fickle user base, that can be quick to abandonment, a high end design can overcome some points of friction. The same goes for what you call unusual or surprising product experiences, which can resonate with the user in a profound sort of way. So what’s the balance between beautiful products and usable products? You have to strike a balance there, right?
PEREYRA: Yeah. So the interesting thing is that in the world of web design, in particular, and app design, it’s very heavily skewed towards ugly and usable. If you look at the majority of products, they’re not beautiful at all, but they’re very usable. Usability is key, right? And that’s a mistake. And that’s a mistake because we know, actually, from various studies that were done.
And my favorite study was done in 1995 by two Japanese computer scientists– that aesthetics actually, things that are beautiful, heavily impact our perceived usability of a product. So what do I mean by that? They did a study where they tested 26 different ATM interfaces, and they basically ranked them themselves from all the way to super usable but mega ugly, to super beautiful but totally unusable, and then 24 in the middle that were sort of a gradation between the two. And when they asked participants to judge these interfaces on how usable they are–so not on how beautiful they are, how usable they are–the vast majority of them chose the beautiful, yet totally unusable interfaces. And they coined this the aesthetic usability effect, and it’s been confirmed in many studies since. And basically, it shows that we are very forgiving with a lot of usability issues as long as we think it’s beautiful. And we are kind of like oh, it’s not so bad. We don’t mind so much.
We’re willing to suffer through some usability issues as long as we really react well to the beauty of a product.
And some examples of that, even in the normal world outside of the digital world, if you could imagine–I don’t know if you’ve ever used a Leica camera, but they’re a usability nightmare. They’re very difficult to use. The average person would not–even a professional photographer, they’re not intuitive. But people don’t care because the thing itself is beautiful, and it creates beautiful photographs. So people are like, you know what, I’m willing to suffer for it. So one of the things that I think we need to get back to in our field is away from this wrong perception, which is, again, just not true and unfortunate that it’s constantly being sort of jammed down our throats, that usability is the most important thing, when in reality, beauty is the most important thing because the more beautiful things are, the more usable we perceive them to be.
CARTY: Yeah. And this gets into my next question a little bit. A lot of today’s web pages seem to trend toward, like you’re saying, a bit more of a formulaic or a metrics driven style, which again, you write about in the book. So we’re seeing a trend away from these sorts of unique designs and digital experiences, like the one that you have on your own website at Anton and Irene.
That must frustrate you as a designer to see that we are trending in this direction toward usability and away from bold designs, right?
PEREYRA: Yeah. And I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s a very young medium, and that a lot of people who are designing for the web don’t have, for example, graphic design backgrounds. So there are not formally trained as designers, and they’re just copying what everybody else is doing. And for me, it’s a little bit, like, if you zoom out and you think about the fact that people really have only been designing for the web for, let’s say, the past 30 years, if we’re being generous, 25 if we’re being more realistic, the people back then who were designing for the web were computer scientists. Those were the people that were creating the interfaces. So they had, obviously, very different goals when it came to the creating a layout and things like that. They had a very different perspective, an engineering perspective. And it wasn’t until graphic designers kind of became involved that you started to see some really cool experimentation happening.
This is like in the late ’90s, early 2000s, where things were becoming interesting visually. Let’s try what we can do with this, see what we can do with this medium. But unfortunately, because the web is so easy to track in terms of clicks and likes and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, it became quite difficult to try to experiment away from a formula that was already proven to work, because companies don’t want to take the risk. And unlike an ad campaign, where it’s a bit difficult to gauge whether or not it really worked, on the web you can literally track clicks.
So for me, it’s a little bit because it’s such a young medium, and I often compare our medium to architecture which has had thousands of years and thousands of different expressions, I think right now we’re a little bit of the Bauhaus era of web design. So it’s very cheap and fast and simple and for everyone. And what the tenants were of the Bauhaus architecture movement to make it quick to build, cheap to build for everyone, with as little personality as possible because then you can’t offend anyone.
But just as architecture has since moved away from that and we’re now definitely in a more postmodernist–thank God, right–architecture style where there are far more interesting buildings that are far more unique and expressive being built, I have a feeling that we will also get there again. This is just a phase. I don’t think we can say the web is like this because I have already seen it change so many times. And this has been the status quo since 2008, I would say, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be the status quo forever.
So yes, I’m ready for the boring Bauhaus web design to go away.
CARTY: Very interesting. Yeah. I’d be curious to see what the next phase looks like. I want to ask you about the section, Manage Errors Effectively in your book. You put some of the onus on the UX designer to identify, and even in some cases, anticipate user errors. Now, this gets a little bit into the idea of shared responsibility toward digital quality, which we talk a lot about on this podcast. What is the designer’s responsibility toward reducing errors, and how can understanding the user’s needs help with error handling?
PEREYRA: I think the most important thing about errors from an interface perspective is that if there is an error, it’s your fault as a designer, basically. You failed. It’s not the user’s failing. It’s you failing, because you didn’t anticipate what might happen.
And it’s a very–especially when, imagine you’re trying to–I don’t know, I’m sure you’ve tried that yourself, file taxes online, for example. It’s a nightmare. And there are a lot of–it’s a very complicated flow. There’s a lot of things that can go wrong.
So the person who has designed that flow really needs to sit down and, basically, understand every possible scenario where something might go wrong, every possible scenario. And that’s a very big part of the project. And what tends to happen in a lot of projects is that that side gets minimized because there’s such a rush just to get the product out and people to use it, and that’s really where 90% of the effort is. And then it’s like oh, yeah, and then there’s a couple of error fields, and let’s just leave it at that. But the best interface, basically, there are no errors. That’s what you should really be striving for.
And if there has to be some sort of error handling on the system side, then it’s very, very important that the user can obviously self-diagnose what’s happening, but also then get out of it themselves and not feel like they’re stuck in an endless loop of errors, and they don’t understand why. For me, one of my biggest pet peeves are things like why do we have such insane password requirements for websites that don’t even have any of our personal data? What is the point of that? And it’s like, every password has a different–it’s like, Jesus Christ, I have a whole list of different passwords across the web that it’s a nightmare to keep track of all of that.
And that’s something that, especially for–look, you and I, we’re probably close to being digital natives, right? Maybe not entirely, but we’re on the edge of that. I think Gen Z are the only ones that are true digital natives, but we’re kind of almost there. So we’ve been around technology for most of our lives.
If I look at someone like my mom, who hasn’t obviously been around technology her whole life and is definitely not a digital native, every time she receives an error it’s like a panic. She doesn’t know what to do, and it’s confusing. And so I think the ambiguity of errors is very damaging, in particular for people that aren’t super well versed with interacting with the internet, and that’s not fair because it should be accessible to all. So that’s really the main thing about managing errors.
CARTY: And you’re touching on a really interesting area here. You wrote in the book about the importance of digital accessibility, which is something that we’re passionate about here at Applause as well. But also, the need to cater to people with different levels of digital literacy, like you’re saying. Your mom, for example, and users up and down the age spectrum from children to senior citizens, depending on who your target market is, I suppose.
How can organizations approach this difficult task of catering to a sometimes wide spectrum of user abilities in a practical sort of manner? What’s the path to success there?
PEREYRA: It’s very difficult. It’s one of the hardest things to do. And the first step is understanding who your audience is. So for example, Snapchat is not catering to my mom, obviously. So if my mom doesn’t know how to use Snapchat, that’s fine. But something that is far more universal, like for example, booking your vaccine appointment or filing your taxes, things that affect everyone on every layer of society, that’s really where you need to be extremely diligent at making sure that you hit basically all levels of digital literacy, and you make it as easy as possible for digital immigrants to come in, and also ambiently learn in a scaffolded way how to use the system so that they’re not having to read a bunch of, I don’t know, help pages in order to understand how to navigate through something.
On the other extreme, of course, you have accessibility as it relates to various disabilities. And that’s again, unfortunately–and I write about that in my book–only 2% of all websites are accessible, and that’s insane. So that means that people who are blind or have any type of visual impairment or motor impairments or anything at all, basically, are locked out from using 98% of the internet. And that’s because there are no mandates for that. There are no legal requirements that force companies to make sure that things are accessible.
The only exception to that rule is for governmental websites, where they do have that mandate. But for the private sector, no one’s going to check whether or not your website can be used by someone who’s visually impaired. Which is kind of shocking because again, if we compare it to physical buildings, physical buildings do have that requirement. You need it to be wheelchair accessible in order for it to be up to code. You can’t just rent an apartment to someone with small doors, narrow doors, because a wheelchair has to be able to fit through it.
So the problem is, in my opinion, the fact that there is no legislation for that, and that if we have to rely on the private sector to do it out of the goodness of their own heart, they’re not going to do it. Why? Because it’s very expensive to do it. It takes a lot of time, a lot of effort. It’s not easy to do. You have to do a lot of research. You have to have coders and developers and designers who are capable of doing that. They have to be given the time to do that.
In my experience, making a website fully accessible adds on a minimum one to two years to a timeline of a project. So who’s going to pay for that? Most private companies are not going to do that because they don’t care about the fact that people with various kinds of disabilities might not be able to use their products.
So I think it’s–I lived in New York for many years, and now I live in Europe, and luckily, at least in the European Union, there is now a mandate coming out that is going to force the private sector to basically make their products accessible. And that’s a step in the right direction, but let’s see if the US will follow soon. I mean, the good news is if they have their product available in Europe, they will have to anyway, so that’s good.
CARTY: Exactly. You just went right into what I was going to ask you about. I mean, it seems like there will be this motivation to meet accessibility standards in the near future, and partially, that is motivated by EU regulations and things like that. But in addition to that, making products more accessible benefits the usability of a product for everybody. I mean, features like closed captioning, things like that, contrast levels, different elements of accessibility, ultimately help the usability for everybody. So you would hope that more organizations would be open to those kinds of designs.
PEREYRA: Totally. Yeah. And that’s always our big argument whenever we push for accessibility is exactly that. It’s that accessibility is for everyone.
It makes everyone’s lives easier because if I can confidently use your interface with one hand because I’m holding a baby. I’m not disabled, but your accessibility guidelines and the way you’ve designed the product help me. And there are many examples of that. And I think that a lot of it honestly has to do with just reframing maybe the conversation and re-educating people a little bit on what accessibility actually means.
Yeah. I mean, we’ve all had situations, I’m sure, where our keyboard broke. We’re like, oh God, what do we do now? And there’s very easy ways with accessibility tricks, basically, to make people still be able to use the interface, even if their keyboard broke.
CARTY: And I’ve definitely been in that position, having to try to use an app while holding a baby, and it is not easy. I will confirm that.
Irene, what is your definition of digital quality?
CARTY: Simply put, I love it.
What is one software testing trend or digital quality trend that you find promising?
PEREYRA: Oh, digital quality, I think that’s–I don’t like any of them, to be very honest. I think they all are flawed in their own way. I think nothing beats actually talking to real human beings one-to-one, and observing them in their own environment. I believe much more in the sort of anthropological social sciences approach to that than any kind of–I don’t think any software can replicate that.
CARTY: What is your favorite app to use in your downtime?
PEREYRA: It’s been Wikipedia since Wikipedia came out. I look at that–I mean, I’m a very curious person, and my partner always jokes about it. He’s always like, someone will mention one thing and you’ll immediately go to Wikipedia to read the whole Wikipedia page about it. But I think if there’s one thing that I really hope never goes away, I think Wikipedia is amazing. I think it’s the best thing we’ve ever done as a society. I’m so impressed by it, and I learn so much from it. It’s Wikipedia 100%.
CARTY: And it’s very easy to go down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, just keep clicking to the next thing, next thing.
CARTY: Yeah. I’ve been there before, that’s for sure.
And, finally, what is something that you are hopeful for?
PEREYRA: I guess this is maybe a bit counter intuitive, considering the job that I do, but I wish we would use technology less. I think we are overly reliant on technology and not everything needs to be an app, and not everything needs to be digitized. In fact, most things don’t. And one of my pet peeves now, still, is that it’s been three years since COVID and we no longer have menus. Now, we have to scan the QR code, and it’s just so sad to be in a restaurant and scan a QR code because then everyone immediately is on their phones. And that’s just not a nice way to start a dinner. So I wish there would be fewer digital services, that we only have the ones that we really need, and we get back into actually spending time with each other and enjoying things in our real world, and not trying to make everything in this virtual space.