Jerome, what is a human experience designer?
I started calling myself a human experience designer early on because I wanted to separate the definitions of experience designer and interface designer. You will find the UX designers often get lumped into the category of UI designers. I don’t think that is an appropriate definition for experience designers. The idea of human experience design for me is a culmination of events, branding and web apps.
What goes into designing a great experience?
I think it all starts with empathy. A lot of people get locked into products like Balsamiq or Axure, and they think that is experience design — and maybe that is in their world. To me experience design in an intangible skill, where you can sit in a users shoes and completely empathize with the customer. It is really being able to turn that knowledge gained from being empathetic into something that is a product, brand or event experience that caters to the user well.
That is interesting. So it isn’t specific to a medium like interface design?
The word experience has a medium-less definition. What is a good experience? You might think about traveling in Spain. You might think about Skydiving.
Let’s talk about learning. What would you say your philosophy is about learning?
I think we are all born to learn, and society has developed this idea that learning should be extremely structured. It is as if we are a vessel to be filled — I’m actually quoting someone here, and I don’t remember his name. Society thinks that learning is a process where we, as a student, are a vessel to be filled, but we are a fire to be lit. I’ve always thought that was interesting. As kids a lot of what we learn is not taught in a classroom. You didn’t learn your first words in a classroom. You learn by mimicking, you learn by watching, you learn by observing. The best type of learning occurs when you are engrossed in something. Lecture halls exist for a reason. It started as a means of passing on true factual information to a group of people at once — and it made since at the time, because they didn’t have the internet. Now we do, and we don’t need lecture halls anymore.
“Society thinks that learning is a process where we, as a student, are a vessel to be filled, but we are a fire to be lit.”
I like the analogy of the vessel and the fire. The one I always end up using is the factory and the garden. The factory is extremely structured, and students are sent down an assembly line. School should be like a garden, where students are nurtured and allowed to grow on their own.
What is the purpose of a college degree? Does that differ for the purpose of college as a whole?
A college degree is a screening tool. It is a quick way to gauge a students proficiency, and see if they will succeed in the company you are hiring for — that really isn’t required anymore. You can see it in what companies are asking for nowadays. An entry level Job can require a year of experience. Where the hell do you get a year of experience while in school? Going back to your question, I think the value of college isn’t to pass that screening test anymore. It is really to build networks. It is to build interpersonal skills that you won’t learn while at home.
Don’t you think there is another way to build interpersonal skills without spending $40,000?
Oh, it is absolutely overpriced. Now that you put it that way, it sounds kind of crazy. Right now tons of co-working spaces are available, like Hypepotamus in Atlanta. These are great places where I know people thrive socially. There is a guy Matt Smith who is a founder of Insightpool—You did an interview with his partner Adam Wexler last week. Anyways, I remember hearing a description of him from one of the entrepreneurial professors at Georgia Tech. When he was 16 he was already out there meeting people, and learning things. What was I doing when I was 16? Maybe waiting to get that latest Playstation game. I wasn’t a very entrepreneurial kid, but I was passionate about learning and design.
Earlier this year the Center for College Affordability did a study about underemployed college students. They basically came to two conclusions: we would have janitors for PhDs, or a drop in college enrollment. Do you subscribe to either theory?
I think the model of universities will change. I don’t think we’ll have to pick the model of janitorial PhDs or lower enrollment rates. I think it depends on how universities want to define themselves. Singularity University is extremely backlogged and has an extremely long wait list.
I actually applied, that was one of the only secondary education places I considered.
Yeah, you want to go there, because of the way Singularity has defined themselves.
Singularity University and schools like that are so different from going to get an MBA. Like The Starter League, I guess that is an education, but I don’t put that in the same bracket as my time at Auburn.
That is where the redefining moment comes for universities. They are going to have to become hip, they might need to become massive co-working spaces with events. It can’t be about getting a degree, because that just isn’t going to attract students anymore.
It is interesting you bring up co-working spaces, because I’ve been writing a piece about Residential Learning Centers. In this piece I talk about how colleges can scale down and rethink their offerings. Colleges could transform their facilities into co-working spaces, and they would be incredibly tough to compete with. The question is if they can get through all the bureaucracy. That is going to be a defining battle for what colleges float, and what colleges sink.
People think that they don’t need to go to college because the internet can teach them. Many are using massive open online courses to do that. What are your thought on MOOCs?
I think there are two things you learn in university — skills and tools. When I say skills, I’m thinking of intangibles — teamwork, leadership. Tools are Python, Ruby — things that MOOCs can easily and cheaply teach to hundreds of thousands of people. It is essentially a v2.0 lecture hall. Khan Academy has taught me more engineering than most of my engineering classes — and I mean that in a tool sense. If I need to learn physics I will go to Khan Academy. I will not show up for lecture.
Those videos are pretty good, and it can be tough to stay awake in lecture.
It is solid. Sal is very particular about making sure the videos are under 10 minutes.
You organized a TED event, TEDxGeorgiaTech. What was your experience?
We didn’t set our to organize an event. I did a study abroad trip in Singapore, and it was a meditative semester for us — we came back enlightened. We came up with this philosophy called the Live for an Idea movement. I happened to inherit TEDxGeorgiaTech by accident. I was photographer for the event the year before, and all the other organizers were seniors. When they left they gave it to me. I took it and ran with it. We saw an opportunity as a channel to get people to Live for an Idea.
I guess the three main parts are the speakers, the people, and the sponsors. How do you find them?
Most of the speakers were people we knew through our network. It is really important to have people on the team that are well connected. I don’t think that is an issue, because the people that want to get involved with events like TEDxGeorgiaTech tend to be well-connected. We essentially sat down one day, and thought about the type of people we would want to see. I think these people were connected by the third degree at the most. TEDxGeorgiaTech is such a great brand that it isn’t an issue to get speakers.
You are currently working on a startup called Whizzimo. Tell us a bit about it.
Whizzimo is a web app designed to facilitate the interaction between dyslexic students and their reading teachers. You can think of it as a smart board with an iPad. We’ve essentially translated a lot of the physical tools that teachers use — flash cards, sound tiles, workbooks — and have brought them online. This gives us the conveniences of the digital world. We can track scores, we can track fluency over time. This stuff isn’t new, but is a massive market that is completely untouched by technology.
By the way, that is likely the best pitch I’ve ever given.
Where the investors at? Where the investors at?
How far along on the product are you?
We have users testing the product currently. We’re going to put the product on sale in about eight weeks, and we are going to launch the company itself in about four weeks.
How do you find these users?
My cofounder Lincoln is actually a reading tutor, so he is well-connected among private tutors in Atlanta. It isn’t really that hard, you can find them through Google and Craigslist. When we reach out to them the first thing we tell them is “We want to help you, and we’re never going to charge you.” I’m probably going to take that back someday down the road. Our revenue model is to charge for student accounts, which goes to the parents. We want teachers to worry less about finances.
“Khan Academy has taught me more engineering than most of my engineering classes… If I need to learn physics I will go to Khan Academy. I will not show up for lecture.”
Outside of startups, outside of education, what types of things interest you?
I really like traveling. I studied abroad last fall in Southeast Asia. During that time I traveled to seven different countries, and it was revealing to see all these different cultures. It is great to immerse yourself — it is almost an extension of experience design. I get to immerse myself in environments where I can empathize more. As much as I try and keep work out of my personal life, I love understanding people. I could sit in a Starbucks all day and stare at people — people watching. Things like watching the barista be extra nice to the pretty blonde. All these interactions are so interesting to me, and I just want to absorb them. It manifests itself in my travels, because I get to immerse myself in all these different cultures. It is like Animal Planet, but it is human planet. I wish there was a channel for that.
What was the most surprising thing you saw over there?
There was a temple in Bangkok that worshiped penises. It wasn’t part of the tour, but we were stumbling on some temples and there was a penis in the room. There were a couple of ornamental rings around it, and people were praying to it. I attempted to stifle any inner laughter. I didn’t want to be disrespectful.
Going back to human experience design, where do you draw inspiration?
People watching. It is a lot about people watching. There is something very raw about absorbing these interactions you see everyday and translates to an ability to empathize. To be able to step in your users shoes — to look at your product and see it completely differently — that is the hallmark of the top of the line experience designer that I strive to be.
Do you have any last thoughts you would like to share with the audience?
Just kidding. Sam, I think it is great that you are doing all these interviews. I think it is going to help the startup community have a very organic look at the very wide variety of people that you are interviewing.
That is my goal. I want people to be able to learn from each other — to see how they do different things. And I get to talk to interesting people in the process.
Jerome Choo, where can people follow you?
I’m on Twitter @JDChizzle. I’ve got a site coming along, jeromechoo.com. It currently goes to my LinkedIn page, but it is almost done.