What a long, strange trip it’s been
As we approach our fifteen year anniversary here at Human Interfaces, I can’t help but reflect and think to myself; what a long, strange trip it’s been. The Grateful Dead wrote the song Truckin’ as a metaphor to communicate their survival of the constant changes on the road – and in life. Building and running a boutique UX research consultancy has also been packed with survival of constant changes. Indeed, a strange trip with lots of lessons along the way.
A new beginning
The founding of Human Interfaces was based on a personal and professional failure. In the midst of the dot-com crash, I was laid off from my job as a Human Factors Engineer with a mobile start-up here in Austin, TX. After putting a dent in a bottle of bourbon to drown my sorrows on that Friday, I filed to incorporate Human Interfaces the following Monday. It’s hard to believe that getting canned from a job that I loved ended up being one of the greatest things to ever happen in my life.
In its infancy, Human Interfaces was simply Greg. I worked hard as a one-man show and spent a lot of time working with the Experience Design Group at Dell. I found a niche helping to define how new products should work, and, specifically, defining, testing and spec’ing out how humans interact with said products. Projects included many of Dell’s first attempts at consumer electronics products, such as their first wireless router, PDA, MP3 player, phone, touch tablet and of course, my favorite, the portable media desktop PC with 20” display. I am very grateful to Dell and the opportunities provided both to me and Human Interfaces over the past 15 years. I worked with great teams of researchers, designers and engineers that collaborated toward a common goal. In looking back on those days, I realize that you first need to be part of strong teams to be able to form and nourish your own.
Relationships that are “built to last”
Having a marquee client definitely increases the probability of consultancy success, but I’ve learned other lessons over the years that are also worth mentioning. The first is that your professional relationships are key; you are literally nowhere without them. I’ve always believed that Human Interfaces could only be successful if the client is successful – and this requires communication, fairness and trust. Our mindset has always been relationship-centric instead of transaction-based. We have stayed in business for 15 years, primarily as a result of repeat and referral business. This is important because people ask for recommendations from colleagues; they move jobs over the course of their professional journeys and you want them to always trust you to do a good job. Additionally, we provide research services globally because we went out and established strong relationships with firms that are also rigorous in how they conduct research. I’ve bonded with many of our clients and partners over the years and consider them not only colleagues, but friends, and even family in some cases.
Hire smart and hire smartly
Another lesson I learned is to hire smart. I’m not just talking about hiring smart people. Hiring smart people has always been easy for me, since I ain’t that smart. Hiring smartly has been more of a challenge. I’ve always been a fan of hiring folks trained in Human Factors because they are exposed to human cognition and perception, research methods, experimental design and statistical analysis. But there are other intangibles that also contribute to success in the UX research consulting world, such as the ability to communicate research results and tell the associated story at the right level. After struggling to identify UX research talent that translates from a resume into the consulting world, I realized that internships are a great segue into a longer term employer/employee relationship. Many of my best employees over the years started off as interns finishing up their degrees in Human Factors. It’s a great way to see whether or not there is a match with the company and the culture, and if this person is motivated to work hard and do right by the company and the client. Carefully vetting our employees and offering them growth opportunities has worked well for us. My philosophy has always been to make sure that if someone is ready to leave the company, then they are professionally stronger than when they got here.
Balance risks and opportunities
I’ve always considered Human Interfaces to be a lifestyle business and have purposely managed growth at a comfortable pace. This has enabled me to learn how to handle other aspects of running a business that are outside of my core competencies. That being said, I’ve learned that you can’t be afraid to take risks when the time feels right, even when your vision may not be crystal clear. We took an enormous risk in building out our own usability labs and investing the capital to outfit them. Now we boast one of the finest research facilities around, if I do say so myself. We also took a risk in building our own research panel (ATI Research) and sister recruiting company (ATX Insights) to manage that part of the business. This move came after listening to clients complain about inconsistencies in research samples that were recruited by outsourced resources and has vastly improved the product we provide to our clients. I’ve learned that you should always make adjustments, whether big or small, to improve the services you provide to your customers and that this often requires leaving your comfort zone.
Running a business requires continuous learning and has posed many challenges over the past 15 years. I’ve learned to be resilient to failure and to fail forward because failure is inevitable. When you create something original and sustainable, failure becomes a foundation for success. I’ve learned to not only survive the mistakes, but to also embrace them because it’s part of the package and comprises the opportunities moving forward. I wouldn’t trade the last 15 years for anything. Many thanks to everyone who has contributed and supported us during this long, strange trip.