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Tech Q&A

Robert Hoekman

Describe your latest project.
Designing the Obvious belongs in the toolbox of every person charged with the design and development of Web-based software, from the CEO to the programming team. Designing the Obvious explores the character traits of great Web applications and uses them as guiding principles of application design so the end result of every project instills customer satisfaction and loyalty. These principles include building only what's necessary, getting users up to speed quickly, preventing and handling errors, and designing for the activity. Designing the Obvious does not offer a one-size-fits-all development process — in fact, it lets you use whatever process you like. Instead, it offers practical advice about how to achieve the qualities of great Web-based applications and consistently and successfully reproduce them.

What inspires you to sit down and write?
Deadlines. Deadlines are a constant source of inspiration. More seriously, a deep love for the profession and the work I do is what most compels me to write. I very often find myself talking about interaction design simply because I'm so fascinated by it. Through writing, I can communicate the value and how-to of interaction design and usability work to far more people than I can gather over dinner or at a single speaking engagement.

Writing also gives me a way to think things out more thoroughly than you may in a casual conversation, though conversation usually kicks off the thinking that is written down later. Writing is a way to capture the deeper parts of conversation, and to trigger new ones.

Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
I had a theater teacher in high school who was about four feet tall and loads of fun. Her best friends were always her students. She loved teaching, and she taught me that you can have fun while getting work done. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Sadly, I didn't catch on right away. Years later, when my wife convinced me that you should love what you do for a living, I went and found a career I love. Now I have fun while getting work done all the time. And now I understand what my teacher was trying to tell me.

Have you ever taken the Geek Test? How did you rate?
Yes, and I got a 60%. I think that means I'm geeky, but still manage to get out of the house and have some fun, which is true.

Chess or video games?
Neither — I prefer 9-ball. Though, like chess, it's impossible to master, and I like things that are impossible to master, because the journey is the destination. The doing is what makes it great. Design is the same way.

What do you do for relaxation?
I like to write blog posts, learn new things, watch a few legitimately good television shows, play percussion instruments, and go out to dinner (often).

What's your favorite blog right now?
Creating Passionate Users by Kathy Sierra. It's a constant reminder that everything I do as an interaction designer is about improving customer experiences. I also love that Kathy's infectious personality shines through in her writing. It's not stiff and "professional"; it's fun and engaging.

Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?
Both. Scott is for every day amusement. Douglas is for amusement over dinner.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
The Chrysalids by John Wyndam. It's been out of print for many years — before I even read it, in fact — but I read this as a freshman in high school and have loved it ever since.

Since then, I'd have to go with Catcher in the Rye. I think most geeks can identify with Holden Caulfield, at least a little bit.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
I saw a prototype for a flying car on the news the other night. Once they figure out how to make it cost-effective, and how to manage traffic in a vertical stack, the daily commute will become much more bearable for a lot of people. For a while — until the mystique wears off, anyway — it could even be fun.

If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
John Steinbeck, while he was writing the Grapes of Wrath. I just want to know if he understood the brilliance of what he was writing while he was writing it.

What was your best subject in high school? Your worst?
English was by far my best subject, and math was by far my worst, which I think explains why I shifted my career from programming to interaction design. Interaction design and English have similar purposes — they're all about communication. I can still get around an object-oriented programming language reasonably well, but to me, the most compelling thing about the web is that it brings people from all over the planet in great and crazy ways, and interaction design puts me in the center of that.

As a programmer, I always felt two or three steps removed from the people I was building things for. As a designer, I'm right there, drawing the lines between people and information and other people. This is what I've always loved about English, and it's what I love about design.

What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?
I'd like my computer to stop forcing me to understand it. Computers are very two-dimensional, and the only way to work with them effectively is to know all sorts of things about them, like which program does what, why the web browser isn't like other desktop applications, how to get an Internet connection at Starbucks, and so on. But when we use computers, we don't care about the software, we care about getting things done. Instead of knowing I need to open a word processor to write a letter, I'd like to simply tell the computer that I want to write a letter and have it pull up the appropriate tool to do so.

This notion of having a computer focus on my tasks instead of its own implementation needs can be manifested in tons of ways — this was just a very basic example.

I'm an expert computer user, and more than anything, I wish I didn't have to be. I consider it my job as an interaction designer to work myself out of a job.

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