Ruud Questions: Dr. Peter J. Meyers

by Ruud Hein September 10th, 2010 

Dr. Pete, as hes affectionately known, is the SEOs usability version of Dr. Phil. He has something smart and actionable to say about well, just about anything.

The way SEO was (is?) seen is as a bit of marketing, bit of PR and a bit of mumbo-jumbo mashed into an invented specialism.

Why wouldn't I see usability as a mash-up of analytics, eye-tracking, conversion theory, information theories and some calls to action (marketing)? Why or how is usability a specialism?

dr_pete That's a question that's still being hotly debated in the industry – even in "usability", we have user experience (UX), user-centered design (UCD), human factors, etc., with each faction clamoring to declare their uniqueness. To be honest, those kinds of arguments are why I left academia. I try not to get hung up on semantics.

My dad likes to tell a story that illustrates what usability is to me.

In a former life, he was an electrical engineer for a large company here in Chicago.

the fundamental
role
of expectation
His company added a huge machine to the production floor, and it immediately started causing problems. No one seemed to want to turn it on, and so the machine was out of operation frequently.

The company brought in a human factors engineer who figured out that they had made the power switch on this giant machine a tiny little button, and no one could believe that such a tiny button would power an enormous machine. So, the engineer added a huge lever, and everyone was happy.

The original engineers did their job – the first switch worked. The designers did their job – the button looked nice and probably matched the case. The problem is, neither group understood the fundamental role of expectation. People expected a tiny button to have a tiny function, and violating those expectations made a huge, expensive piece of machinery completely inoperable.

Usability is about understanding expectations and building things that work the way people think they should work.

If you would have to house usability somewhere else, which would be the best fit: web design, marketing, analytics?

dr_peteIn 2010, I think your average web usability specialist is probably most at home with analytics people.

More and more of our tools, like A/B testing (Google Website Optimizer, etc.) are quantitative, and we tend to be data-driven.

One of my favorite non-SEO industry people (and occasional email pen-pal) is analytics guru Avinash Kaushik – I find that analytics pros really gets where usability fits into the big picture.

The process by which you become an SEO is: realize the need for traffic; read up on how to get it; learn this is called SEO; start applying what you read; become really good at it.

How do you become a usability …. uh… usabilist? whatever you people are called…

dr_peteUsabilitator?

When I launched my consulting firm, I made it a point to call my work "strategic usability," which is a lot like what we currently call Conversion Rate Optimization.

People naturally assume that traffic will magically produce sales – when it doesn't, that's where I come in.

Even when I was starting out as a web developer, I realized the need to understand my clients business goals and to make sure those goals were reflected in their sites. I think that CRO is really about aligning those goals with your site and, ultimately, with the goals of your visitors.

Of course, I'm a psychologist by training, and I've always been fascinated by finding better ways to use the tools we have, whether it's the internet or our own brains. Figuring out what web visitors wanted and how to build sites that met those needs was just fun for me.

By the way, don't you think "click here" is the summon of usability?

dr_peteAlthough I think good usability and good SEO have a lot in common in 2010, you can't sum up the remaining gulf between them any better  than: "click here".

Finding a way to be
overt and subtle
at the
same time is tricky
Ironically, keyword-rich anchor text is more in line with Tim Berners-Lee's original vision of a web where rich, contextual text could transport you to relevant content.

The problem is that people still don't get it.

They don't need to just be called to action. They sometimes need to be dragged kicking and screaming to action, even if it's an action they specifically came to your site to take.

Finding a way to be overt and subtle at the same time is tricky at best.

You have a baby girl around the house now. Already encountered situations or products where you thought "these people need to read up on usability, for crying out loud!!"

dr_peteWell, first off, I have a few complaints about baby usability.

They really could use a handle, user-configurable power settings (like sleep mode), and a volume control. Unfortunately, I'm an agnostic, so I'm not entirely sure where the complaint department for that is.

I also have serious issues with instruction manual writers. I've formed a deep belief that instruction manuals should be written using this process:

  • Engineer 1 writes instruction manual
  • Engineer 2 is given manual and product
  • Engineer 1 is locked in a room
  • Engineer 2 has to construct product with manual
  • Engineer 1 stays locked in room until Engineer 2 is successful

If Engineer 1 starves to death waiting, that will be an important lesson to the other instruction manual writers. I haven't worked out all the details, but I'm confident this approach would be a step in the right direction

What is essentially different for her? Or are the times and tools different — but essentially it's still all the same?

dr_peteI do think that there's a very real impact of technology on the way we think.

We're seeing it with multi-tasking – it's changing our thought patterns, the way we work, and even how we're entertained, and it's not all good. I think her generation is going to have to come to terms with that.

I also think she'll be part of a world where the internet has matured. People our age seem to forget just how young the internet really is – we didn't have it as kids, and now we can't remember life without it.

The information revolution has barely begun, IMO, and it's the next generation, the one that will never know life without the internet, that will really put it to work. I don't think we can even comprehend what comes next.

Why does Peter have a child?

dr_peteSome day, when she's unleashed upon the world, many people will ask that question in horror ;)

I've always loved kids – people who know me well (or even casually) know I'm basically a big kid. I've been looking forward to parenthood for a while.

A shared experience of (new) parents is that quite fast you differentiate between what matters … and what matters to you. How has that impacted the way you consume blogs, feeds, social networks, etc.?

dr_peteYou know, as someone who had kids later in life (I turned 40 just 2 weeks after my daughter was born), I think I've been struggling with that question for a while now.

When I left my old company and started working for myself from home, I really had to start setting priorities and figuring out how to separate work from the rest of life.

It's tough when the internet is your full-time job, because tools like Twitter are fundamental to our success.

On the other hand, I recognize when the value ends and the time-wasting begins.

Some days, I just cut it off at that point – shut off the email, shut off Facebook and Twitter, set the timer on my iPhone and just work.

I've also learned to be flexible – spending time with my daughter during the day means I may have to work at 10pm. That's a trade-off I'm happy to make.

If you can prevent yourself from making one mistake in the future, guaranteed … what do you want your daughter to never have to say about you?

dr_peteI fundamentally believe that we have a tremendous untapped capacity to make this world better – we just lack the will.

Like many people, I've sometimes put one aspect of my life on hold to take care of another aspect (like starting a career). I've reached a point in life where I don't want to do that anymore.

I think I can work the way I want to work, raise a daughter, enjoy life with her and my wife, and still start giving something back.

I don't want my daughter to ever have to say that I gave up on that or that I didn't find time for the things that really matter.

Ruud Hein

My paid passion at Search Engine People sees me applying my passions and knowledge to a wide array of problems, ones I usually experience as challenges. People who know me know I love coffee.

Ruud Hein

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