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Mitch Stein, a former Apple manager who coined the term “user experience.”

Having worked on Apple’s User Interface Technologies and introducing the term “user experience” to company execs in the early 90s, Mitch Stein knows a thing or two about how humans interact with computers.

“The term ‘user experience’ is more than just aesthetics to me,” Stein said. “We have relationships with our technology. User experience is not just eye candy — it promotes a positive relationship between humans and technology.”

Stein spoke earlier this week at the Hacker News Meetup in Seattle, sharing insight from his time Apple, where he managed key portions of five OS releases and projects like Finder, Installer and Chooser. Stein also spearhead numerous UI and architectural innovations at places like IBM, Adobe and Oracle.

“I like to work where the atoms meet the bits, where real world and technology meet,” he said.

Here’s a few tips from Stein, whose InfoPortal Prototype was once featured at the “Workspheres” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Know the creative cycle: Assimilate, Innovate, Iterate

“This is key. First, assimilate: You don’t ask the user what they want — you go out and live with them and literally become the user. You do it with a wide-angle lens. You do it not just to tackle the problem you think you’re solving —you need to understand the culture they live in, what motivates them, that sort of stuff. I know that sounds touchy feel-y, but it really works.

Once you have that, you go back and take everything else into consideration: business, competition, materials, make vs. buy decisions, potential partnership opportunities. At this point, you can start innovating. That’s where the magic happens.

Once you do all that, you damn well better go back and show the folks and see if they go “wow, that’s cool,” or not. That’s the iteration phase. Then, like the shampoo bottle says, it’s lather, rinse, repeat. Everything is a cycle.”

Failure isn’t an option — it’s a requirement. The trick is to fail faster and learn from it.

“Failing is required. The two most dangerous people in the world are those who have nothing to lose and those who have one big success and think they are hot shit and they can do no wrong. I respect people with multiple successes. Those people are open-minded and have learned from their failures.

In a company where failure is not tolerated, the innovators and people willing to take risks get frustrated or fired. People who are left are just afraid of their own shadow and they cannot do anything but incremental progress because they are too scared. Actually, at one point, one of the companies I was at had monthly parties called “Fail Party.” We would make fun of and celebrate the kind of people that had the guts to do stuff. It was to show everyone that as long as you learn from your mistakes and get benefit from it — even if it’s to learn that you shouldn’t do anything like that in the future — that’s totally acceptable.”

Key UX areas of focus and important traits of excellent UX practitioners  

Stein’s top UX areas of focus:

  • Personalization
  • Cognitive resonance (sense of place)
  • Context
  • Scalability
  • Assistance
  • Integrated Information Access

Stein’s most important traits of excellent UX practitioners:

  • Empathy
  • Diverse experience and interests (empowers associative thinking)
  • Ability to deal with uncertainty and managing risk (not avoiding it)
  • Profound laziness
  • Balance of confidence and open-mindedness 


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