People-Centered Learning: An Interview With Judee Humburg

At the heart of my work is the deep belief software should work for people, not the other way around. This leads to the door of my dear friend Judee Humburg. We began working together over a decade ago. In 2001 she granted me an interview for a now defunct magazine. Her insights are as fresh now as they were then. In the gloom of winter, I thought nothing could be as delightful to repost as a breathe of Judee’s spring.

Sitting in Judee Humburg’s garden you get the distinct impression that this usability and user-centered design expert has no trouble designing an ideal environment for herself to learn and live. The land around her cottage is filled with sweet-smelling trees and colorful bushes reminiscent of the grounds around Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio. The natural tones and butterfly-attracting foliage help center the man-made structure in its almost natural habitat. To talk with Humburg about her vision for education is an equal treat because she, like her home, is grounded in nature and the esthetics of her environment, talking more about her days as a Montessori teacher than of her time founding and building Intuit and Hewlett Packard’s Usability departments. This is a woman who indeed sees learning as a natural part of being and has devoted her life’s work to helping people feel that their work matters and that their efforts should not be held back by the contrived systems society has almost grown accustomed to.

Conner: You’ve been a student of education, technology, and human nature for a long time. When we look at the potential to work at their intersection, why haven’t we come further, faster?

Humburg: Albert Einstein theorized that we couldn’t use the same thinking to solve a problem as we used to create the problem. I think this is a deep truth that gives us a clue to all sorts of things, including education. Applying technology to help people gain new knowledge, skills, and insights in a flexible, on-demand, just-in-time context is just not enough: achieving the potential of elearning’s promise is really about throwing away a lot of old assumptions about education and approaching learning in a new way. It’s fundamentally not about passing along information that is organized and presented in a slick new format via a new technology. It’s about tapping into and transforming the learner’s existing knowledge and belief systems with the experience of playing with or exploring the new information and almost kneading it into a present problem or situation.

Too often organizations only replicate a classroom system that is set apart from the flow of everyday life situations. Experts present courseware like pearls of knowledge without offering interaction or practicum experience—that’s not new or better. Technology is used in service of an old education paradigm. Intermixed with the experts’ wisdom is little or no peer-to-peer exchange or exploration of the natural synergies between shared experiences and insights. How far can we get with that?

Look at it purely from the learner’s vantage point. We always seem to come to situations with our history firmly entrenched, our minds partially made up, our own perspective strongly in view. And often that creates blinders in terms of what data or information we’re able to openly receive from the new situation.

This inhibits design and usability in a product development process, too. Developers and designers are really learners when it comes to the user’s perspective about how a product could and should work to delight them. The best method is to get new information directly from customers who want to share their experiences and explain their needs. But when we do that, we interpret their responses in terms of our own history instead of being truly unbiased to see and hear what they’re really trying to tell us. We need to be alert and open to the freshness of new information so that our perceptions, our way of thinking about an idea or problem, become different as a result of receiving them.

It’s our willingness to take the risk, to walk into territory we’ve never been before, and challenge our own belief system that allows us to do our jobs differently by producing products, services and things of real value, usefulness and delight to people. That’s always a difficult thing to do.

Montessori said learning should “educate the human potential” by creating interactive environments and orchestrating firsthand experiences that enable learners to “spontaneously explode into new awareness and insight or skill” on the basis of their own interaction and exploration of the new. This goal extends beyond teaching a new skill or concept to empowering the evolution of the learner as creators of their own future reality.

CONNER: Have you found specific techniques you’d encourage people to try in order to remove some of those blinders and see things with fresh eyes?

HUMBURG: I work between the customers, who will benefit from all the incredible effort that goes on inside companies to create products with real value, and actual teams of people who design and develop and document the products. I get to see the whole truth from the customer’ side and try to understand how to communicate that in a way that can be openly received by people inside companies.

The most compelling situations for me are those where designers and engineers have really been able to get out of their own idea boxes (their own belief systems) enough to embrace something new in themselves and move into a new perceptual space, from the standpoint of a particular design situation such as designing something useful and fun for someone else who is different than them. It often helps if I, as a communicator, begin by first calling attention to what may be silent bias.

I’ve tried a couple of different exercises as simple as asking people to tell me whether they’re right or left-handed, and they almost always raise the hand of their handedness. That, in itself, is a physical expression of a silent, pervasive bias that rules our behavior. Also, when you fold your arms, you almost always put that same hand above the other because that is the way you are most comfortable. If you actually, consciously move to fold them in the opposite way, it feels a bit awkward. This quickly shows people have a bias to do or see in the same old way even when they think, cognitively, they are open to try new things.

Learning is often about feeling a bit awkward with the new information at first. That physical experience can remind us that we may need to be a little uncomfortable and we should push ourselves to a place that feels a little bit different and then kind of revel in that. It’s in that awkward place of new association where your past knowing doesn’t bind you but informs you and where you can truly accept something that’s different and integrate it with what you already know to get into a creative space that takes you to a new level of understanding. It all sounds very abstract, describing our experiences this way.

CONNER: It does but it may provide us a bridge into talking about learning. Adult learning is so much more than just receiving content from others. It includes throwing our own belief systems against the wall, challenging what we know and being receptive to, as you said, “Move past the blinders and bindings.”

HUMBURG: We have to create a climate for people that allows them to go with the flow, like water. Water never loses its integrity, but it also follows the shape and form of whatever it’s around. We have to become like that. We should hold on to our values but not necessarily what we know. We should use what we know to be a springboard but it’s not the only reference point.

If I think back to my teaching days, I can see it was a deep exploratory curiosity that drives children to learn. Montessori’s work gave children a rich environment full of opportunities to interact firsthand with objects, with others, with themselves in a way that allowed them to begin to see the world, the environment itself, and their actions, as the way to learn. Just being in the environment and interacting with things is a way to learn—and as part of that process, you change.

It’s a cyclical model. That iterative engagement takes us to new levels because there’s a bit of trial and error, a lot of observation, and a lot of incorporating those observations into making different choices the next time.

CONNER: Are there ways the Internet has helped to extend that?

HUMBURG: I believe the Internet is the first technology—and I do mean the first—that by its very nature is capable of engaging our brains at the level where we can actually learn, grow, change, and keep on going in real time and on-demand. There are qualities about the Internet that take advantage of our highest qualities as human beings. The Internet’s global nature can rather effortlessly incorporate the diversity of human perspective and information from everywhere. As we move into broadband where it’s not just text, but we have access to more multi-sensory and moving images, we’ll be able to capture evolutionary movement that will provide us the capability to archive our own iterations to look back and learn from.

The Internet also has the ability to bring us an incredibly robust list of references that would take any human being years, if ever to amass together at one time. That will allow us to see new patterns and make meaningful connections.

The Internet can be the technology that binds all this together and allows the information to flow, be collected, stored in an organized way, and retrieved in an organized way on demand, as needed. The ancillary tools still need to be developed to give us this kind of access to and ability to play with this information. As Doug Engelbart says, we have to challenge technologists to create tools that can really enhance people’s ability to collect, apply, access, re-access, use and reuse the kind of experiences and intelligence that individuals have when they come into a collaborative group situation.

The Internet also has the ability to simulate and evaluate our experiences, the firsthand kind of interaction that we need to have in a learning situation. One of my concerns, though, is that for society to take full advantage of the Internet’s opportunity, I think it’s also going to need to involve the real world in some way. It can’t just all be flatland stuff because the 360°, firsthand manipulation, 3-D engagements are vital to problem solving.

Almost every kind of breakthrough has come from some free association of hitherto related but unpaired pieces of information or learning. British journalist, James Burke’s PBS series of several years ago documented the cumulative inter-relationships and associations of the world’s greatest inventions and advancements in knowledge across civilizations and generations. While the Internet has the capability to introduce us to those hitherto unrelated things, many of those converging moments also come from a glance or a reminder of a past event from a friend or associate. Some of this peer-to-peer exchange will be enhanced further when chat includes video and sound, others will come when we still meet in person. Many of the ancillary tools for cross-fertilizing creative idea sharing still have to be developed but I’m encouraged by the potential.

CONNER: Where will this apply to learning?

HUMBURG: eLearning seems to me to be doing the same thing that was done in the early days of the Internet. It’s really been nothing more than re-purposing stuff. It doesn’t yet take advantage of the array of multi-sensory, multi-modal possibilities that the Internet can offer. We’re still in the crawling stages… we may not even be crawling yet. The challenge is to develop learning products in a way that truly will help to educate the human potential (going back to Montessori’s challenge to us as communicators and educators). There’s a misconception that teaching is like talking at somebody. True learning comes from within. What we’re all really aiming for is a kind of personal growth that moves the receiver, the student, the learner to a different space than they were in the beginning. Montessori said there is no such thing as teaching.

For me, the seminal experience that helped pull together my own abilities and a real excitement around a profession came from reading the original diaries of Piaget as he observed very specifically how human experience impacted future behavior. This parallels Montessori because she talked about fulfilling human potential rather than teaching children. She always said, “Don’t look at me as being an innovator; you have to look at the children because they are the ones who are doing the innovation on a daily basis.”

That mirrors the potential for elearning because it also can provide access to the global amount of information, experience, and knowledge that’s been built up and the power of computers to store all that stuff in an organized way and the ability for us to access it and use it. It’s just too bad that so few of the products I’ve seen give the learner access to that information. They usually keep the learner within the confines of their program instead of helping them see so much more and bring together what hasn’t been brought together before. Paralleling Montessori, “Don’t look at the producers as the innovators; look at the potential of learners who could innovate on a daily basis with the help of the products and plans and problems they are working with.”

CONNER: How does this fit with your work in usability and user-focused design?

HUMBURG: I see so many companies that think they have great ideas and they know exactly what the user wants—without ever going out into the real world to understand how users think and act. Then companies go ahead and implement their idea, but it doesn’t work exactly how users need it to work. It doesn’t create that “Wow!” value that supports users’ real potential in some way. The same could be said for the elearning programs I’ve seen. I don’t care whether these programs are building a skill, adding to a general knowledgebase, or simply piquing someone’s curiosity that ultimately leads to one of those other things, you still have the same problem. “Is the product designed for the producer or the real user?”

CONNER: Are you saying that some products are not addressing the real needs of users but instead have almost their own agenda?

HUMBURG: Software and elearning designers often set up their performance standards based on some third party—usually management’s—description of what needs to happen in terms of performance criteria, and a lot of times there has not been any firsthand investigation into what the current situation and knowledgebase are like. The right information is not available to inform developers how to build on the existing knowledge, skills, and information base to get to new levels of knowledge and skills. There is not the right amount of equilibration.

With Montessori, I was fortunate enough to witness what Piaget called equilibration—the natural learning process of human beings taking in new and related information through first hand experiences that transform their old knowing into a new, greater knowing at a greater level of knowledge equilibrium. On a daily basis, I was able to observe little human beings building whomever they were going to become in very minuscule ways across multiple activities as they manipulated educational materials and talked with each other about their experiences.

eLearning, and most training, tries to teach one particular thing that has a certain organization or order we can put structure to. When management says, “These are the performance objectives,” there is, in fact, a whole bunch of indirect knowledge or skill that has to pre-exist inside the learners before they can actually take in that new material and reach the desired goal new level of knowing could provide. What they have to do is not so difficult that they can’t recognize it, work with it, play with it, manipulate it, practice with it, use it, and then actually have their behavior, their understanding, their knowledge, their intelligence raised or changed as a result. It takes that equilibration, the integrating of new skill or knowing into the pre-existing knowledge base, to get to a new level of balance with an enhanced skill set.

CONNER: Would you say more about direct and indirect learning?

HUMBURG: Think of direct learning as that skill or information being targeted in the educational experience and indirect learning as the ancillary knowing that enables richer, more delicious understanding and our ability to apply new skill creatively in many different contexts.

Let’s use how Quicken fit into our customers’ whole lives as an example. People don’t want to balance their checkbooks in isolation. They’re not balancing their checkbook because they love to balance their checkbook. They’re balancing it because it has a greater purpose in their life. As they gain that skill, it becomes easier. When Quicken first came out it was sort of an accounting-based way for people to take charge of their life. It was related enough to what people were already doing that they could actually pick it up and use it. What we found out was that people wanted to have their dreams come true and money is the sort of commodity in our society that makes a lot of that kind of stuff happen.

The product was for balancing your checkbook but it also helped people gain control of their lives, be more confident in themselves, give their families what they wanted—what they dreamed of, and could experience together. If you look at it in that broader context you start to see what people learned along the way. The result of doing something like balancing their checkbook is that they will learn a lot more about themselves and about how money fits into their life and about how the financial institutions handle their money. It’s all interrelated. That’s what I call relational learning. Nothing in life is independent of anything else—nothing.

In the learning context (and too often it’s the same thing in software design) designers target a certain kind of activity and isolate everything from everything else. They never observe real users to understand the context of people’s lives in which they are doing these tasks—all the ways in which people will deeply value their new abilities because they’re using a product to help them. These indirect benefits of usage create real value. Designers don’t appreciate the real purpose and value these activities have and, as a result, they also miss a lot of the innuendo around how features should really work and the outcomes they should really produce in people’s lives.

If we’re wise about how we choose different delivery methods to present information to people and allow them access to tools that help them relate it and associate it to activities in their life already, people can actually use the fullest scope of their intelligence around taking in new bits of material and apply them in truly creative ways. That’s what human potential is about. It’s not about rote, spit it back, yes you learned it, check it off, and go on to the next item on the list. It’s about making people more creative and more intelligent in a more innovative way that solves the problems of the future. As I said earlier, Einstein encouraged us to find new minds to solve old problems. Tim Gallwey, who wrote The Inner Game of Tennis, explains that when you expose a student to some guided firsthand experience, get out of the way for them to respond to the immediate environment, and offer ample practice (with feedback), people do the rest.

CONNER: Do designers just not give people enough credit to learn more than one thing?

HUMBURG: My guess is that very few instructional designers actually go out into the environment of the learners they’ll be writing for and observe the job or how these new skills and understandings actually have to fit into the everyday work. If they did, they would probably do something radically different than what they end up doing based on a conversation with management up front about what management wants which may be totally unrelated to the real exigencies of the learners having to apply the knowledge in their jobs to creatively solve problems.

When they first founded Intuit, Scott Cook and Tom Proulx spent an inordinate amount of time with anybody they could grab who would look at different prototyping designs. That volume of user feedback they received, over a period of time, strongly influenced what they ended up doing. This is very different than coming up with great ideas on their own. That is why the company maintains such a customer focus. When you really want to wow, you need a tapestry of data and different views of the user: not just what they say they want but some observations into what they’re doing so you know—you understand—what they mean when they say this is what they want. You begin to understand how they think about the problem, their habits around how they’re currently doing things and an understanding of the technology and how they can use it. Then you mesh those together to create a product that can actually change people’s lives.

CONNER: What steps should people take to get started in this user-centered approach?

HUMBURG: It’s not really that simple. I don’t want to be like the history teacher who emphasized dates and people’s names versus the context of something and the cause or effect of the different events over time on the population or the culture. What’s most important for people to pay attention to is analyzing the situation and actually looking at how people are working. You can talk to the people in focus groups but actually going into the field and recording how people do, act, communicate and work, yields the best results. You have to go get the specific details from somewhere and apply them. Nobody will use every feature or function of every product (or need to know everything right away in an elearning product) so see how they work, listen to how they think, create, and problem-solve and which things are most important.

CONNER: So you’re describing some of the qualities of understanding or focusing on the user. I would love just to hear how you do it.

HUMBURG: It doesn’t need to be a hugely expensive, monumental effort but it does mean that you have to think through the parts of people’s environments and their activities, their work habits, and the context of those habits whatever they are. You need to know what they’re doing, what’s working, what’s not working, what tools they’re using, what activities they do in what frequency, and what their perspective is for satisfaction about outcomes and results of these various activities so that you have a pretty good idea about what you’re trying to solve from a number of different perspectives.

Based on the kind of data you define, you can start to design because you understand a little bit about how your users think, act, and communicate. It’s really only then you can get down to putting things on a screen, chunking information, labeling it (putting names to things) and finding ways to navigate through it. To create the information architecture, you’ve really got to understand how your users think about the relationships between tasks and information because that’s what they’re going to be coming to your product with whether you like it or not. The odds they’re going to be thinking like you think—if you’re not a part of their environment—are probably pretty small.

CONNER: I’m reminded of that great line by Lorraine Hansberry (and I’m paraphrasing), which says, “You may think you know me but you don’t know the hills and valleys I have traveled to get to where I am today.”

HUMBURG: That’s right. When we were working on the first on-line banking product for Intuit, we did some different kinds of phone surveys up front and we did a lot of informal surveying of people on the team and their friends and family through a kind of structured interview. It was very short and we actually asked eight of our friends how they might use the product. That gave us a core set of anecdotal, informal data that helped us to scope and prepare us to bring real users in and ask them to walk us through what they were doing. Based on a lot of really intense work with people to describe how they think, what they’re currently doing, what they’re using, what’s working, what’s not working, what results they want, what’s going to satisfy them, and what their goals were, we were able to identify a whole feature that none of us had ever thought of but that all of us would have used immediately had we thought of it or had it available that day. I can’t remember the exact name we gave to the feature but it related to letting users easily create a kind of real-time balance across all their accounts—like what they would see if they had a scratch pad where they could add in planned deposits, subtract out bills that would be due within a period of time, and debit checks that were already in the mail but not yet charged against the bank’s balance. That feature was especially important because it provided some ‘what-if’ analysis in situations where they were deciding if they could afford a big purchase or something. And, to my point, it was something we really hadn’t thought of but was something that made on-line banking quite different from what people were able to do with just regular bank statements, telephones, ATMs, and that kind of thing.

That’s just one example of how you can inspire your design decision process based on data and a rich understanding of who it really is you’re designing for. It gives you a whole different way of defining and even designing the feature than you would have ever come up with on your own no matter how creative and intelligent and experienced your team is because they’re just not the user.

CONNER: And even if they did think of some new things or offer some perspectives, they are not users. Even in the optimal situation where the designer could be a potential end-user, they won’t know all (or even most) of the purposes that other people will really use it for.

HUMBURG: No skill or fact works in isolation. As I’ve finally accepted over the years, everything builds on everything else and the inter-relationships are just incredible. The whole concept of direct and indirect preparation, and the need for association works in all creative processes. It usually is where your greatest breakthrough comes. You take something that you have always known and twist it slightly and apply it in a new context. And suddenly you have an incredible breakthrough.

This is why I am pretty excited about the technology potential we can see right now. Especially with broadband and wireless. Soon enough costs will come down and the ways that people can exchange information with one another at different levels, the ways they can manipulate and play with the information in different ways, and reuse their own practice to understand will be endless. I don’t believe that schools are currently available to do that. Technology is moving at such an incredible pace but we need to stretch ourselves to find ways to apply technology in service of educating the overall human potential, to help human beings to learn and work together more effectively, collectively and individually. And it’s not just to change how we do it but also advance our understanding of the best practices, too.

CONNER: You’ve helped us advance along the way. Thank you.

[photo credit: Marcia Conner]
People-Centered Learning: An Interview With Judee Humburg
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