I write about ways to humanize business, and am always intrigued and inspired when I meet someone who is doing just that, in their own unique way.
I have recently met one such person. Not quite out of his computer science undergraduate program, Jackson Stone isn't just thinking about what's next, he's building it.
Remember his name. I predict you'll see more of him.
For Jackson, and a slew of other computer programmers, making functional software isn't enough. They want to do more. They want to make people happy. And they see a widening gap between enterprise software and what people actually want--and want to experience--when they use it.
A member of the Under 20 Thiel community, Jackson recently gave an inspiring and thought-provoking Tedx Talk about this quandary in software development. I then had the chance to have lunch with him to hear more about his ideas.
And then I hired him.
His passion for humanizing design and the psychology behind his code is what intrigued me most.
Here's some excerpts from a recent conversation.
Shelley: How did you become so interested in UX and design (as opposed to more general computer programming)?
Jackson: Through computers we all become a little bit super-human. Whether it's connecting us with someone on the other side of the globe, or solving a complex math problem instantly. But for all this power we tend to pay a price. Instead of "living life", we have to stare at screens, not experiencing something great, but wading through our software, clicking away in cubicles, pumping ourselves with caffeine, trying to stay awake until the end of our work day. We may be in a digital age, but we are still very much physical creatures, who crave interesting experiences. That's why I love UX. With it, we can gain all the empowerment that software can grant, but our quality of life doesn't have to pay any price.
Shelley: How did your time at Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) shape this in you?
Jackson: While at ORNL, I learned a lot about programming. I also met dozens of great and helpful people, who taught me a lot and I was lucky to meet them. But I also got a taste of what millions of individuals working white collar jobs deal with on a daily basis. Mind-numbing drudgery. I realized then and there what I wanted to do with my career was help cure this drudgery. I knew there was no reason software in the workplace couldn't be redesigned to be captivating, interesting, or even refreshing. I concluded drudgery was not a necessary cost of using software tools, it was a symptom of poor design.
Shelley: What are the current UX design challenges in enterprise software?
Jackson: The expense of development results in a fear of failure, slowing progress. Making software is expensive and takes a lot of time. So when deadlines are around the corner the project is reduced to the essentials, which unfortunately, does not usually include the user-experience. And because the monetary investment is such a large one, we tend to stay with the "safe", rather than the potentially revolutionary. As software projects grow larger and more expensive it becomes even harder still to promote creative development. The stakes are that much higher. One way to fix this is making the development process cheaper which is a tall order. However, another possibility is more software developing companies having design as a part of their R&D department. I'd love to see a branch of research in places like ORNL dedicated to pursuing interesting design alternatives for common tools.
Shelley: What inspires you?
Jackson: I find the progress of video games inspiring. It stands as a testament to how interesting and sometimes even enriching software can be when good design is behind it.
Shelley: What's the main thing colleges are missing right now by way of educating next generation computer programmers?
Jackson: The field of Computer Science needs to be more subdivided. Computer Science programs usually cover an immense number of subject matters, from network security, to design practices, project planning, back end development, front end development, database management, data analysis, etc. They all involve coding, sure, but in the same way all forms of engineering involve math, or humanities programs involve writing. I'd love to see more UX related classes, but the real issue is we cram too much into one or two undergraduate programs. This results in surface level knowledge of the concepts, not a workplace ready understanding.
Shelley: What are some projects that really excite you right now? What's something you'd love to work on?
Jackson: My current project is a re-worked version of Microsoft Excel that I'm designing and developing within a videogame engine. The hope is I can find new and interesting designs the tool can take. It's still in its infancy, but I'm already excited by what I've managed to do so far. But the holy grail of UX I hope to be a part of is a complete reworking of software development. Coding is currently done with text-based commands and requires extensive training to become competent, making it inherently esoteric. I want to help do for coding what Middle English did for writing, and bring it into the mainstream by making programming itself intuitive. I think the result would be truly explosive.