I was the last student of the psychologist B.F. Skinner, and I was inspired by his passion for applying behavioral science to make things better. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my own career, in fields as disparate as software, politics, and healthcare.
Both serendipity and an inclination for working across disciplines have carried me in interesting directions. For example, I worked with Professor Skinner on chimpanzee-language research, which turned out to be my first experience designing a product, although not a very successful one.
I spent a few weeks building a huge, chimp-safe keyboard out of Plexiglas and wood, and writing software that connected it to a state-of-the-art Commodore 64 computer. Then I hauled this unwieldy contraption across the country for testing with two skeptical customers, Sherman and Austin, a couple of high-spirited chimpanzees.
The three of us hit it off, and we had a lot of fun monkeying around. But Sherman and Austin had no interest in my goofy keyboard. I went back to the drawing board, trying to design something that would get them interested. In an era when human-centered design was little-known, I became an early practitioner of chimp-centered design.
Fast-forward a few years, after I’d left grad school to work at Microsoft. I was assigned a product (Windows) whose customers were often as unenthusiastic as Sherman and Austin had been. So this was familiar territory. And the skills I had developed in studying behavior and designing for it came in handy.
My chimp keyboard was mostly a failure, but the Start Menu and Taskbar that I created for Windows have succeeded and endured in ways that I never could have imagined.
There was a large element of luck in this—the serendipity of being in the right place at the right time with the right background—but there was also something else important: I was working across disciplines, bringing insights from one to the other.
The media theorist Marshall McLuhan said, “It probably wasn’t a fish that discovered water.” In my work, I’ve tried hard to think outside the fish tank, as it were, and contribute a different perspective.
In this blog, I hope that I’ll be able to occasionally spark useful conversations, and perhaps even launch collaborations as productive as the one I had with Sherman and Austin.