Research Director, Blink Interactive
- Master’s degree in Forestry, University of Washington
- Graduate Certificate in User-Centered Design, University of Washington
- Bachelor’s degree in Forestry, University of Idaho
- Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal
- Research consultant at UW Center for International Trade in Forest Products
- Usability engineer at WRQ, Attachmate, Microsoft, Blink Interactive
- Research director at Blink
Without a doubt, there’s an art and science to making websites, software and gadgets easier for people to use. John and his colleagues at Seattle-based Blink help companies in the Pacific Northwest and beyond create more successful user experiences.
One of John’s recent projects took him to several different countries—including Japan, France and Germany—to test peoples’ interactions with Microsoft’s new Kinect product, a controller-free gaming system for the Xbox 360 video game console. He and local consultants visited about 200 homes to figure out ways to make the out-of-the-box experience easy and approachable, from opening the package to following the quick-start guides to setting up the physical equipment.
Planting trees in Nepal
John’s journey to the high-tech usability industry was a somewhat unconventional one. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in Forestry and a thirst for international travel, the West Seattle native joined the Peace Corps after college. As a volunteer in remote villages in Nepal, he helped the local community forestry staff build tree nurseries, plant trees, and educate villagers about grassroots strategies to address the country’s deforestation problems.
Afterward he wanted to continue his focus on forestry with an international bent and found that the UW’s Forestry graduate program had faculty with similar interests. He entered the program with funding through a research assistantship from the UW’s Center for International Trade in Forest Products.
John’s graduate research focused on the state’s value-added wood products industry—that is, engineered building materials, furniture, cabinetry, and other related products. At the time, the state was trying to promote more manufacturing in this area and boost exports to other countries, such as Japan. John’s thesis involved an industrial survey to understand those companies in the state. This work later led to the creation of an international trade directory aimed at increasing the visibility of these businesses.
After earning his graduate degree John spent five years doing similar research at the Center for International Trade in Forest Products. During that time, he realized he was interested in software and technical writing. He signed up for related classes in a unit of the UW’s engineering school, now called the Human-Centered Design & Engineering program. He later enrolled in a UW course on usability testing and realized “that’s a good fit for where I want to go,” he said.
From there, John landed his first usability job with a local software company, WRQ, where he worked for four years. In 2000, John joined the startup Blink Interactive as a usability consultant.
Tech startup culture
When John started, Blink had only three other employees—including its two co-founders. Aside from working directly with clients on usability projects, John’s tasks varied greatly day to day.
“At a smaller company, you’re called on to apply so many different skills and do whatever is needed,” John said. “It keeps you humble. On my first day, for example, I painted the walls in our new usability lab so we could begin testing the next day.”
Now a research director, John oversees many of the company’s usability projects and meets with potential clients about the technical side of the company’s work. Clients have included Microsoft, Holland America Line cruises, Starbucks, Amazon.com, Real Networks, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and the UW.
Blink has since grown to more than 30 employees who collectively hold three Ph.D.s, three master’s degrees, one M.B.A., and three graduate certificates from the UW. For John, the experience of developing a master’s thesis, doing independent research, and completing his certificate in user-centered design at the UW ties directly to his job today.
Because each person at Blink owns his or her projects, he said, “you have to be able to work individually most of the time, developing research questions you can test through a proven process.”
Advice to future graduate students
“Take time to reflect and ensure that the program is a great fit with your career interests, personality, and skill set,” John said. “Do some research--talk to current and former students, faculty, potential employers, etc.--to see where the degree might take you beyond grad school.”
Photo by Anne Broache