Interview with Peter “Dr. Pete” Meyers

Peter “Dr. Pete” Meyers

Peter Meyers is an expert in website usability and is better known to many around the worlds of usability and SEO as 'Dr. Pete' (not without cause - see below). He is the head honcho of User Effect and he has kindly agreed to be our first victi... interviewee of 2008 (and the first real post of the new-look blog). I was really excited about interviewing Pete. His input to SEOmoz (which is how we have got to know one another) is incredibly valuable and he is one of the most liked and respected members of that community.

Coming from a serious academic background and with a focus on usability, the doctor has a different perspective to many mainstream SEOs and it is this that really sets him apart and around which he is building a great brand.

Although we play feuding competitors on TV, I have great respect for Pete's opinions, so on that note, we jump straight into the questions:

Some people might be aware that we have an ongoing battle for points at SEOmoz (this whole interview is a ploy to appear friendly before launching vicious rumours designed to get you more thumbs-down). Your personal brand over on SEOmoz is very strong - has it brought you work?

> [Dr. Pete]: It's good to take a break from the feuding once in a while. Last year was a good one for me when it came to personal branding, and SEOmoz was a pretty big part of that. I've definitely seen some interest and leads come out of that, and have used it to better define my niche and business direction. One of my new year's resolutions for 2008 is to work on turning that brand into client work.

Before starting User Effect, you helped create an Internet startup. Can you tell us a bit more about that experience, and what led you back to "strategic usability"

> [Dr. Pete]: I was the first full-time employee for an ISP back before the dot-com bubble burst (1997). The internet had really hit the mainstream while I was in graduate school, so I decided to give a start-up a shot. I've been a coder since I was a kid and my boss was a coder, so we quickly realized that our talents were a good fit for developing database-driven websites and applications, and we made the shift to being an ASP. My boss consulted 3 days/week, leaving me with the clients, and I found I was pretty good with clients. To make a long story short (not one of my talents, I know), I saw some opportunity with a couple of those clients and sold them on long-term contracts. Those clients asked for our help developing web-based tools for a couple of tradeshows, and we eventually developed a tradeshow management system.

> In 2005, the company had grown to about 15 people and I was Executive VP, when I started realizing that 8 years was long enough and I really wasn't interested in the tradeshow business long-term. So, I took some time off and realized that I really loved helping small businesses and wanted to get back to my "roots" in psychology. I had done usability work, informally, and realized it was the perfect fit. I take a broad view of usability, and, since I work with small companies, really focus on the entire process of converting motivated visitors into buyers. I've taken to calling that "strategic usability", which I'm sure I'm stealing from someone :)

The 'Dr.' in Dr. Pete refers to a PhD in cognitive psychology, doesn't it? My academic background is in maths and statistics and I find it occasionally directly helpful but more often useful for the logical and theoretical thought processes. Is it similar for you? Do you find the training helpful for getting you to think in a particular way or do you actually use specific things from your academic work?

> [Dr. Pete]: Guilty as charged. I think graduate school is mostly about teaching you how to think critically and learn on your own, and that's been valuable in just about every aspect of my life. I was a computer science undergrad, and have found that while the specifics are long gone (no one's coding in Pascal and Lisp these days), the theory is still going strong. As a cognitivist, a lot of my training had to do with how people perceive and process information, and that certainly comes in handy in my line of work.

I think too much of the web fails to think about usability. If you could give just one piece of advice to the average web designer, the average web developer or the average SEO, what would they be?

> [Dr. Pete]: To put it bluntly: Don't get cocky. Whether you're a designer, coder, or SEO, we all sometimes start to think we know everything or that our personal opinions are somehow the last word. End users don't care what we think, and they don't care about the latest and greatest technology or design technique. They want what they want, and the first step towards better usability is to shut up and listen.

On the same vein, in the SEO industry, too many clients only consult us quite a long way down the process (when they should have thought about usability quite a lot sooner). If we can persuade clients to include some kind of usability stages into the design / build process, what should they care about most? If the budget is there, we could bring in a specialist like you: what can you do at different price points?

> [Dr. Pete]: It's funny you should mention that, as I'm working on putting together a couple of options for small companies, in the form of some simple but customized reports. I think the key for a small business is to (1) help them define their website's business goals, and (2) give them concrete action items they can put to use immediately. Any business that makes money online can benefit from better usability and SEO, and it's our job to educate and find ways to make those services cost effective. Part of my personal mission is to help people understand that usability doesn't have to mean laser eye-tracking and $20K in laboratory testing.

For smaller businesses, or if budgets are really limited, what can they do on their own / with their existing web designer / developer?

> [Dr. Pete]: The best thing they can do is step back from the design and technical side and think about how their business translates onto the web. You can't convert visitors if you don't know what your goals are. It's amazing how many companies have no idea what they're trying to achieve online.

Getting away from the boring seriousness, what do you do to relax? Tell us about something you are passionate about...

> [Dr. Pete]: I hate to admit that I'm terribly undisciplined, so I'm fascinated by physical/mental disciplines, like the martial arts and yoga. I've practiced Chinese kung fu off and on and just started taking some Iyengar yoga. My wife and I are also trying to learn Chinese, which is a bit of a challenge. She also got me into skiing a few years back; she's a lot better than I am, but I'm finally getting to the point where I'm not afraid for my life :) Other than that, I'm a pretty big geek; I spend too much time surfing the net and watching the TiVo.

At some point we'll get to meet up and share a drink. What should we buy you?

> [Dr. Pete]: The last time I was on your side of the pond, I had a hard cider called Scrumpy Jack's, and I've been trying to find it ever since. I'm also partial to a well-crafted half-and-half; I know it's probably blasphemy to some people, but I've always preferred Harp to Bass.

One final work-related question: we are doing a lot of work at the moment understanding localisation and geo-targeting etc. What would differ in your approach when multiple languages / countries are involved?

> [Dr. Pete]: Multicultural usability is something we're really just beginning to try to understand, IMO. On the one hand, I think the internet has standardized some of the ways we do things. If you take a major Chinese website and ignore the characters for a minute, it looks a lot like a major English website; it even reads left-to-right. On the other hand, the cultural underpinnings of what motivates people, what their expectations are, and why they do what they do, are very strong. It's a fascinating area with huge potential for growth.

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Thank you Dr. Pete, for your insightful and interesting answers! I hope our readers needing an expert in website usability beat a path to your door.

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About the author
Will Critchlow

Will Critchlow

Will founded Distilled with Duncan in 2005. Since then, he has consulted with some of the world’s largest organisations and most famous websites, spoken at most major industry events and regularly appeared in local and national press. For the...   read more