6 Questions with Peter “Dr. Pete” Meyers

By Mike Maddaloni on Friday, July 18, 2008 at 04:00 AM with 4 comments

6 Questions logo1 - Who are you, and what are you doing here?

My name is Peter Meyers (AKA "Dr. Pete"), and I run a website usability consulting firm here in Chicago called User Effect (www.usereffect.com). I like to say that I'm a coder by blood and psychologist by training. I've been programming since I was 9, and I think it's just in my genetic code somehow. Ultimately, I see the computer as a tool first, and I'm also fascinated by the idea of the human mind as a tool, so I ended up double-majoring in college and went on to do my Ph.D. in cognitive psychology. Long story not-quite-as-long, the internet boomed when I was in grad. school, I went to work for a start-up in 1997, helped build it into a $1.5M web services company and then left in 2005 to start my own business and get back to what I love, helping clients understand their online customers.

2 - To the layman, what is cognitive psychology and how does it relate to the Internet?

The stock answer is that cognitive psychology is the study of human cognition, but that's not very helpful smile Essentially, it's the study of all of the pieces that make up how adults think and process information, including learning, memory, and perception. It's very relevant to human-computer interaction and understanding the ways people react and respond to information online, including, of course, commercial websites.

3 - Can you site an example of applying your education and background to improve a Web site or online experience?

One of the major areas where my experience converges is in website testing, which is essentially creating a mini-experiment online. The simplest example is A/B or split testing, where we put out 2 versions of a web page to 2 groups of users and measure which one performs better. This is definitely an area where my training as a research scientist comes in handy, both in figuring out what to test and how to interpret the results. Of course, experience comes in handy, but the results often surprise me, which is part of the fun.

4 - Have Internet users become "smarter" over the years, or is it hard to even measure that with the growing population as well as aging of users?

"Smarter" is a really loaded word that I'm going to try to tap-dance around. It is amazing how quickly people have gotten used to the internet and have developed certain habits, such as recognizing underlined, blue links, or exhibiting the so-called "F-shaped" eye movement pattern (showing preference for the top and left first). Whether the internet is making us smarter or dumber is open to debate, but we're definitely learning to adapt to it as a tool and are, in my opinion, using it more effectively and creatively.

That said, your "average" user is probably 2-3 years behind the usage patterns of we techie types. A lot of e-businesses still overestimate what visitors want, in terms of cutting-edge features and functions, and would be better off sticking to the basics.

5 - Five years from now, do you think we will be talking about usability and user-centricity on the Internet as a separate discipline, or will it be more ingrained in Web design and development?

This discussion pops up a lot in usability and user experience (UX) circles. As much as we take the internet for granted, it's still really in its infancy, and I think it's only natural that the areas of expertise are going to diverge over time. I tend to see myself as a bit of a generalist, but we're definitely going to see fields such as design, usability, online marketing, search engine optimization, etc. split into specialties. I do think that user-oriented design is already a bit of a specialty, and hopefully one we're going to see more of.

6 - What is one question I did not ask, and what is its answer?

I hate to sound cliche, but I'm really interested by the question of where the internet is headed in the next 5/10/20 years. I'm not sure I can answer "Where will the internet be in 5 years?", but I think we've taken the web for granted so quickly that we don't realize that: (1) it's already revolutionized our lives, and (2) this is just the tip of the iceberg. I think that we're going to tap the so-called wisdom of crowds more effectively as time goes by, and the internet will become a vehicle for not just generating content, but new ideas, products, and even social constructs. As it does, psychology and sociology are only going to come into play more and more.

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