Cognitive Science Alumni

Our Department isn't defined by the physical space we occupy on the campus of UCSD - it is defined, rather, by the remarkable individuals who make up our community. The lifeblood of any community is its people, and this is especially true of a community that relies on ideas and innovations. In recognition of this, the Department of Cognitive Science at UCSD presents our new "Alumnus/Alumna of the Month" feature.

The goal of the Alumnus of the Month program is to celebrate some of our outstanding Alumni, while giving all students - past, present, and future - an opportunity to meet some of our graduates, and to see some of the amazing things that people from our community have accomplished - in the field of Cognitive Science and beyond.

The hope is that it will both put a more 'human' face on Cognitive Science, as well as be a testimony to the wide range of interesting things that one can do with a Cognitive Science background. In addition, of course, it's a means for CogSci alumni to see what other alumni are up to.

Alumnus of the Month: Nate Bolt, 1999

Nate Bolt

Nate is fascinated by the personal, social, and cultural role of technology, and is borderline obsessed with how to use research and design to transform those roles. After pioneering and directing the User Experience department at Clear Ink in 1999, which included the construction of Natural Environment and Remote Observation laboratories, Nate co-founded Bolt|Peters. He now serves as president and CEO where he has overseen hundreds of user research studies for Hallmark, Oracle, Sony, Greenpeace, and others. Beginning in 2003, he led the creation of the first moderated remote user research software, Ethnio, which is being used around the world to recruit live participants for research on web sites and applications.

Nate regularly gives presentations on native environment research methods in both commercial and academic settings. Working with faculty at the University of California, San Diego, he created a degree titled "Digital Technology and Society," which focused on the intersection of technology and mass population usage. He also completed a year of communications studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he was jailed briefly for playing drums in public without a license.

An Interview with Nate Bolt

by Kim Sweeney

How did you come to create your major?

I had no idea what my major was going to be when I started. In my freshman or sophomore year I took a class with Jim Hollan. Before then I'd taken a lot of Sociology classes that I liked, so I was kind of leaning towards that as a major, but I'd also always been very interested in technology- I just didn't see myself doing Computer Science, because I'd taken a couple of Computer Science classes and really struggled with them. But then I took this class with Jim- "Cognitive Consequences of Technology"- and it was just exactly what I was interested in! I knew that Marshall had a 'build your own major' program… so I wanted to somehow combine Social Studies with Technology Studies- and Jim's class in the Cognitive Science Department was the first I'd ever seen that talked about what I found interesting: here's what happens when technology is developed in a lab or in a development environment, and then here's what happens when that technology is put in the real world, and these are the consequences for people's lives. I thought it was awesome. So I got Jim Hollan to be one of my advisors. I also had Chandra Mukerji from Communications, Adrian Johns from Sociology (he's now at the University of Chicago) and Lev Manovich from Computing and Visual Arts. So I had a broad range of people to work with. I ended up doing a lot of Cognitive Science, because I got a job at Jim Hollan and Ed Hutchins' lab - DCOG - and so I was there a lot.

What is the most valuable thing you learned while at UCSD?

It's funny because we've been doing research about how people use technology for the past 9 years. My company Bolt|Peters has been around for 6 years, and before that we did it for 3 years at a company called Clear Ink. And the original idea I had was simply "let's take some of these crazy theories that I learned about in school and see how they really turn out." I think the most valuable lesson is just that there's no magic rule for developing successful interfaces and successful technology for people's lives. It's good to put the user first, it's good to do user-centered design, it's good to do ethnography and all the research… but it still doesn't guarantee anything. If there were a formula, every interface would be a hit. But instead a lot of them don't work out; they don't turn out as planned.

What advice would you give to current students?

Probably just to ignore all of the ideas about what you 'should' study, other than what you feel is most interesting. I didn't have a lot of pressure from my parents to do a specific thing, but I was definitely thinking: "what will be the most lucrative?" or "what would be the most exciting?" Instead of just doing what I thought was the most fun, I thought I should hedge my bets a little on what I chose to study, depending on how I thought various paths would turn out. But in the end I thought the heck with it, and decided to just do what I found the most fun, and I think that really turned out to be the best decision. None of the other stuff should matter. My advice would be: just follow what sounds interesting to you.

What was your first job right out of UCSD?

I was an Information Architect at a company called Clear Ink. I had interned doing web design with them over the summers, in school, and when I graduated I called them up- and this was 1999, so companies were listening to wacky 21-year-old kids- and I asked them "can I build a lab to do usability studies at your design agency, and then you can include that as one of your services for your clients?". And they said, "sure, of course you can come build a lab!" so it was totally luck, of that year, of that time period. So, I was an Information Architect there, doing almost the exact same thing that we do at Bolt|Peters now, which is user-experience, usability studies.

So that was the 'luck' of that day… from where you are now, for students who are graduating now, what do you think is the 'luck' of today?

I have no idea! I think there are so many cool companies, especially in the Bay Area, that are willing to hire people that are really passionate about what they do. It's the same for Bolt|Peters- people approach us and they say "this is what fascinates me, this is what I know about what you do, this is how I think I can fit in…" and we will always talk to those people. Because those are often the best employees anyways. I think it's harder maybe with bigger companies, but at least with small companies in the Bay Area they're all like that, there's always some kind of opportunity.

What has been the most challenging thing in having your own business?

Probably just keeping the doors open! As a small business owner, it's just so up and down. We started out in the bubble burst of 2000… and it was cool to start a company then, because there were no jobs! The atmosphere was real mellow, it wasn't at all like in the late nineties during the big bubble hype, when everything was big ideas and there was so much money… but the quality of the work was so poor! When the bubble burst all of a sudden the quality of the work went way up but there was no money. And now it seems like we are in another big cycle. Just managing the big ups and downs financially, trying to keep the same number of employees and the same number of clients, that's been probably the hardest thing.

What has been a really good day, or a really good project for you?

Early on we did a bunch of work for some e-commerce companies that wanted to increase their revenues… and it was "successful": it made the clients a lot of money, so it helped to get us more business, and that was great… but we've always been pushing to take on more meaningful projects – anything we really believe in. Probably the most rewarding thing is having done enough consulting that we have the time and financial resources to be able to develop our own products. For instance, we've created our own research software. That was probably the coolest thing. It's called Ethnio, and it's a web application that enables you to recruit real people for research studies. We always wanted to be able to build our own stuff, so being able to do that without having to seek outside funding, being able to fund it strictly from the revenue on the service side, that's probably the thing I'm most proud of about the business.

So how has Bolt|Peters changed from 6 years ago to today, and where do you see it being 6 years down the line?

Well, before we were two people, and now there are seven or eight of us! Our target size is 12-15 that's the biggest we want to be. At Clear Ink they started at 15 people, and around there always seemed like such an interesting size to me because there's no bureaucracy, and from what I've seen that's the limit of the size for a company for there to be no red-tape- over 15 or 20 people you start to have to have an HR person, and you have to have some structure to the company, some hierarchy, because otherwise it won't work.

And in terms of the business? Where is that headed?

So there are several sides to the business. There's the research side, consulting and service, and then there's the building products side, and that's the part we want to grow. More engineering and development. We're trying to build a collaborative design web application that will be our second product, and we want to keep building stuff: that's the most exciting. And then another part of the business is like the spin-off, people who have individual ideas that they want to spin off of Bolt|Peters. One idea is the animation studio Beep Show, another is a green transportation company that one of the guys, Chris, is really passionate about: he's into that industry, and though he doesn't want to do it full time, he wants to spend some time on it. Since we're really interested in green stuff, we'll have a role in helping him start that business. I don't really know exactly how it's going to work, but something like that.

Do you maintain a balance between work and life? How?

In the beginning it was crazy just to get the company off the ground and get it running. But after a few years it was never that difficult to maintain a balance… and it still isn't. The real struggle has been to stay focused on what we want to do with the company and to stay committed… that's been way harder. There are so many amazing people at Bolt|Peters, and they can handle a lot of the responsibilities… so the real challenge for me is: how do I use the time that I do have to really accomplish our goals. That's the hardest thing. The balance thing has never been that hard for me.

Have you ever thought "what would it be like to be an astronaut" or dreamt of pursuing some other career?

No, not really. I mean, I play drums, so sometimes I wonder, what if I could go on tour with the band?... but here's the thing- and this is part of owning your own business- whenever I have those thoughts, when I think "I wish I could do more design" or "I wish I could play more music", well all I have to do is show up and do it! There's nothing standing in my way if I want to dedicate time to the band, or more time to design or to creative projects. For instance, we're spinning off that stop-motion animation studio Beep Show, partly because one of the people at our office, Kate, is amazing with stop-motion art. For a while I wondered, how can we as a technology research company do film animation? It just doesn't mix! And then I realized- of course we can. There's nobody standing there saying you can't. So there aren't any other crazy careers that I've wanted to do that I couldn't do some part of at Bolt|Peters.

To Nominate Someone

To nominate someone as an alumna/alumnus of the month, or if you would be interested in being featured yourself, please contact us at alumnusofthemonth@cogsci.ucsd.edu.