What if there was a software company that blended psychology and technology, and the result showed up in products that improved productivity and communication? That future is now at Stata Laboratories.
What if there was a software company that blended psychology and technology, and the result showed up in products that improved productivity and communication? That future is now at San Mateo-based Stata Laboratories. Co-founder and CTO Raymie Stata chats about usability, digital assets, and not getting in the ring with Microsoft.
What got you personally interested in doing this work?
I came to realize how much more powerful search is as an organizing principle over the more traditional folder or hierarchical approach. And as I’ve personally struggled with increasing numbers of emails, calendar appointments, and digital pictures, I realized that the power of search is absolutely necessary to help people manage their personal digital assets.
Why do you think there’s a need for a fusion between psychology and technology?
“Psychology” in this context is not therapeutic psychology (i.e., sitting on a couch) but rather cognitive psychology: understanding how people process and utilize information and otherwise perform cognitive tasks. If you think about how central these issues are to software–to both what software does and how it does it–and you reflect on how few people involved in the construction of software have even an introductory understanding of cognitive psychology, then you recognize immediately why usability problems are so prevalent in our industry.
Why do you think companies don’t make products that are user-centric enough?
The first thing is, I’ve noticed people are too quick to propose features rather than understand problems. This is true of users, of engineers, of marketers. What you learn in the research world is that the best solutions flow quite naturally when you’ve framed the question well–and framing the question means taking lots of time to understand underlying problems.
Another factor that makes usability difficult to achieve is the understanding of what is and is not possible in software. People seem to be rather polarized on this: either they see software as capable of only very basic record keeping, or they see it as capable of deep intelligence. The truth is, we can write software to do much more than simple record keeping, but as yet, we can’t write software that approaches human levels of intelligence. Thus, after understanding people’s underlying problems, we have to bring an innovative and yet realistic perspective of what’s possible for solving those problems.
What kinds of products are you working on?
We have built what we call a “Personal Content Database,” a database that’s optimized for the type of semi-structured data typical of personal data and the configurations of personal platforms. At the database level, our focus is on fast, scalable search, and on replication. At the same time, we’re building applications that leverage this underlying database technology. We’ve started with e-mail–where the management problems have become the most acute–and we’ll be slowly expanding the footprint.
What are the largest challenges that you see in providing your products?
Our biggest challenge is the perception that, to survive as a software company, you need to out-box Microsoft. The fact is, fragmentation of the e-mail and PIM markets is inevitable, with players like us building products for heavy users. These users feel more pain at the hands of old-fashioned products like Outlook and need something new and better. Our company can not only survive, but thrive on this smaller segment, and in this role paint a brighter future for all users.
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