A little UX knowledge is a dangerous thing

Picture the scene: a meeting room. A board meeting perhaps, or a presentation. Certainly something to do with commercials. Before too long the acronyms begin to fly thick and fast. Those coming out with the acronyms seem confident enough saying them, so everyone else nods along sagely, never daring to stop the flow to ask what anything means.

For most of the time, you keep up.

“’CRM’… yep, got that one. ‘ROI’? Schoolboy stuff. ‘C–suite’? Hang on hang on, I know this one… nope, I’ll just have to nod like the others and get past it.”

If that doesn’t sound familiar in any way, let’s (ahem) say it’s just me then.

You’ll forgive my sensitivity about something so close to my own heart, but ‘UX’ has now joined the buzzword bingo list. In many ways it’s understandable – it has an X in it after all, so it sounds edgy. User experience is ‘hot’ at the moment, and anything hot will inevitably get misappropriated. Some will be quick to pursue the credibility they assume will come from adopting a faux interest in customer needs.

Last year, one of the most blundering commentaries on user experience I’ve had the misfortune to read appeared on a popular professional networking platform, written by the MD of a prominent advertising agency. With a promise to explain UX to the reader, this individual went on to stumble their way through an incoherent, rambling essay in which UX was thrown haphazardly into – and I quote – “lots of different stuff” that delivers the power to steal customers from competitors.

The kind of zero sum thinking reflected in the piece smacked of the marketing and advertising of 20 or 30 years ago, where brand was the dominant force pulling the strings, and a ‘by–any–means–necessary’ approach to customer acquisition ruled the day. Any means, that is, except focusing on the goals of the customer.

I often re-read the piece, each time more convinced it was authored on the wrong side of a bottle of wine. But also because it typifies the greatest distortion of user experience thinking; that it is somehow a natural extension of traditional advertising or marketing, and pertains to “the experience that we will impose on them”. User experience is in fact anathema to that worldview.

The trouble is that simply talking about UX, dropping it into the meeting room game of buzzword bingo, suggests a fait accompli; that simply referring to it ticks the box. Beauty pageants are an archaic concept nowadays, but one version of them pops up regularly in the business world: the presentation of graphics when not one question has been asked of the end user. There is no ‘U’ in UX if the user hasn’t been represented in the outputs.

UX is primarily about solving problems, not merely the amplification of a marketing message or delivery of a brand style guide. User-centred design is not a fatuous term. It requires a process, one that starts with the user.

UX doesn’t exist within a set of graphics, or a piece of content, or navigation labels, or any single component. A user experience exists in the mind and memory of those people that have engaged with a product or service. This must be understood before it can begin to be addressed.

Of course, such simple facts have never got in the way of some people just opening their mouths (or taking to their keyboards) and letting the buzzwords flow.

There’s nothing new about innovation

If you are familiar with phrases such as ‘early adopter’, or the bell curve model of adoption then – whether you know it or not – you are also familiar with the work of Everett Rogers.

In 1962 (53 years ago at time of writing), Rogers published Diffusion of Innovations which contained not only enduring ideas like the bell curve, but a wealth of material that continues to be relevant in a world hungry for the silver bullets of success.

Still in print, and in its fourth edition, Diffusion of Innovations remains a central text when it comes to assessing the potential of innovations in the marketplace. Building on research gleaned from over 1500 field studies, Rogers identified that an innovation could be rejected, and therefore fail, based on one or more of the following characteristics:

Relative Advantage – the degree to which an innovation is perceived to be better than something comparable

Compatibility – the degree to which an innovation is compatible with existing habits or behaviours

Complexity – the level of complexity associated with adopting the innovation

Trialability – the level of opportunity to test out or trial the innovation

Observability – the extent to which the results of an innovation are visible to others (particularly peers)

Many producers or technologists believe – indeed, need to believe – that they will be the next Steve Jobs or Henry Ford. Quite a number will claim that Rogers’ criteria don’t apply to their product, in the same way that Jobs’ or Ford would never be tethered by rules of any kind.

However the vast majority of everyday innovations tend to build on and improve something already familiar. Taking the iPod as an example, the idea of a portable music player was well established – the Walkman was first introduced in 1978 after all. Indeed, the Walkman’s innovation had been to miniaturise the music player, as the opportunity was already manifest. Its inventor Akio Morita had observed young people in New York carrying boom boxes around on their shoulder and recognised the desire for portability.

Further, the iPod was not even the first of its kind; that honour belonged to the The Audible Player from Audible.com, arriving on the market almost 4 years before the launch of the of the iPod. By the time Apple’s response appeared there were over half a dozen MP3 players available on the market.

So the ‘innovation’ of the iPod was building on already established behaviours and needs. Where Jobs’ vision triumphed was in the exquisite execution of the concept, something that other companies didn’t come close to. Viewed through the lens of Rogers’ criteria, the iPod matched many of the requirements:

Relative Advantage – it had a much greater capacity than the Walkman

Compatibility – the idea of personal stereos was ingrained in the consumer mindset (although iPod brought with it the iTunes eco–system)

Complexity – the iconic scrollwheel made the task of navigating huge amounts of content not only easy, but pleasurable

Trialability – many high street stores stocked the iPod

Observability – the white earbuds were instantly identifiable, and formed the centrepiece of advertising campaigns of the time

Assessing the potential for innovations to succeed is prime territory for user experience work. UX is often confused as being user interface work alone, or as a trendy nom de plume for what we should simply call ‘design’. But in 1962, Rogers was already speaking a new language:

Determining felt needs is not a simple matter, however. Change agents must have a high degree of empathy and rapport with their clients in order to assess their needs accurately. Informal probing in interpersonal contacts with individual clients, client advisory committees to change agencies, and surveys of clients are sometimes used to determine needs for innovations.

This was new thinking in 1962, and it remains a challenge for businesses and organisations today. But it is evergreen advice, and words that we in Fathom adhere to day and daily.

In the scramble to innovate, don’t overlook the fundamentals.

This post first appeared on the Fathom_ blog.

Designing for Dignity

User experience professionals are vocal about the benefits of a user–focused approach, the need to remember that users are people, and the importance of dealing in human–centred design. Rationale tends to link the outcomes of a user-centred methodology with conversions and completions, funnels and fulfilment. It is less common however that we hear of the human value of great design.

In 2007, Dr. Richard Buchanan published a seminal essay reflecting on the ability of design to play a greater role in society. In the essay, he wrote:

“Human-centered design is fundamentally an affirmation of human dignity. It is an ongoing search for what can be done to support and strengthen the dignity of human beings as they act out their lives in varied social, economic, political, and cultural circumstances.”

With those words, all stakeholder, designer and developer egos should collectively and rightly crumble.

Simple support for human dignity doesn’t make it into the marketing discussion. It’s unlikely to be talked about during the brainstorming sessions; it almost certainly won’t make it into the design brief, and the technical specification won’t address it either. So where do we fit in designing for dignity and the basic ability for people to achieve their goals and get on with their lives?

Respect for people’s time by rights means allowing them to complete what should be simple tasks, and letting them get on with what they really want to do; something which is unlikely to include continuing to use your app or website. Linking design with usability is a vital step. But that further step, of linking usability to dignity and respect, is under represented.

Unconditional positive regard is a term used in psychology relating to the acceptance and support of a person no matter what they say or do. Applied to the world of UX, we might say ‘there is no such thing as user error’. Design luminary Don Norman puts it this way:

What we call ‘human error’ is a human action that … flags a deficit in our technology. It should not be thought of as an error.”

And yet it is technology that so often lets humans down. It often appears that our desire for impact and ‘cool’ has overtaken the need to design products and services that meet basic needs.

As an example, I’ve witnessed first hand a 90+ yr old come to grips first with a PC and subsequently a tablet. I’ve been left feeling ashamed for the software industry as a whole, as the same person tried to adapt to a new operating system that installed itself, after they had only managed to come to terms with the previous one. I have seen them struggle with the iPad version of a shopping app only to be forced to running the scaled–up iPhone app on the tablet to make the system accessible to them. Unsurprisingly, they blame themselves.

The inherent simplicity of touchscreen devices offers a potential lifeline for those who have been left behind, or left out of the internet revolution of the last 20 years. Badly-designed apps and online services immediately waste that potential.

The goal that people should be able to use what we design with ease, free from stress or friction, is not mutually exclusive from the business objectives of most projects. Absent from too many project briefs, the principle of designing for dignity should be a prerequisite; a foundational element in any design discussion.

This post first appeared on the Fathom_ blog.

User Experience is serious business

Opinions are like bellybuttons: everybody has one. It’s one of those wonderful little traits that makes us human.

There is of course a right time for opinions; a design process addressing the public interface for your organisation or service is not one of them. If the debate around (for instance) a website descends into contributions such as “I think we need to have our Twitter feed on the homepage”, the alarm bells should sound.

Protracted debate around what is understood to be the design tends to come too late in the day, and represent nothing but a distraction from deep–rooted issues that will dictate the success or failure of an organisation’s digital strategy.

Digital touchpoints now represent the de facto form of initial contact between businesses and customers. A little unfairly perhaps, expectations for these interactions have been set by the giants of the digital world – Google, Amazon et al. B2B transactions are similarly shifting towards B2C patterns of behaviour, in terms of researching and filtering suppliers. User experience increasingly defines the brand in the minds of consumers.

Faced with these stark realities, isn’t it crazy that a design discussion could fixate around colours, logo size or font selection? To put such debate into perspective – how probable is it that a website or app will fail for any of those reasons? More likely, a digital initiative will fail to meet its objectives because those objectives have simply not been defined, or are inaccurate due to a lack of understanding of user needs.

Amid the talk of ‘user–centred’ design and the ‘user experience’, it can be easy to misinterpret the message as something akin to ”the customer is always right” – 5 words guaranteed to raise the ire of many an MD or CEO.

Design for the user experience is more than gauging opinion, or paying lip service to customer satisfaction. The truth is that any effective user– or customer–centred process includes careful consideration of the business objectives for the organisation. Business goals need to be clearly defined in parallel with user needs – it is these that will most clearly define the nature of the digital transactions required for both the business AND users to benefit. This is a symbiotic relationship, not a zero sum game.

User–centred design thinking is the perfect antidote to destructive, subjective discourse. Learning about your organisation through the lens of primary research undertaken with customers and users can be a daunting prospect; it may even unearth some long–buried suspicions and fears.

Once the unknowns are known, design decisions can be informed and supported by evidence as to what is required for users to achieve the goals they want to achieve, which in turn support the business goals for the project. This necessarily brings in elements of overall business strategy, product strategy and marketing strategy.

It is essential to see your business through the eyes of those outside your organisation. Knowing what you represent to your users and customers may affect everything you had previously believed; it is also sure to empower you to focus resources on what really matters, for you and for your customers.

Formula doesn’t mean formulaic

One of the occasional criticisms hurled at user experience as a discipline is that it is simply a box–ticking accessibility exercise; that by engaging in solid research and analysis, somehow UX is the boring bitthat has to be done before real design gets a look in.

Related to this is another misconception that if a diligent user–centred design process is followed, somehow we will always end up with the same formula, the same outcome – the same design. This is part of the same myth which says that design is arrived at through inspiration alone; that ‘design’ is a noun rather than a verb; that we should ignore established best practice or patterns and instead search for true ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ (add your favourite devisive industry buzzword here).

The retort to this isn’t that UX design does not involve the use of formulae. The defence is that it is the very use of ‘formulae’ that ultimately leads to differentiation.

Some years ago I learned about a narrative pattern called the Hero’s Journey. American Academic Joseph Campbell wrote about it in his book ‘The Hero with A Thousand Faces’, the result of years of study of myths and legends from many different cultures from around the world. What he discovered was a set of common elements, a formula if you will. You can read more about it here.

Ever since Campbell put his findings in writing, a huge number of popular stories – be they in literature or cinema – have taken cues from the Hero’s Journey resulting in some of the most beautiful, most inspiring tales in popular culture. You need look no further than the original Star Wars (a story that wears Campbell’s influence on its sleeve) to see the template at work. The thing is, although you may be aware you are watching or reading something inspired by Campbell’s work, it doesn’t make it any less stirring or appealing.

It’s worth looking also at popular songwriting. I’m willing to bet that your favourite songs go something like verse–chorus–verse–chorus–middle 8–chorus. I’m also willing to bet that they are based around seven main chords, or variants thereof. And yet from this we get pretty much all modern popular music, and certainly some of the most emotionally resonant, moving songwriting the world has known. Even Lennon and McCartney knew the rules… albeit they stretched them more than most.

UX design is a similar: working within constraints, sometimes with familiar patterns, the unique aspects of the project – the client’s aspirations, the user needs, the business model – bring to the table elements which alter the chemistry of he process to create something if not unique, then truly effective – the most important benchmark of all.

Last year I worked on a support micro site for a minority community group. Conventional wisdom would have held that, as we were dealing with an already well–researched audience, user research would not yield too much in the way of insights. The client however was wise enough to seek validation of received wisdom and consented to a round of public workshops. One of the most valuable outcomes from these was a set of five distinct personas that the website needed to connect with and communicate to. The personas derived informed everything from navigation and wayfinding to site content and overall tone–of–voice, as well as providing themes for the associated promotional campaign.

As in music or storytelling, the basic building blocks may be limited but there are potentially infinite directions a project can take. And yes, as in those other examples, some results will be poor if a formula is relied on too heavily. What matters though is that the chosen outcome is an effective one, and one that connects with the right people.

In a changing world, where human factors consistently remain the most important elements in communication and interaction, a solid user–centred design process remains the best formula for achieving success with digital projects.

This post originally appeared on the Fathom_ blog