UX Bookclub Belfast, Feb 2018

This time round we had Donna Lichaw (@dlichaw) talking about her book The User’s Journey: Storymapping Products that People Love.

Donna has a background in screenwriting, and carried over the idea of mapping out story from the world of film as she transitioned into products. In the book we’re offered examples from film & TV (Back to the Future and Breaking Bad fwiw), then examples of how that transposes to design.

The storymapping model ©2018 Donna Lichaw

The storymap always follows this pattern (above), the challenge is then to populate the story with the most critical elements of the user experience. N.B. Although Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ is referenced, that isn’t the central model or focus of the book.

Examples of effective application of the technique included Donna’s own experience with FitCounter, where rate of retention during onboarding doubled, despite extending signup from 5 to 15 steps! Another example given is the signup experience of Twitter during it’s major growth period.

During Q&A Donna suggested storymapping was another tool that could work alongside more traditional methods; in practice I anticipate it will take significant buy-in from an early stage, right across the team. Potentially it might impinge or negate completely many accepted UX practices. For instance, some terms that Donna makes use of might be a formula for ambiguity in the UX vs agile conundrum, not least the definition of “stories” itself.

That said, Donna didn’t get caught up in semantics; the book is simply advocating for increased shared understanding, using story – in a holistic sense – as the agent to establish clarity for project goals. It’s a relatively short read, and makes a compelling case for storymapping to bring something fresh to product discussions. It’s but a short step away from experience mapping and traditional user stories; a consolidation of disparate elements under the banner of story.

If you have time, this is an excellent video of Donna’s presentation at Mind The Product in London, 2016.

Check the resources Donna has provided on her website.

Donna Lichaw appears at UX Bookclub Belfast

A quick history of UX Bookclub Belfast: started around 10 years ago and hosted by an agency named Front. They were acquired by Monotype in 2012 at which point myself and few others took up as organizers, until early 2016 when it ran out of suitable venues… and interest. FF to late 2017 and we held the first rebooted bookclub (now with added Meetup.com!)

The facts don’t always speak for themselves.

Facts are stronger than argument, more impressive than reasoning, more dependable than opinion.One of the odd little things that reminds me of my Dad currently sits in a small, unkempt frame on my desk.

It’s an obscure quote that I’ve traced to a U.S. congressional hearing on air safety, of all things. However it made its way in front of Dad, it was clearly something that resonated with him enough to frame it, and is nicely evocative of the man. It reads:

“Facts are stronger than argument, more impressive than reasoning, more dependable than opinion.”

My father was a pragmatist, although I suspect he wouldn’t have labelled himself such. He valued honesty, plain speaking, and facts; something I hope I’ve inherited an amount of from him.

I often attempt to mirror my own profession with his, trying to convince myself that his highly practical skills (Dad trained as a joiner) are somehow mirrored in my distinctly soft skill-set. That said the principles of craftsmanship regularly feature in the challenges I find myself involved with daily.

‘Measure twice and cut once’ was one of his maxims, as it is for so many trades. The same advice is perfectly applicable to my own work, where it is imperative to question assumptions, to research, then – and only then – to begin designing a solution. Measure twice, cut once indeed.

Research can often be misconstrued as overly academic, a noble pursuit that gets in the way of practical action (if you pay close attention to some of the small print flashed on-screen in the middle of ads for hair or beauty products and you could lose faith in it altogether). But research shouldn’t hinder action. It can in fact act as a springboard to set a project off at a canter in the right direction, providing sufficient evidence that – in the words of Lean methodology – we are ‘building the right thing’.

Steve Blank, one of the founders of the Lean Startup movement, purports that “there are no facts inside your building” meaning that views from internal stakeholders alone can’t be taken as reflecting reality.

The role of research in design should be to deal with facts, to uncover truth and reflect it back at the organisation. Very often truth can be uncomfortable to stomach of course. Facts around poor conversion rates, low customer satisfaction ratings, low usability test scores and more can all be swept under the carpet because they are just too painful. Regardless of what the facts might be, they must be acknowledged and understood before something better can be achieved.

All views within a business or organisation are perfectly valid. They are also just pieces of a broader puzzle, one that can only be completed when those outside the building – specifically customers – get to add their voice to the mix. Research what any organisation represents to those customers and end users, and a very different picture can emerge to that which exists internally. It is likely to be a more definitive one.

The framed quote that sits on my desk is a paean to critical thinking, an approach that has been defined as “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence” – exactly the space that user-centred design operates in.

In any discussion around what customers or users want, or what they need, there will be plenty of arguments, lots of reasoning, and no shortage of opinion. Greater than all of those are facts.

I won’t be taking that quote off my desk any time soon.

One-eyed kings: the masters of innovation

One sure way to spice up any conversation around design or innovation is to note that Apple have never invented any device.

While it may be met with some resistance, the fact remains that they didn’t invent the PC, nor the MP3 music player. They are not responsible for the tablet computer, the smartphone or indeed the smartwatch. For all of their (deserved) reputation as innovators, Apple have yet to debut any mass market device that didn’t exist previously.

Given that one of the greatest innovators of our age has achieved this position by essentially coming to the market second or third with their offerings, how have they managed to achieve such a lofty status?

“In the land of the blind the one–eyed man is king” – Desiderius Erasmus c.1500

Apple’s greatest asset by far has been their fieldwork; relentlessly studying how people behave, discovering what they need – and why. They then do one of two things: either a) successfully define a problem, and apply existing technology to solve it in a superior manner, or b) identify inherent problems within existing technologies and successfully solve those.

In doing so they stimulated latent consumer needs which then triggered demand for their product. This is Apple’s genius, and this is innovation.

The company’s rare failures tend to be situations where they tried to solve problems that didn’t yet exist. As an example, the Apple Newton message pad was a tablet by any other name but it came too soon to an unprepared market. In retrospect the consumer PC market itself hadn’t yet been properly established; the public hadn’t yet come to value personal computing of any kind let alone tablet computing. For a modern-day comparison, one has to wonder whether Apple’s reported removal of the headphone jack from the next generation of iPhones is straying into just this territory.

Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door – attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, c. 1889

No matter what a business or product offers, someone else has either already tried it, or is currently doing it. To innovate, you need simply to do it better than those others. And by “better” read ‘in a more customer-centric fashion’. A surprising number of founders, businesses, organisations don’t appear to have grasped this. Investing heavily in what may be incremental improvements might not set the boardroom alight, but that’s where the gold is. As with design, innovation is a process not an event. A verb, not a noun.

Correctly defining the problem is more than half the battle in product development. Putting the customer at the centre of the solution is the rest. And to any cries of “but… what about marketing??” in response to that last point, let’s answer it with a look at the banking industry.

Banks are so far behind where they should be with their services it’s tempting to be embarrassed for them. Banks are prime examples of organisations that have tried to market their way out of problems that should have been answered by simply providing better services. This approach has led banks into the unenviable position of being some of the least customer-centric businesses in the world. Millions of RBS customers unable to withdraw money from cash machines for days on end would attest to that.

The financial sector is gradually waking up to the fact that design thinking can be applied to services every bit as much as products. Design thinking doesn’t need to be the territory of the ‘big thinker’ or genius designer. It belongs to everyone on a team – including designers.

Of course everyone wants to innovate. And innovation can be managed through a pragmatic process of observation, competitive benchmarking and incremental improvement. Just ask Apple.

This post first appeared on the FATHOM_ blog.

More features, lesser product.

Before I start let’s be clear: product development is not an easy pursuit. If it was then, as they say, everyone would be doing it.

Although at times it can feel like everyone is doing it. The number of apps and online services jostling for our attention is overwhelming. When faced with precisely 100 results (at time of writing) for “to-do app” in the App Store, where do you start? And as an app producer how do you make your product standout in such a crowded market? It’s understandable if your conclusion is that the app with the most features wins.

My favourite run-tracking app changed recently (don’t worry – this isn’t a glib excuse to squeeze in what an accomplished runner I am. I’m not. I run short distances, infrequently. And slowly.). After finishing my run, instead of simply recording the details as normal, a new message popped up. “Share with friends!” it said.

For the reasons outlined above, I had no intention of sharing the details of my run with anyone. So I bypassed the invitation with a couple of taps. And now, much to my chagrin, I have those extra couple of taps to perform every time I want to record my run and get on with recovering from my exertions. So why the extra feature that I didn’t want?

The fact is that many users will want the feature, and introducing a community aspect (or in the case of the running app, a competitive aspect) can create an additional hook that takes engagement with the product to a new level. But when does “feature rich” become experience rot, and how do we stay on the right side of the line? More is better right? Therein lies a minefield for the budding product owner to negotiate.

At Fathom, we are firm proponents of a couple of frameworks that help bring objectivity to the feature-pruning process. The first is the Kano Model, dating from the 1980’s, which applies three categories to features – dissatisfiers, satisifiers and delighters. ‘Dissatisfiers’ are features that, if absent, cause frustration. These are threshold features, must-haves. ’Satisfiers’ are central to the product’s function, the core features. ‘Delighters’ are those additional elements that differentiate the product from the competition.

By categorising potential features along these lines, prioritisation follows naturally. Make sure dissatisfiers are firmly in place, that satisfiers provide excellence in user experience, then – and only then – move on to delighters. In other words, don’t shoot for delight if you’re not providing for basic needs.

So what to do when you have a whole host of delighters? What if you have feature after feature that you are convinced will take the user experience to new heights? Well, chances are you now have a bloated product.

I have a Swiss army knife at home; great little tool to have around the house. However if I need to tighten a screw, I don’t think “now where’s my Swiss army knife?”. Similarly, next time I need to gut a fish (it could happen), I’ll be looking for a specialist tool.

And this is the dilemma. Do you want your product to be a swiss army knife, not specialising in anything particular? Or, do you want it to be a scalpel – clinical, with a singular purpose, and built for the job.

Irish entrepreneur Des Traynor is doing great things with his CRM web app, Intercom. He’s also a great contributor to the thinking around product management. According to Traynor, healthy product management is the willingness to drop features as well as add them. But which ones to drop Traynor’s approach is simple. There will be a natural scale of features which runs from those used by most users, most of the time, to those used by few of the users, little of the time. It is the latter features that need pruned in order to keep a product lean and relevant.

Whenever difficult decisions need to be made (and in the world of product development, there are very few easy ones), we don’t have to resort to guesswork. Applying some rudimentary classifications to features can help you see a product through the customer’s eyes. Not everyone loves your product as much as you. Get over that fact, and you’re on the way to better decisions about its future.

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