Empathy, deconstructed

Psychology is just one of many areas designers can sometimes stray into for guidance or assistance. Anything which reminds us that we are flawed humans, attempting to design useful things for other humans is a good thing.

Carl Rogers’ Person-Centred Therapy (PCT) makes for interesting reading for the modern design professional. Rogers’ innovative approach, now over 50 years old, ran counter to the remote and detached forms of psychotherapy prevalent at the time. Specifically, PCT contains a number of principles that align with key qualities of effective design thinkers and problem-solvers.

The approach features three core conditions, each of them with direct relevance to the creation of positive user experiences.

One of Roger’s core conditions is unconditional positive regard (UPR). UPR is “the basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does”. Substitute person for user and you have a pretty good foundation for user-centred design. As design luminary Don Norman has put it, “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.” Which sounds like UPR in so many words.

Another condition is congruence; “the willingness to transparently relate to clients without hiding behind a professional or personal facade”. The parallel in design might be a desire to facilitate top tasks, and present easy paths to goals without the clutter of marketing or sales to present obstacles.

The essence of user-centred design is appreciating users as humans with needs, goals and limited time on their hands in which to achieve them. And why must we humanise the user? In order to practice the human quality of empathy – coincidentally the third of Rogers’ core conditions.

There are increasing amounts of lip service given to empathy in our professional & social feeds. It sounds worthy and is difficult to argue against. What we don’t often see are answers to questions about how to leverage it, how to make it practical.

The imperative of empathy for designers means identifying with others enough to create something which, no matter how small, makes their life easier. UPR has huge relevance; as designers we should demonstrate a positive regard for whatever our users’ motivations and needs might be. To create meaningful product experiences which connect users with their goals, it falls on us also to treat the pursuit of those goals and associated needs with respect.

Good design demands empathy and insight. UCP provides some simple ground rules for beginning to flex that empathy muscle.

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!)

Pizza for dessert: why products fail

It turns out there is a name for that thing when you walk into a room then can’t remember what you went in for. Somewhat disappointingly it’s called the Doorway Effect.

Apparently the very act of crossing a boundary between rooms affects our memory function enough to lose the thread of our intended actions. That being the case, what name might apply to a scenario where a product team forgets what they are building the product for?

If that sounds ludicrous, consider the following. There’s a story about Sony co–founder Akio Morita and his efforts to bring into being one of the most successful consumer products of the 20th century, the Sony Walkman.

Morita originally conceived of the personal stereo idea when he visited New York in the 1970s and saw people walking around with boom–boxes on their shoulders. He realised the potential for a device that delivered a personal listening experience, but in pocket–sized form.

He returned to Japan, excitedly telling the product development team about his idea. The concept made its way across various levels of the organisation, passing through engineers, managers and product designers. When the first prototype came back to Morita, it most closely resembled… a boombox.

Somewhere, the essence of Morita’s idea had been lost. The product team had walked into a room and forgotten what they went in for.

The story serves to typify the challenge of keeping a product on track and ensuring that all involved in its development get it. We might call this ‘True North’; the course by which all other aspects of the product are calibrated.

In Valley Ranch Business Park, somewhere in Michigan, stands a building operated by GfK Custom Research North America. Inside, lines of shelves carry examples of a diverse range of products all sharing one key characteristic – they failed in the marketplace.

In there you will find, amongst other things, Clairol’s ‘A Touch of Yogurt’ shampoo right next to Gillette’s ‘For Oily Hair Only’, just down the aisle from Pepsi’s ‘Breakfast Cola’. You’ll see discontinued lines of caffeinated beer, or Colgate–branded TV dinners. For Steve Jobs aficionados, you’re also likely to see at least one Apple product in the mix.

These products, which we have to assume were subject to rigorous rounds of research, design and testing, are testament to a singular, harsh truth: most products fail.

While there are certainly obvious howlers on the shelves, there are many credible efforts also represented. Products can stumble for any number of reasons. Some suffer from untested business models, some from ill–considered marketing, others because of plain bad manufacturing. But one over–riding factor emerges as key to failure: the product was either solving the wrong problem, or more accurately, it was attempting to solve a problem that nobody had.

In product development, there can be no more effective question to focus the mind than “what problem are we solving?”. If the answer isn’t clear, the challenge can often be one of articulating purpose in a manner that the entire product team can buy into. But if the answer can’t be articulated, or simply doesn’t exist, the product may be on course for a place on the shelf in Valley Ranch, right next to Dominos’ ill-fated “Oreo Dessert Pizza”.

The process of building any product is, in true X–Factor parlance, a journey; sometimes a painful, agonising haul to achieve a vision that can become distorted and blurred. In identifying a product’s True North, it’s essence is sustained and the path to purpose becomes much more navigable.

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.

One size fits none

Who doesn’t love easy answers? Don’t we all feel good whenever the way forward comes quickly to hand?

With less effort, pain and outlay involved, the lure of easy answers is such that we tend to place undue emphasis on initial conclusions. This cognitive heuristic is called ‘anchoring’ or focalism, where we rely too heavily on the first piece of data we’re exposed to. Where the information is in line with an existing belief or preconception, confirmation bias simply compounds the issue.

Psychology aside, often the easy answers we seek are expediently classified as ‘best practice’. Indeed, when we ask “what is best practice?”, it can often be a thinly-veiled substitute for “what’s the easiest answer?”. The same question can similarly mask sentiments such as “if it’s good enough for company X, it’s good enough for us.”

Ten or twelve years ago, whenever a tricky decision point was reached on a website project, it wasn’t uncommon to hear someone chip in with: “Well, what do Microsoft do?”. The inference was that a) Microsoft had all the right answers (it didn’t) and b) that the context was the same (it almost certainly wasn’t).

‘Best practice’ can be an excuse for all manner of evils. Less than two years ago, the use of infinite scrolling – where a webpage would continuously load new content every time you reached the bottom of the page – was running rampant. It was a trend, and one that became de rigueur for any new website that wanted to appear ‘with it’. No doubt somewhere at some point it was referred to as best practice. But like any trend it is increasingly being left behind as we discover lots of sound reasons why it is bad practice. In the case of infinite scrolling, it meant that the website footer – use of which is definitely best practice – was forever just out of reach of the user.

No sooner has one best practice established itself than extrinsic factors change, and something else (albeit not necessarily better) has come along to take its place. What we call ‘best practice’ evolves in parallel with technology, user behaviour and established norms across industries. It never follows trends blindly. Sometimes trends are completely at harmony with firmly established principles. Sometimes they are not. And so it is with best practice.

There’s an old meme in the design industry that goes something like this: Good. Quick. Cheap. Pick any two. Meaning: good, quick design won’t be cheap, and so on. To paraphrase this for user research and customer insights: “Easy. Quick. Right. Pick any two.”

Whenever best practice is referenced as rationale for decision–making, the immediate follow-up should always be: “Okay. But is it best practice for our customers?”. Context is everything. Easy answers might be cheap, but they won’t necessarily be right.

Learning from others through benchmarking, both within and outside your sector, is an important element in establishing a direction of travel. However research and validation with customers are the true path to success.

Don’t let a quick and easy path to answers under the guise of ‘best practice’ either stifle your organisation’s chance to innovate and excel, or inspire outcomes which simply mirror your organisation’s in-house desires. The path to the dark side this is.