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 as a new year’s resolution

 Gym membership is about to undergo its traditional annual boost; even now the introductory offers have been readied to greet the queues of earnest individuals who feel that the time has come to make that long–overdue change to their regimen. Sports shops will be visited, gym wear and protein shakes will be purchased.

Television ads, with easy answers to any number of personal improvement and personal transformation challenges, will race to fill the vacuum left by the stores trying to convince us that they ‘do’ Christmas better than all the others. Exercise gadgets, diet plans, fitness DVDs by an endless string of B and C list celebrities will be paraded across our screens. We all know the pattern. It is recurrent, seasonal.

In boardrooms and meeting rooms across the land, similar cyclical activities may be underway: discussions centering around the need to improve performance in particular areas. Just possibly, this may involve performance online. Maybe that website that no–one believes is really pulling its weight for the organisation has had its time. Yes, that’s it, it’s time for a new website.

Fulfilling Einstein’s definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result every time – a lack of attention to underlying challenges will result in repeated, failed attempts to meet any tangible goals. No questions are asked of the old website. No specific, relevant targets set for the new one. Clarity of purpose gets lost in interdepartmental wrangling.

In many cases, a vague sense of the website having to achieve something will exist, but what that something is will too frequently be weighted towards the organisation’s view of the world.

Increasingly, discussion of this nature will turn towards the need for a UX/UI/[insert your acronym of choice here] guru. Sometimes this will involve hiring a single individual to provide the essential missing ingredients – as evidenced recently, with a company seeking to recruit a “Creative Front–end / UI / UX Engineer”. Nothing could signal more clearly ‘we don’t know what we’re doing but we hope that by throwing some terms around something magic will happen’.

Without something changing beyond the veneer then, like the hopeless dieter who is all talk at the water cooler while gorging out on nachos and chocolate at night, very little is likely to change. Without a commitment to a customer-centred approach the new digital venture, be it an app, a website, whatever, becomes that oddest of man-made endeavours: a folly.

The lessons from recent history are clear, right across the digital industries that innovation and market advantage are gained through customer insights and user-centred action.

GOV.UK is quietly revolutionising transactional services through a commitment to understanding the needs of the user. If you have renewed your car tax online recently, you’ll perhaps know what we mean. 

Umpqua Bank has gone from 6 branches in 1994 to almost 364 branches today, across 5 U.S. states, counter to conventional wisdom which says that physical branches are a thing of the past. Through deeper understanding of customer needs, Umpqua created spaces that customers actually want to visit.

Zappos built a billion dollar business by eschewing traditional media and investing instead in a superior user and customer experience, well ahead of that offered by its competitors.

These advantages require a change that is more than just a fad – or a diet if you like. It is a lifestyle change, a cultural change that requires buy-in from all levels within an organisation.

So when those familiar conversations begin again around you, ask yourself: “How are we actually going to win this time? What is going to be different this time round?”.

A Happy and Prosperous New Year to you, and whatever your New Year resolutions are, may they bring the lasting change that you aspire to.

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.

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.