User experience, not user control

May 15, 2013

Amongst the bizarre interpretations I’ve seen applied to User Experience is the notion that UX is a coercive or manipulative pursuit. You can just see the eyes of cynical marketeers* light up at the thought that some form of Jedi mind trick might be available to lead consumers trance-like to a destination not of their own choosing.

Granted, dark patterns have emerged, for those who feel that unethical practice is the way to go. But the idea of control is a false premise.

The language of user experience design has made the transition into the marketing lexicon of web design. It’s become the phrase du jour in many client conversations, too; businesses quite naturally want to know what a more informed approach to design can deliver for them. The return on investment in UX is undeniable.

In the heat of a pitch, or to satiate a demanding client, it can be tempting to paint UX design as an exact science, a precision sport. And it isn’t.

It is the path of sanity in a world of ‘inspired’ guesswork and ego-driven design indulgence. Better of course to hypothesise, test and iterate during development than to rely on guesswork, only to find out a design is ineffective when it should be making a difference for your organisation.

Any claim to control the user’s experience is however a false one, akin to claiming that traffic flow is ‘controlled’ using traffic signals and road signs. People are not predictable animals. We may be engineers of the user experience; we can guide, inform, facilitate, enable, assist, and more. But we cannot control.

As a UX practitioner, to suggest otherwise is dangerously over-promising.

 

 

* Were such a thing were to exist…

Defining Empathy

March 19, 2013

As a student of the giants of our industry, I’m naturally a huge advocate of empathy and write often – on Twitter at least – about its importance to the UX design process.

So while it may be an imperative for effective user experience design, how should empathy manifest itself?

Last week I caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen in far too long, one of the smartest people I know. An ex-social worker who studied behavioural psychology at university, he is naturally curious. He has always shown a genuine interest in anyone he meets; he wants to know their story.

When we talked about the work I was now involved in, I mentioned that he would be ideally suited to the discipline and we talked about people, their expectations and motivations.

During the conversation he mentioned a trait that his mother – herself a social worker – had brought him up to practice. This was Unconditional Positive Regard; the simple acceptance of another’s behaviour which provides that individual with support to achieve personal growth.

It struck me that this had huge relevance. While we are identifying the motivations and needs of others, are we not required to show positive regard for whatever these might be? If (in simple terms) we are attempting to connect individuals with their goals then it falls on us also to treat those goals and associated needs with respect.

So “Positive regard” appears to go with the territory. If we are then to deliver on the promise of a positive user experience for all of our desired audiences, does the element of respect not also need to be unconditional? This sounds like the very definition of human-centred design.

As UX designers, behavioural psychology is one of many areas we often find ourselves straying into, looking for meaning. Simple concepts like this can throw new light on our work, and further validate our approach whenever we doubt ourselves.

Needless to say it was an interesting conversation with my friend. I look forward to many more in the years to come.

Perception Chain

February 11, 2013

As an enthusiastic exponent of Dave Gray’s Gamestorming approach to idea generation, my copy of the book shows signs of wear that belie its short life. If you are unfamiliar with Dave’s work it’s worth taking a look through the site… even better, buy the book. For me it has become an invaluable part of the UX toolbox, containing a wealth of material ideally suited to stakeholder engagement, customer research and much, much more.

One of the regular features in workshops I put together is the Understanding Chain. You can read full details here, but in brief it’s an effective mechanism for identifying (amongst other things) what really matters to an organisation’s core audiences. Questions are brainstormed by workshop participants, then ordered and structured into a narrative, ultimately looking for weak links in the chain – either the overall toughest questions or those that simply aren’t being answered.

Claiming credit for a modification may be going too far; all of the activities that Dave has assembled are inherently hackable and can be tailored to most contexts. But I thought this recent example was worth sharing.

The Understanding Chain had been used in the first of two client workshops, resulting in a number of customer questions identified as the most common and hardest to answer. Central amongst them was – unsurprisingly for a multi-faceted service company – “What do you do?”. With the second workshop involving a similar mix of participants from across the business, we needed something that would begin to connect questions to answers.

With a few minor alterations the Understanding Chain became a ‘Perception Chain’. Rather than “what questions are your audiences asking”, the line of enquiry switched focus to the messages that contribute to perceptions of the organisation:
– What messages does each audience hear?
– How is each message communicated?
– Where does it originate from?
– What need is the message seen to meet?

The messages were categorised in a manner similar to the questions in the Understanding Chain, but in this case the categories used were:
– Ambient (general perception based on word-of-mouth or brand awareness)
– Broad-brush (general marketing messages)
– Targeted (aimed at specific audience)

When the messages had been identified and categorised, the group was asked which was the most potent or impactful. This worked very effectively in conjunction with the questions output from day one; it was a natural step to ask the group if the messages their audiences hear answer the questions they are asking.

This can help to identify gaps in the marketing mix, and – crucially – begin the process of finding a singular message capable of cutting across audience boundaries. It has the potential to get to the very essence of a brand, or to make sense of an organisation’s diverse service offering.

With some small tweaks, the Understanding Chain brought a whole new aspect to understanding customers’ needs – just what our workshop needed.

In (further) praise of personas

January 29, 2013

I felt this piece from UX Matters – Are Personas Still Relevant to UX Strategy? – and the string of great comments that follow it warranted a post here, based on personal experience forged in rigidly commercial environments.

To my mind, personas introduce a much needed human aspect into what can otherwise be a soulless, technical process that leads to an anodyne web site, app or web strategy. Rarely is the case for designing for people put as strongly as during a persona building exercise.

Personas also help to communicate strategy to otherwise sceptical stakeholders. When they are executed correctly, they ring true. They transform the “users” we so often refer to in design industry-speak into the clients and customers that your client recognises; they will know these people.

When it comes to crucial decisions of prioritisation, creating a hierarchy of needs for functionality can be greatly assisted by basing these decisions on the most important customers as a first step, rather than working with an exhaustive list of features or content.

The final, crowning glory of personas is their potential to bestow a lasting legacy. Beyond the life of an interface project, the organisation – your client – now has a valuable insight of their public. They will not be marketing personas (a very different proposition) and done badly, they are nothing but caricatures. But they can provide an enduring reference point for future communications. They inform your client about the people they currently, or aspire to connect with and how they prefer to interact. Above all they can imbue an organisation with the capacity for empathy.

Done right, you will change you client’s perspective for the better, giving them wisdom that they simply did not have before. They will know it and will thank you for it.

Design for Everything, Everywhere.

November 29, 2012

As occurs frequently on Twitter, I was able to enjoy a conversation between two prominent figures of the design industry as they exchanged insights. This one really made me sit up and take notice. I’ll reproduce it in full here, short and sweet as it is:

@trentwalton: Lines between mobile, tablet & everything else are beginning to overlap to the extent that the terms are becoming useless.

@lukew: wrist, palm, lap, desk, wall, mall sized screens. human ergonomics won’t change. devices will.
@lukew: as illustrated in: http://static.lukew.com/unified_device_design.png …

To save you a tap, click or cut n’paste, Luke Wroblewski’s graphic is reproduced below.

The new device landscape by @lukew

Any given day on Twitter yields a huge number of enlightening stats, info graphics and blog posts; frequently these will be stark reminders of how the device landscape is changing. Luke’s graphic however is a statement of fact – everything is changing.

Let’s just examine the message: device sizes, interactions, input devices and resolution are at once convergent and inconsistent. Add to the mix that context and location are unpredictable and it becomes clear that there is no convenient fallback. The desktop cliché, for instance, is now archaic.

Even the popular perception of responsive web design as a requirement to accommodate different viewport sizes must go. Our new reality affects (amongst other things) tap/click area, text size, image file size, colour palette, content length… Quite simply, it affects design decisions across the board.

There is no secret formula. The future of design on the web is designing for everything. Everywhere.

  • About Rick Monro

    Designing the Middle is the personal blog of Rick Monro, a UX Director, designer & consultant in Belfast, Northern Ireland

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