Most of your users would rather be doing something else.

Frustrated man stares at his computer

‘Tool soup’ is a term I first heard while designing for developer experience. 

It describes the extensive toolset that developers today rely on to get their work done.

The implication of the phrase is this: no matter how central you think your application is to a user’s life, they likely spend only minutes in it before dealing with something else. 

The phrase came to mind recently as I onboarded with a range of systems and applications required for a new role. 

As with any large organization, multiple systems and applications are essential to help manage a global workforce. Each has different password requirements, various ways of activating and registering, and a dizzying variety of interfaces.

But tool soup is not exclusive to developers or those in the tech industries. 

At work, we leverage multiple tools to communicate and collaborate, to document and produce. At home, we use apps and websites to shop, manage our money, perhaps engage with public services. We all deal our own variety of tool soup, whether as professionals, customers, or consumers.

Usability guru Jakob Nielsen’s ‘Jakob’s law’ from 2000 states: “Users spend most of their time on other sites.” 

By this, he means that users will prefer your website to work the same way as all the other sites they already know. So don’t reinvent familiar interactions when all people want is something recognisable to work with.

Here is a second law for our software-saturated and time-poor world: most of your users would rather be doing something else. Yes, there are exceptions to this, but very few.

People will love your product if it allows them to effortlessly achieve mundane tasks. If you are short on context for your product or service, work with these smart defaults: people are trying to get lots of things done in a finite amount of time. They are wading in tool soup.

Assume your users would rather be doing something else. They will thank you for it.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Design for dignity

A senior citizen using a tablet computer.

In 2007, Dr. Richard Buchanan published a seminal essay reflecting on the ability of design to play a meaningful role in society. In it, 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.”

It may be uncomfortable to admit, but a large part of the design industry has lost sight of the human value of great design. The term ‘UX’ can be an empty acronym used to describe any form of design input. UX design work is all-too-commonly and exclusively associated with funnels and conversions and involves little more than factory-style UI production.

What suffers in these circumstances is a sense of purpose – something emerging as a primary motivator for increasing numbers of professionals.

A McKinsey article from April 2021 reported:

Nearly two-thirds of US-based employees surveyed said that COVID-19 has caused them to reflect on their purpose in life. And nearly half said that they are reconsidering the kind of work they do because of the pandemic. Employees expect their jobs to bring a significant sense of purpose to their lives.

What is our purpose as designers? What should our highest aspiration be? Buchanan posits that designers can directly support human dignity. One of the most basic ways we achieve this is through facilitating the easy completion of (what are often) simple tasks, letting people get on with what they would prefer to be doing with their lives.

Organisations can be shocked to learn that users don’t necessarily want to be using their product or website. They need to in order to get the outcome they require. To quote Levitt, people don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.

Making tasks easier to complete is the core of a positive user experience. We commonly refer to this as good usability. But the purpose behind this is respect and support for users’ dignity.

Unconditional positive regard is a term used in psychology to denote the acceptance and support of a person no matter what they say or do. Applied in 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 the pursuit of ‘cool’ has overtaken the need to design products and services that meet basic needs. Norman went as far as this in a recent piece for Fast Company:

“New technologies tend to rely on display screens, often with tiny lettering, with touch-sensitive areas that are exceedingly difficult to hit as eye-hand coordination declines. Physical controls are by far the easiest to control–safer too, especially in safety-critical tasks such as driving a car, but they are disappearing. Why? To save a few cents in manufacturing and in a misplaced desire to be trendy.”

The inherent simplicity of touchscreen devices offers a potential lifeline for those left behind or left out of the technological advances of the last 20 years. Poorly designed apps and online services immediately waste that potential.

I have witnessed this first hand, watching as a 90+ yr old came to grips first with a PC and subsequently a tablet. I felt ashamed for the software industry as a whole, as the same person tried to adapt to a new operating system that installed itself, negating all the efforts they had made to master the previous one. Unsurprisingly, they blamed themselves.

I saw the same person struggle with the iPad version of a shopping app, only to have great success with a scaled-up iPhone app on the tablet, making the system more accessible to them.

Universal design, and the philosophy of Design for All (DfA), are bringing these core issues back to the fore. I say ‘back’, because we lost these principles somewhere along the way. We need only glance at Dieter Rams 50-year-old Principles for Good Design to see what has always mattered

The simple 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. On the contrary, it will almost certainly support it. 

The ability to consider and support human dignity — however you care to define it — should be a foundational quality for any designer. And arguably, a core purpose.

Image: Sigismund von Dobschütz CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lifelong (re)learning

I’ve been blown away by the reaction to this annotated Dunning-Kruger graph. Simple thoughts that resonate with a lot of people. I’ve learned a lot just through posting this.

From agency to enterprise

Four years ago to the day, after a significant portion of my career working in agencies and consultancies, I made a shift into enterprise products. To be specific, I now work in the complex world of infrastructure automation.

It was a jarring transition, not only from UX project work in an agency to product – but to an enterprise product. 

Like many designers, I used to sit on the sidelines of enterprise UX, muttering “why is design over there so bad?

There are many differences between enterprise UX and B2C, or even much of B2B. One of the key differences is the level of tolerable complexity. 

Enterprise products are more often used by teams, not a single individual. The dream of a single user who gets up and running quickly, who is delighted by the experience, and who converts to a product evangelist is a distant one.

Working in an agency, you are hired for expertise or for an outside perspective, possibly to overcome internal politics or inertia. You contribute, your client pays you, and you move on, possibly with some great material for a case study.

There are times when I doubt what I’ve actually achieved; forgetting, of course, that some of the achievement has been to deliver work that is not easily reflected in a portfolio piece. In those times, I find this thought from Jared Spool, one of the most respected voices in the UX community, so reassuring: 

“When I talk with UX design leaders …they’re shocked (and a little disappointed) when I tell them it’s likely they won’t see any real movement for months. It could even be years before they’re close to accomplishing their objectives.”

UX Strategy is a Long Game, But Worth Every Moment

Working in the enterprise means getting comfortable with being uncomfortable with your design output. Outright ‘wins’ of old are hard to discern, and only after some time.

But this discomfort need only last as long as it takes you to realise that what matters, more than ever, is the value you have helped to deliver.

Your work is unlikely to raise gasps of “cool!” from other designers. You realise you are now in much more of a team sport, and part of something bigger. And, at this point, you have truly grown as a designer.

UX Belfast, February 2021

Lockdown has added some new dynamics to meetups, not least converting local groups into potentially global events. I saw this first-hand, hosting UX Belfast this week, as attendees signed in from across Europe, North America, and UAE. 

This shouldn’t have been a surprise given our guest author was Susan Weinschenk, speaking to us from Wisconsin. Susan pioneered the incorporation of behavioral psychology as an element of user experience work and features high on my list of design industry heroes.

Our second guest, Tommy McClean (from much closer to home) delivered an insightful talk on the ethics and impact of products that thrive on attention and engagement. Frequently through design-driven habits.

I continue to be amazed at the generosity of guests, giving their time to pass on hard-won experience and wisdom to new generations of designers. This meetup certainly delivered on all those fronts.

An added bonus was speaking with one of the original founders of the UX Bookclub Belfast meetup, Jamie Neely of Monotype.

A donation to Susan’s nominated charity, the International Rescue Committee, was made in place of an honorarium. 

Lots to take away for those who attended – or indeed hosted!