User experience, not user control

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…

Perception Chain

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

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.

The future’s Bright(on). The future’s UX.

I was privileged to attend UX Brighton in the first week of November. Not to be lumped in with the glut of web design conferences of various flavours around the UK, UX Brighton is different and – yes – in a good way.

Many conferences have higher profiles, others have slicker marketing and unrelenting promotional pushes. The brainchild of Danny Hope however, now in its fourth year, is an intense, single day affair that seeks to truly understand what it means to design for engagement and interaction with people. There was little in the way of ‘swag’, treats, buttons, stickers, and other such gimmickry. What matters here is the content, the minds that have been assembled and the knowledge imparted.

Shock of the new

If I’m honest? I was taken aback. The day offered such a wealth of food for thought I was left reeling at the sheer depth of this still-young industry. It also confirmed to me the myriad different paths that lead to a life in UX. Many of these were represented and apparent in a diverse set of talks, one recurring theme not surprisingly being the importance of research over dangerous assumptions and received wisdom.

It’s business time

Commercial reality is one of the main challenges I face day-to-day. Finding a place for UX thinking in already-squeezed project budgets is not easy when visual outputs are in demand from day one. Indeed the commercial imperative tends to be disturbingly absent from much of the design conference circuit’s output; under a facade of ‘inspiration’, much generalist, impractical nonsense makes its way into circulation. This was not to be the the case in Brighton, with UX clearly shown to be at the heart of achieving success and promoting mass adoption. “User experience”, as James Kalbach so pointedly put it, “is good business”.

Sticks and stones

In certain corners of the design industry something of a backlash against user experience work appears to be brewing, characterising it as a barrier to progress, obsessed with deliverables and documentation. The concept of ‘lean UX’ has emerged as a kind of response, but itself is a concept that I have to say I find incredible has gained any traction. The whole point of UX (IMHO of course) is that it should be baked in to the design process, not stand alone by rights. Every design process that has people and end users at its conclusion is, or should be, a UX process by default. Whether we call it simply ‘design’ or ‘lean UX’ is semantics. It’s designing for the user. Always has been, always will be.

I’ve heard the work I’m now involved with summarised as ‘usability’ design (sound familiar UX folk?). I’ve also heard it framed as being diametrically opposed to ‘creative’ design. Here’s the thing. If you are a designer – of anything – and you are not interested in how people are going to interact with your design, you don’t deserve the mantle. And by “interested in” I mean “interested enough to hear what other people have to say about your work”.

Happy endings

As a blinkered graphic designer in the early years of my career I locked myself in solipsistic world of Photoshop filters and typographic noodling, not really considering the end use of what I was producing. It only had to look cool, and what’s more, it only had to look cool to me. Design education had failed to instil in me the notion that there were people on the other end of the indulgent process I was lost in. That’s about as anti-UX as you can get. Happily, somewhere along my journeyman’s travels, sense prevailed.

The future’s bright(on)

I get the impression that those entering today’s web industry are more than a little clued in, and what the future holds is an industry with exactly the type of baked-in UX I mentioned above. The principle of research as a critical cornerstone of any credible design process is immutable. I see UX design as the act of going deeper and broader with that research, and always – always – countering assumptions with informed conclusions.

Oh – UX Brighton? Amazing!

People-centred design™

I’m a little late to the party here but still bemused enough at the storm in a teacup that I couldn’t let it go. Jack Dorsey’s suggestion that we need to talk about “customers” rather than “users” sparked one heck of a debate and gathered a lot of backing, but it strikes as having more than a whiff of the PR exercise about it.

The term “users” remains relevant and essential. Anyone with any experience of designing for user interfaces know for instance that marketing personas are, and should remain, distinct from user personas. One can inform the other of course; much good data can be gleaned from well thought out and comprehensive marketing personas. But We cannot allow the term “customers” to dominate.

We use devices, we interact with content. Within those two simple statements lies a myriad of questions that require answers, challenges that need addressed. To apply the term “customer” regardless of context is to give undue emphasis to a marketing-centric approach. The art and science of designing for the web has many facets, of which designing for customers is just one.

If anyone practising user experience or user-interface design was so caught up in the science of their work that users becomes some kind of abstract, then something is wrong. If that was Jack’s point, I’d be right behind him. We are designing for people.

However, Jack also emphasises the importance of semantics in support of his argument, but it is a flawed point. Before “customers” is a fit term to apply in these contexts, that word in itself would require redefining. He also argues that “the word ‘customer’ is a much more active and bolder word. It’s honest and direct”. It is not. I’d suggest there are many people interacting with their favourite apps or sites who would be horrified to find out they are regarded as “customers”.

Apple has recently put Jonathan Ive in charge of what it has historically called its “Human Interface (HI)” team, a term which if anything sounds even more clinical, impersonal than UI design. No matter though; Apple know they are dealing with people, with customers, with consumers… with users. Whatever terms they choose to use in internal processes, what really matters is the products that emerge from them. Everything else is hot air.