The Belfast UX bookclub meetups continue, and 30 May gathering had author Sara Wachter-Boettcher taking questions and providing insights on ’Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech’.
This marked the twentieth UX Belfast meetup I’ve organised and, significantly, the best attended. A partnership with Women in Tech Belfast for the evening contributed hugely to that milestone. That said, interest in the group is rising rapidly, with over 220 members on the Meetup.com page at time of writing.
Sara’s book made Fast Company’s Top 10 Business & Leadership books of 2017, and Wired’s Top Tech books of 2017. Although a relatively short read, Sara has managed to gather a shocking number of case studies and examples where technology might be successfully delivering ‘engagement’ with users but letting humans, even society, down in the process.
Further information on the book, as well as Sara’s work as an independent content and UX consultant, can be found at her website http://www.sarawb.com.
Huge thanks to partners for the evening, Women in Tech BFS. Thanks also to PuppetBelfast for providing the great venue and refreshments, Slice app for the copious amounts of pizza and to WW Norton UK for discounts and copies of the book to give away.
To thank Sara for her time, a donation has been made to local charity, WomensTec. For more information visit http://www.womenstec.org
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.
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 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.
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!)
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.
We read enough about it on every platform we encounter, so let’s ask: why should we care about experience? If we build a product or a service and it works well, isn’t that enough?
There are many, sound ethical reasons why better user experience is simply the right thing to do. Improving experiences, saving time and effort, is where we want to get to surely? Experiences matter because optimising them tends to mean incremental improvements to peoples lives – and more. We’ve read well written up cases where badly designed interfaces in airline cockpits or medical sector software have put lives at risk.
If that sounds a little too heady and idealistic, then let’s focus on the bottom line via a sobering fact: people buy into experiences of products, rather than the products themselves. The ‘experiential shopper’ is on the rise. Google research has even led them to rename ‘the path to purchase’ as ‘the path to purpose‘. For consumers, the experience IS the product, and when faced with a choice, consumers tend towards superior experiences.
When Theodore Levitt let fly with his famous line that people “don’t want quarter inch drill bits, they want quarter inch holes”, he was of course promoting the importance of outcomes and benefits over a product’s features. Marketing 101. And when you have a number of products that all provide the same thing? Then it’s the product experience that becomes the differentiator.
So how much should a business invest in “the experience”? The Walt Disney Company have decided that it’s worth a $1bn investment. That’s how much they have put into developing The Magic Band, a wrist band which now accompanies visitors to its US parks, designed to make each visit a seamless, integrated and – yes – even a magical experience.
The band acts as a companion and guide through the park. As soon as a ticket is booked online, a visitor’s preferences, allowances and entitlements are programmed into their band. Overall, the wearable can replace passes, maps and even your wallet (the band is linked to your credit card). It enables staff to greet you by name as you move around the park (slightly creepy?), or to locate you or your child quickly in an emergency (highly practical). In short, the business is taking a lot of the effort away from the customer, thus improving customer experience.
I’ll admit it’s a little unreasonable to reference one of the world’s largest corporations to illustrate ‘everyday’ experiences, but the principles of anticipating and catering for customer need apply universally. We tend not notice good experiences from day to day, because they effortlessly become part of our lives.
One of the foundational texts of user experience thinking is Don Norman’s book ‘The Design of Everyday Things’, a book full of practical common sense. In a nutshell, Norman records poor experiences with doors, cooker hobs, light switches – a myriad of interactions we encounter and tolerate on a daily basis. Most are average, many are bad. The book could easily have been titled “The Design of Everyday Experiences”.
If your bank card offers contactless payment, you’ll know how quickly the unthinking ease of using it becomes an expectation; and it is with a degree of disappointment that you revert to chip & PIN input when required. Conversely, if you’ve ever had to turn specific lights on or off in a large space using a bank of switches on the wall, you’re probably like me and guess your way to success. A little guidance would go a long way.
So what price tag would you attach to improving the experience of your customers or clients?. The good news is that it needn’t be $1bn. Great experiences are built from a series of small, incremental improvements or ‘micro–interactions. When brought together as part of an experience strategy, you can remove just so much friction from someone’s life that you earn a place in their daily routine.