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Embrace the Wrong April 19, 2010

Posted by dantemurphy in tools and methods.
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A UX Practitioner’s Guide to Satisficingembracing the wrong

Have you ever wondered why people do such stupid thing?  Why they ignore the obvious, cling to outmoded beliefs, and act contrary to their own best interest?  Maybe, as a way of coping with the inevitable tide of stupidity in our profession, you’ve developed a cheeky infographic that represents the various forms of stupidity you’ve battled.  I have, and it’s made me feel better…but only for a little while.

What I’ve learned, as my role has become more about partnerships and strategy, is that there’s a lot less stupid in the world than you think.  Consider the following:

  1. People are stupid 
  2. Sometimes smart people do stupid things
  3. People do things that I don’t completely understand

Now, I’m not going to try and convince you (or myself) that #1 is not true.  Some people are stupid.  But unless they’re also crazy, they usually do things for a reason.  Now, that reason might be stupid, but a lot of times the reason makes perfect sense based upon what the person knows or believes to be true.

Which brings us to #2.  Just so nobody feels like I’m picking on them, I’ll share something very stupid that I did to illustrate my point.  When I was in the 4th grade I started riding my bike to school.  My mom got me a padlock with a key and a chain so I could lock it up at the school.  As the weather got warmer I started wearing shorts to school, which had no pockets.  I didn’t want to lose the key to my bike lock…so I tied it to a string and tied the string to the bike.

It all made perfect sense.  I would never need the key except when I was at my bike, the string was tied on really well, and I didn’t have to fumble around in my backpack looking for the key under all of my books and lunch and other junk.

The good news is that whoever noticed the obvious flaw in my design only took the lock and key, and my lesson was learned.  Mom got me a combination lock, which solved all my problems.  (The combination was 3-1-4-1, or the first four digits of Pi.  I told you I wasn’t stupid!)

So what made my mom such a good designer?  She listened to my explanation of why I did what I did.  #3 was the key.

Admittedly, most of your clients and collaborators will be more than 9 years old, and the problems you’ll be asked to solve are probably more complex than how to lock up a bike when you don’t have any pockets.  But the tools for solving the problem are the same.

Assume that there is rational causality for all of the actions you observe.  Even when emotions are the root cause of an action, the resulting action is often based upon some logic.  The problem arises when your customer or collaborator is unable to articulate that logic.

There are a couple of things you can do about this.

The first is to determine whether educating your team is necessary.  Nobody likes a pedant, but it’s important for everyone on the team to have a shared baseline of understanding about both the problem and the proposed methods and tasks for solving it.  If your client doesn’t know what a card sort is, take the time to explain and demonstrate it in a way that is meaningful to them and to the project.

Demonstration is a great way to get buy-in on your ideas, whether they are solutions or methods for achieving them.  People believe what they see and experience for themselves because they are able to process and index the information in their own way.  When you only explain an idea or method, a translation between your mental model of the task and the listener’s is required…and often imperfectly captures the meaning.

Many times, you as the designer are not sure what is the right solution or methodology.  At least not right away.  But there you are, in front of your client, gobbling up budget while you try to figure out your next move.  Make the client part of your exploration.  It’s OK to not be sure of exactly what happens next; after all, that’s why the client hired you.  You just have to reassure your client that their time and money is well spent in learning and ideating.  As mentioned above, educate and demonstrate along the way, justifying your activities and theories as part of the design process.

A key element of each of these is the use of prototypes.  Knowing what to prototype and in what fidelity demonstrates tangible progress with an eye toward efficiency and speed.  Your prototypes doesn’t always have to be an element of your final product; in some cases, it makes sense to prototype a participatory design session to make sure you have the content, pacing, and staging right.

All of this presumes that you can “Right the Wrong” by being transparent, inclusive, and clear in your methods.  But the name of this article is “Embrace the Wrong”.  So let’s do that.

There are a handful of immovable wrongs that a designer will have to face in his career, and probably the most common is the client who asks you to design the wrong product.  They want an animated intro page when what they really need is a clear content strategy, or they want an iPhone app but they can’t tell you why.

If you have the luxury to walk away from this kind of work, do it.  There’s another designer out there who needs the work, and you don’t need the headache.  But few of us have that luxury.  Instead we need to do the best we can to help our clients achieve their business goals, even when the idea appears doomed from the start.

Once you realize that you can’t change you client’s mind about the product, stop trying.  Change your strategy from “no, but…” to “yes, and…”.  Make their idea the centerpiece of the project, but integrate the idea that is supported by your research, experience, and effort.  Use the animated intro to showcase the content strategy, or imbue that “me-too” iPhone app with an element of unexpected delight that differentiates it and makes it worth doing.

A related and nearly-as-common problem is the client who insists on a specific design or research methodology regardless of its appropriateness.  As long as they are committed to doing the activity, make the most of it…but no more.  Don’t try to learn everything you would have learned in a participatory design session when the client insists on doing focus groups; you’ll end up making assumptions instead of informed observations, and the product will likely suffer.

Instead, build certainty upon certainty.  Determine what you can learn from the activity and focus on learning it with maximum depth and clarity.  Everything you learn, you can use.  Achieve whatever economies you can, and see if you can divert any saved time and money into activities that bridge the gaps in knowledge left by the inappropriate methodology.  And if you can’t do that, take your best guess.

The last and most insipid wrong is the project aimed primarily at efficiency.  These projects are inherently wrong to the User Experience professional because they focus on cost reduction for the client rather than service to the customer.

The longshot in this race is to demonstrate a visionary concept that has a greater ROI than the projected cost savings of the efficiency-driven project.  Instead of cutting service to save operational costs during non-peak hours, a business might expand offerings that make the most of available infrastructure during non-peak hours, growing the overall business.  The reason this is a longshot is twofold; first, ideas that good don’t grow on trees, and second, many times the project is budgeted before the RFP goes out.

So let’s assume that we can’t change the wrong idea into the right one.  “Embrace the Wrong”, remember?  What you need to do is make sure that the efficiency-driven decisions your client is making are informed by indicative experiential KPIs.  If you can identify the key drivers of trial, satisfaction, and loyalty, defend and optimize those while letting what remains fall victim to the scythe.  Use competitive and heuristic analysis to determine service baselines and benchmarks.  Deconstruct the client’s service offering and let participatory design help you identify the elements that must be maintained or optimized.

Sometimes success is measured not by what you achieve, but by what you overcome.  When you can’t right the wrong, embrace it.

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