Getting user centricity right: it’s all about you
And being the compulsive soul that I am, I started reading from the very first page, containing the author’s bio that I have seen dozens of times before (she is prolific and I love me some comfort reading every now and again) which informed me that the author is hugely successful “both here and in the US”.
Now. I know where the “here” they are referring to is but it’s not my current “here”. And it struck me as hilarious, at first. Then it dawned on me that, like most things, this is an allegory for digital transformation. I am genuinely so much fun, it’s unreal.
A book is the most mobile of things and yet the copyrighter’s desk felt so solid that every other word in the bio was calibrated but that “here”.
I bet you the team discussed whether the adjectives used in the half page bio were excessive, the length of sentences balanced, the synonyms too laboured.
But nobody questioned “here”, as if the book would never leave the island on which it was printed.
That’s human nature right there.
And there is nothing wrong with it, in principle, until it starts to blind you. Because, often, being too bound up in our own realities spells bias. And bias makes for bad design.
You know how there is always a long line for the ladies bathroom, in every public place?Why do you think that is? Could it be because men designed the bathrooms?
This is not about the patriarchy. This is about actual user centricity vs the assumption that all users are like you.
Not to labour the point, a single view point creates a biased product.
Why it matters and why it’s yours to fix
Digital services are not just about a slick interface and real time analytics.
We often lose ourselves in budget discussions around infrastructure, in architecture discussions about how to deliver fast without breaking the engine that runs the ship today, creaky as it is, since it actually works.
There is so much to be done, to deliver the simplest digital service and it is easy to forget that what happens on the glass is as important as what doesn’t happen at all. The steps that don’t need to be taken, the contextual constraints that need to be thought about before you build. The awareness of the human at the other end of the service and the fact that they don’t just have a single overriding purpose that brings them to your app or webpage. They also have distractions, feelings, worries, assumptions and competing priorities, habits, cultural tropes and consumer conditioning.
You are building a service that will be consumed by people you don’t know when you are not watching. To believe that you know what they will do, when they will do it, what they will expect to happen next and how, betrays a delusion of either omniscience or universal ordinariness.
You are you. No one else is. And you are no one else.
If you are designing for everyone, for all the circumstances in which they may need you, then roll up your sleeves, hard work awaits.
And it is hard work that corporates scoff at. It is unfamiliar. It doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t feel hard or specific. We often feel we can compromise it and spend the time on architecture and risk assessments instead and “hire an agency for that”. So we end up with half hearted user journeys and esoteric UX: working perfectly for some things, not working at all for others.
Spending time observing customers, spending time at play, spending time looking for your own blind spots is a hard thing to negotiate with a corporate master. That’s not how our diaries work. That’s not how our deliverables work. That’s not how our planning and tracking and success metrics work. Making time for that, is not how it works and asking for that time is hard; making it look like anything but a time waste is harder still.
Like the copyrighter who sat at their desk writing a bio and offering “here” instead of specific geography, without a thought, you may never know of your blunder.
But the customers will.
And they may vote with their feet, so it matters. It’s important to do this well, all the time. Or at least to care enough to keep striving. In the words of the immortal philosopher:
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
The view from your desk is compelling
“Here” is not inaccurate.
It is also not the main thing.
For both of those reasons it was missed. Nobody clicked that it was a problem. Nobody stopped to think about the experience of picking up the book on a plane to Madrid, on a balcony in Doha (that’s me), in a hotel room in Kathmandu. It didn’t feel pertinent to writing the bio. In the grand scheme of things, it was not that important. But it was missed and it’s a useful reminder of how much we miss, because you are you and I am me and here is here and the viewpoint you have is hard to challenge because it’s all you have.
Nobody sets out to give an inaccurate business requirement. Nobody sets out to build something that is not fit for purpose. Nobody ever chooses to invest time in things that won’t make a difference.
And yet we all fall into these pitfalls time and time again. Because challenging our own view of the world, our understanding of how things fit together and of what needs to be prioritised is hard. As is challenging our understanding of how well we understand others and they understand us.
But challenge it we must. Good digital design is predicated on not taking things as read.
So how do you do that, sitting in a corporate environment?
In “if on a winter’s night a traveller” Italo Calvino describes a person reading the book you are reading in such incredible detail that it makes you squirm in your seat, rearrange your posture, take in your surroundings.
Italo Calvino would have made a good UX designer.
But most folks don’t think that way.
So what can you do to help yourself?
1. Dream a little, even if it is nonsense: it wakes up the brain cells
Read Calvino, read poetry and fiction and evolutionary biology. Watch cartoons and go to the theatre. Fill your eyes with colour and shapes of the world that go beyond your desk. Force yourself to see a world that your company doesn’t play in. Imagine that it is possible for the world to exist without your company. Now what you do for your company to remain relevant suddenly became hugely more important.
Travel. Meet people outside your industry. Leave the office.
Constantly remind yourself that you are you, and so is everybody else.
Here is here and that is nowhere else. And there is immense value in that. As long as you don’t try to extrapolate.
Do it in your own time and don’t share the story of where the inspiration came from. But do it and watch the inspiration roll in.
2. Play a lot: “adults are obsolete children” don’t be that guy
Do not underestimate the importance of the physical world just because our lives are made up of bits and bytes, legal constructs and complex algorithms. Make sure you interact with the physical world. Make sure you watch others interact with the physical world. Show and tell is the best way of learning, level setting and testing whether things behave in real life as they do in your head.
Don’t let the toddlers have all the fun. Create paper prototypes. Bring physical objects into the office, download new apps. Interact with your environment. Discuss. And observe. You will catch assumptions and errors in judgment early on, you will adjust and recalibrate when the cost is measured in minutes and sheets of paper. Measure those pivots. Count them and articulate the time it took to discover and adjust, the effort you saved, by playing. The dollars you saved. Put metrics around your play. For the obsolete children among us.
3. “You are in pretty good shape for the shape you are in”, for every other shape, get people in that shape.
Diversity is not a photo op.
It breaks up the view from your desk. It brings different skill sets and life experiences, different stories and questions to the mix. It helps you challenge your assumptions and guide your thinking. It helps you learn and catch mistakes before you commit them.
If you are designing software for a mass audience, getting as much of humanity’s diversity into your company as the building can hold (to quote myself and not Dr Seuss for a change) is not CSR: it’s common sense.
It is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”
So where do you choose to go? Sure you are constrained by corporate realities. But you can choose not to be blinded by them.
If you are designing software for your colleagues, go down the hall and talk to them.
If you are designing tools for your corporate customers, go spend some time watching them work. Don’t schedule a meeting. Go watch. Spend time. Observe their day, their interactions, the things they do differently to each other. The things they don’t do at all.
And if you are designing software for the public, for people like you, go and find as many “you-s” as possible.
Realise nobody is you-er than you, and everyone else is not you enough. Realise you are blinded by the corporate viewpoint as well as your own. Realise it.
And start again.
By Leda Glyptis
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
Leda is a lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem, inhabiting both start-ups and banks over the years. She is a roaming banker and all-weather geek.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!