My family and in-laws work for Montreal City Council. I like this city. It’s my city. Even if it hasn’t been at its best recently, I like working here and I take care of the area I live in.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with my in-laws, who had invited some colleagues around for a birthday celebration. Little by little, I took the opportunity to discuss their work processes and their decision-making strategies. All were extremely inspiring topics, enjoyed with an enormous cake and plenty of coffee.
As we discussed projects that had undergone a change in working methods, the author of this note, your user experience architect, was intrigued by a pretty captivating anecdote. Two of the civil servants in the room had been given the task of redeveloping the footpaths in a park, when the construction of a new administrative building meant they needed to be reconfigured. The concrete paths had been done away with, and they had to find a solution that would create a pleasant and efficient walking experience for park users.
Each had a different vision of the route the footpaths should take, but they enjoyed working together to find the best solution. They had started by asking themselves questions such as: would passers-by prefer to walk around the statue? Would they take the main street or would they walk along the side of the new building? Would they be more inclined to take the north or northwest exit when coming out of the subway, etc.?
All their ideas had been written up onto a huge whiteboard. They discussed it for a long time, over cups of coffee much like those we were drinking right then, and set themselves the task of creating a number of proposals in the shape of aerial maps.
At this point, the internal meeting stage started, bringing with it batches of annotations, changes, verifications and revisions. The more they discussed it, the more people added their opinions. Even the person in charge of office furnishings, whose passion for gardening was well known, put his two-cents-worth into the pot.
It was a crazy dance! Nobody was keeping to the same rhythm and it even seemed as if everyone was listening to their own song.
The supervisors’ supervisor was singing the praises of a consultant he had met on a business trip. He took him on as the conductor of this orchestra, giving him the mandate of turning this bureaucratic cacophony into a sweet melody and making the orchestra play in unison. At this point in the story, all the civil servants around the table who were dedicated to this project dug in their heels, complaining that no man is a prophet in his own land.
The consultant took the time to understand the context, interviewed all the agents involved in the project and filled his notebook with scribbles. Despite all of this, his solution was simple: he suggested grassing over the whole area, waiting two seasons (spring and summer) and then creating concrete paths where the grass had been worn down by passing feet.
This was done, with great success. Although somewhat disappointed that their superiors had not had faith in them, they nevertheless understood the benefits of this approach.
No Man is a Prophet in his Own Land
There’s nothing new in this anecdote for me, and maybe not for you either. I’m not using this story to try and tell you that you should let users make decisions for you. On the contrary: if, when designing a user experience, it’s enough for you to ask consultants to keep note of best practice by sketching out a plan with Sharpies, very little benefit will come of it for you.
Perhaps, for organizations like yours, this would be an affordable way to get an idea of what the product might look like. Anyway, as we well know, people change their minds when the model comes along.
Besides, organizations often start by discussing which technologies to use before even trying, for example, to meet with their customer service department. However, because of the service they provide, these are the very people who know what your users need. The mandate set is far too often led by a single person, who puts the challenges of all departments through their own personal filter. Unless you’re part of a very small business, the result of this is that the user experiences are developed with a limping gait.
Finding UX Hope in Better Practice
As soon as we add ‘User Experience’ to our job title, it’s as if we want to see ourselves as advocates of a relatively new – if also traditional – methodology. This methodology has its roots in science and must be practiced in an environment that takes for granted that the consumer is the most important thing when we’re talking about innovation and the development of products and services.
Of course, which business will admit to not putting its clients’ needs first? Who will tell you that innovation is not at the top of their list? Nobody.
However, it’s easy to guess who is not comfortable listening to their customers, and who doesn’t make sure that all the cogs in their organization are turning in the same direction. There is often a bitter after-taste after dealing with such people, for example on a slow, weak, un-user-friendly website. The advertisements offered are focused purely on the acquisition of clients, leaving responsibility for retaining them to the accountants.
Finding UX HOPE in the Competition
Web visitors no longer find it easy to accept spending time on websites that annoy and bore them. The result is that they leave such sites. People who concentrate mostly on sticking new options on top of existing ones will see their visitors migrating over to the competition, who they didn’t see coming.
When your competition ravages your market share, it’s because they have managed to extract the essence of the user experience and the real needs of their clientele. They appear from out of the blue and upset the status quo by offering solutions faster than normal, solutions that are both cohesive and constantly being improved. Above all, they provide a regular and open exchange with their users.
Finding UX HOPE in the Crisis
For other organizations, hope resides in the economic crisis. When a surprise innovation from outside shakes up their clients’ habits, the shock can change things up significantly.
If they opt to take refuge in a defensive reaction, they find they’ve reached their limit.
If they decide to be a bit more proactive, organizations will choose to equip themselves with clock-makers instead of time-tellers. These people will be capable of understanding the ecology of the business and of knowing how this whole should be bound together in order to improve things for the people they want to serve, making them and their lives better as a result. The philosophy of user experience will be an integral part of their initiatives and the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. People will find it easy to love these brands, which emanate from the desire to provide an optimal user experience, everywhere, all the time. These brands will love us too, and will do everything in their power to deliver that service.
There is also the hope that one day, a company vice-president will have “Head of User/Client Experience” in his or her title. Whether or not it’s entirely legitimate!
Finding UX HOPE in Culture
User experience is not one small change among so many others, it’s a paradigm shift. Businesses that finally adopt these principles invest in research, studies and development. They abandon habits of excessive promotion, ego massaging and the complexification of things for no good reason. They will escape this dead end and will gather their evaluation live in the field. They will start with interviews, will use logical, centered design methodologies, test their prototypes and go the extra mile in making regular evaluations of how satisfied their clients are. They will have multi-disciplinary teams that engage in ‘co-opetion’ between them to build agility and develop sustainably, on all platforms, in all languages, in mobile and on a global scale.
It won’t be a surprise to you when I say that your cultural practices are one of the biggest projects you will ever have, where everything can be improved. The best way to come off well is to develop a particular kind of nourishing culture that is the user experience.