You Have to Do the Work

From the rural towns of Mexico to the hillside villages of Honduras lives the Xoloitzcuintli. This unusual breed of dog traces its lineage farther back than the Aztec Empire. Although rare, you can still find the Xolo today. The American Kennel club estimates their numbers to be nearly 30,000 worldwide: a mere whimper compared to the deafening howl of millions of Labrador Retrievers. With its hairless coat, huge ears, and occasional Mohawk, the Xolo is a frequent contestant in ugliest dog competitions. Despite these momentary humiliations, the breed is revered for its gentle personality and a somewhat surprising mythology – it has magical healing powers. Some people say the same about UX.

Cuddling up with the Xolo is rumored to help with everything from asthma to toothaches. A few people even attribute the dog’s healing powers to its ability to ward off evil spirits. But as with all such mythology, the help it provides may be real, but the reason why remains a mystery. The myth likely stems from the Xolo’s warmth. The breed runs hot. Combined with its hairless coat, the dog becomes a portable little heater with a Mohawk. One can imagine the Xolo soothing its owner during times of illness, providing comfort for a range of ailments.

UX is the Xolo of the digital world. Compared to the allure of visual design, UX can be as unsightly as a contestant in an ugly dog competition. Its outputs look unsophisticated. Its research appears unwieldy. And, like the Xolo, myths abound. UX is reputed to help with everything from failed marketing strategy to poor project planning. But, in reality, UX can improve digital products through one action alone: the hard work of reconciling information.

The primary cause of any UX problem is the accidental or intentional avoidance of reconciling information. Perceptions must be clarified, and contradictions must be settled.

The primary cause of any UX problem is the accidental or intentional avoidance of reconciling information.

Most of what a UX researcher does consists of discovering disparate ideas, thoughts, and opinions. She or he then reconciles this information into a cohesive set of findings. Surely, several variations of this work exist; yet, all UX research involves some form of reconciliation.

If you asked a business what a perfect app might be, you would perhaps get answers involving what users give the business (e.g., money, time, ad impressions, etc.). If you asked users what a perfect app might be, you would perhaps get answers involving what the business gives users (e.g., utility, entertainment, etc.). This is the fundamental dichotomy between user needs and business goals: some experiences favor the business, some favor the user, some are mutually beneficial.

The careful reconciliation of user needs and business goals is where great software is born. Build an app that addresses only business goals and no users will use it; build an app that addresses only user goals and you’ll likely go out of business. For example, consider the following two apps:

Acme “Give Us $1” app:

  • One screen with one button labeled: “Give Us $1”
  • Upon tapping the button, the user gives Acme one dollar.

Acme “Get Your $1” app:

  • One screen with one button labeled: “Get Your $1”
  • Upon tapping the button, the user receives one dollar from Acme.

The Acme “Give Us $1” app is a shining example of where a business can go wrong with user experience. The business gives nothing to the user in return for his or her dollar. Getting one dollar for doing nothing would be welcomed by many businesses, however the number of users willing to participate would be extremely limited.

The second example, the Acme “Get Your $1” app, exemplifies a business only addressing user needs. The user receives a dollar for doing nothing. This business will not be in business for long.

Granted, these examples are simplified to show the extremes of user needs and business goals. From banking websites to gaming apps, these exchanges happen billions of times of day. The good applications exchange value, the bad ones do not.

Think about the applications you use daily. A banking website allows you to pay bills online. In return, you reciprocate by allowing the bank to hold your deposits. Facebook gives you the ability to like and post messages. In return, those behaviors build Facebook’s inventory of marketing data. The exchange could be purely monetary, such as e-commerce, or it could be a matter of exchanging money for entertainment, such as a video game or movie rental.

The basis for design is the reconciliation of user goals and business objectives. Everything is possible, but needs and goals either complement or compete with one another. Knowing which one does what is where design begins.

Do it now or do it later

Some of the best UX designers I know would never call themselves UX designers at all — they would call themselves front-end developers. The practical reality is that developers make UX design decisions on the fly all the time, sometimes in the late-night hours before a product launch. Why do developers get pressed into the role of UX designer? The reason is simple: UX design decisions are unavoidable; you either make these decisions before development or during it.

Shortsightedness is not limited to any particular role or activity, but it compromises UX research efforts the most. What problem are we solving for users? How did they get here? What happens if there is an error? Such questions and countless more are present within your project. The questions may seem minor today, but the answers can come back to bite you.

Roy Peter Clark, author of Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, states that to truly understand a subject you need to “get the name of the dog.” Journalists learn a lot when visiting the scene of events. They see everything from buildings on fire, to riot police in full gear, to jumpers on window ledges. However, while this information is vital to the news story, it is not the detail that makes the story come to life for the reader. A traumatized family standing on the street watching their house burn is a tragedy, but knowing the name of the dog that sits beside them attentively is what makes it a story. To achieve this level of connection with an audience, you need to do the work: you need to get the name of the dog.

While this reference pertains to journalism, it is applicable to UX research. Along with uncovering small details, you discover major issues in the process. For example, consider the following:

  • Small detail: What if a user is colorblind?
  • Major issue: Does your product need to be ADA compliant?
  • Small detail: Will people use your website at work?
  • Major issue: Do employers block your website?
  • Small detail: Do you need to display an EU privacy policy?
  • Major issue: What happens if a user rejects it?

Minor details shape a well-known story about the rock band Van Halen. (Coincidentally, the band’s former frontman, David Lee Roth, is an avid dog trainer.) As told in Roth’s autobiography, Crazy From the Heat, Van Halen’s contracts with tour promoters included a few unusual instructions. In the midst of complicated language about the specific electrical configurations, logistical support, and other contractual clauses associated with putting on a rock show was the line: “There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.” The line read as an eccentric request but it served an important purpose: if the tour promoters skipped a minor detail with such severe consequences, the band would know the promoter likely skipped over more important issues, such as the electric configurations and logistical support they required. The pursuit of minor details frequently leads to uncovering major issues.

Users rarely provide such clear instructions. Some make requests. Some complain. More often, they simply abandon. And, when they do, they take their minor details and major issues with them. Likewise, businesses rarely know what to ask for during the development of a digital project. Complaints come too late. Rather than evolve an existing product or service, many companies scrap it and start over — yet another form of abandonment. However, we can help stave off this unpleasantness by doing the hard work now and asking tough questions. Does an experience ask too much of a user? Does it ask too much of the business? Is value exchanged? You might be surprised by what you uncover. Although research does not guarantee a successful experience, it often keeps you from barking up the wrong tree.