Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Joy of Discovery

I had an interesting moment sitting behind the mirror in a usability lab, watching participants experiment with a widget I thought to be rather clever.   I can't disclose particulars, as it's something that is unusual and I'd like to leave the competition stunned and stammering for a while, but the lesson learned is worth meditating upon.
Upon seeing the widget, the participant paused a moment.  "I don't know what I'm supposed to do here," he said.
I sighed, and glanced at a colleague who was already giving me the YFU smirk.
But a moment later, the participant said "Oh, I get it.  All I need to do is [action] and it [results].  That's really cool." And he spent several seconds toying with the widget and watching the screen change.
I smirked back at my colleague.  His opportunity to haze me had just evaporated.
It's worth noting that this was not a data point in which one participant found something to be delightful that everyone else didn't even notice.  I got a similar reaction from every single person who tested the interface.

So what's the point?

The point of this incident, or at least the one that I took from it, is that intuitive is good, but  discovery is much better.   Had the participant been able to figure it out at a glance (which was admittedly my original hope), he would have been able to use it with no hesitation whatsoever - and he would not have been delighted.

But there is value in that moment of hesitation, and the sense of pleasure that comes from figuring something out.   It's a small sense of accomplishment that gives a person a sense of being empowered, and having struggled a little bit before finding success makes an interaction that would have been unremarkable into something that is emotionally engaging.   That's powerful.

It's much in the same way that getting a compliment for something that took no effort at all feels hollow, while getting complimented on something that took a little effort feels good (and getting complimented on something that was difficult is really great).  A reward simply means more when it took an effort.

But Don't Overdo It

Even though I have the sense that letting people struggle a little is not a bad thing - and that learnable is more emotionally rewarding than intuitive - I would not say, by any means, that more is better.  If every single task a person does requires a moment's hesitation before they figure it out, the joy of discovery will likely be played out and what once was regarded as cool will be much less satisfying.

Another happy accident here is that the widget I was designing is on the last page of an application form, when the user is one or two clicks away from hitting the "buy" button.   I feel very optimistic that giving them that little dose of emotion, so close to the point of commitment, is going to carry over and there will be a nice bump in the conversion rate.

That may well be a good indication of how to place a discovery boost in an application flow: a few clicks before something that will be difficult or prone to trigger an anxiety reaction.   Ideally, those will be few - but you can't eliminate them all.  A "buy" button is always going to give users pause, but if they are feeling intelligent and empowered when they encounter it, that may help put them over the hurdle.

I would promise to report back with the improvement in the conversion rate after the new widget is rolled out - but again, it's something I will have to keep under my hat for obvious reasons.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Technology's Limitations

Some notes from an article I read ... I think I may have explored this issue before.

The assumption that technology eliminates human error is a fallacy: a computer system is programmed by people, and as a result it thinks like people - specifically, the people who programmed it to think in a certain way.   So a computer system is merely consistent in its logic, not merely right in its logic.   And the one quality it lacks is the ability to think differently.

Thus technology can be rigged to make consistently bad decisions just as readily as it can be rigged to make consistently good ones.   And even if its decisions are good at the time it is programmed, the world changes.  A computer system programmed ten years ago is doing what made sense ten years ago, which may be different to what makes sense today.

Technology is also limited to those elements that can be quantified and measured, and will ignore any data that seems inconsistent even if it is valid and relevant.   This is valuing reliability over validity, and results in a system that is out of touch with reality because it is rigged to ignore the factors that matter most in favor of those that are most easily measured.

The appeal of technology is often to escape the responsibility of judgment.  A person who does what a computer tells him is not to blame.  He is prevented from thinking for himself, but is merely following orders.   And as the computer was programmed according to logic dictated by others, he is not following the orders of the machine but of the person (or committee) who determined how the machine was to be programmed.

In that way, technology also caters to megalomania.   The person who programmed the system exercises great power over everyone whose daily activities are dictated by the system for as long as the system is in use.   Autocrats enjoy making rules for others to follow, and the ability to do so through the proxy of a computer, to effectively control many others over a long period of time while meanwhile escaping the blame (their bad logic will be the computer's fault) is very attractive to cowardly and manipulative people.

That said, the flaws in the motives and methods of technology should not be used to dismiss it altogether.  Technology is very good for some things, particularly when the most valid factors are, in fact, quantifiable and unlikely to change over long periods of time.  The data they provide is invaluable to optimizing a process that is repeated frequently in a situation that will not change.  The question, which is seldom raised, is whether the real-world phenomenon to which technology is applied actually meets those criteria.   Very often, technology is the wrong tool for the job - and almost as often, it is used anyway.

Where the factors that are most influential to outcomes are qualitative, or where the elements and environment are subject to change, technology is a very bad solution - which puts a firm on rails to do the wrong course consistently, and never to discover a different course that would be more successful.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Innovation and Logic

The phrase "design thinking" has become something of a buzzword in corporate circles, which conveys a hazy notion of something different to conventional procedures.  A popular definition is that "design thinking means thinking like a designer" - which is a meaningless tautology.   Other definitions are presented that are so vague and effuse as to convey nothing.

One way to consider this term is to accept that "creative" and "scientific" are entirely different methodologies.   The creative method is poorly defined, hence the reason no-one can quite describe it - but the scientific method is well understood, and it might be helpful to consider "design thinking" as being something outside of what is well defined.

Specifically, the scientific method is grounded in two basic forms of reasoning:
  • Inductive Reasoning - Looks to specific things to draw general conclusions.  (If every crow I see is black, then all crows must be black.)
  • Deductive Reasoning - Draws on general conclusions to make observations about specific things.  (If all crows are black, then the red bird I see cannot be a crow.)
The obvious flaw in these forms of reasoning is generalization, and as such science has attempted to make the theories more specific - defining a checklist of properties that define a thing.   If you happen across a crow that is red, and insist on calling it a crow, the list of "rules" for being a crow must be extended to indicate that crows might be black or red.  Or you must come up with a different name for a creature that is like a crow, but happens to be red.

But a more insidious flaw in these forms of logic is the very processes by which they work:  they are based on observation (which is limited to the scope of perception) and focus on generalization (which pointedly ignores anything that is not consistent).

When applied to human behavior, these forms of logic fail completely: we speculate that people act in a consistent manner (which is often but not always true) and we assume that we are fully aware of all the external conditions and internal motivations (which is never true).

And when the time is shifted from examining what "is" as opposed to what "will be" their failure is complete.  They can only succeed if conditions are identical to those that have been observed in the past, and as soon as a new element is added to the equation, it completely undermines them.   Or more often, they simply ignore it as an "outlier" and cling to the familiar.

Design, meanwhile, is all about introducing new elements to existed - creating things that never existed before, to enable people to do things they were never able to do before.  (Or, at least, modifying things such that the way things are done changes.)   To create something new requires envisioning something that doesn't already exist.

Designers do this regularly, but it means abandoning traditional forms of reasoning because they are unimaginative - they cannot account for anything different and ignores anything that is inconsistent.  The scientific method asks "what is?" whereas the creative method asks "what if?"

It is for this reason that traditional approaches to logic cannot be applied to design, and a more speculative approach must be employed to make an educated guess about how the new element is going to change things in a way that undermines inductive and deductive reasoning.

It is also for this reason that individuals that fail to innovate are quite good at imitation - because once a new element has been brought into existence by an innovator, those who depend on traditional logic now have seen something that they can apply their skill at induction and deduction to understand.  But someone else has to show them the way.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Prerequisites to Emotional Engagement

A colleague of mine was presenting some design concepts, and among them there was a graphic that caught my attention:  the graphic was an "hierarchy of emotions" that played upon the concept of Maslow's hierarchy of needs - which seemed clever but didn't quite fit. The mismatch gave me some qualms.

The Basic Concept

The basic concept illustrated* to the right suggests that emotions can be schematized on a hierarchy, similar to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Just as a person must address their physical needs before taking interest in social goals, so must certain requirements be fulfilled before interacting with a web site can begin to engage the emotions.

Unfortunately, there are a few problems with this illustration - and it's not just the cheesy background and illegible text, but more fundamental flaws with the concept that make it difficult for me to swallow, but yet which seem to have some very good (though badly presented) connotations.

And before proceeding, I'll not that I have not read Walter's books, in which this theory is presented, so my reaction may be superficial  - so perhaps he concedes these flaws, or has published a new edition that corrects them.  For now I am merely reacting to the ideas as presented in this information graphic.

The Problems

The first problem is that emotions aren't a hierarchy.  I do not need to satisfy or even avoid sadness in order to feel happiness (though the experience of sadness makes happiness all the more pleasurable) or even to feel irritation in order to feel anger (sometimes one progresses to another, other times it's anger right away).   And so the notion that emotions can be schematized as a hierarchy is flawed -  to riff off of a known theory gets attention and an initial sense of credibility, but it ultimately leads to confusion and failure if the relationship between concepts is not the same.

The second problem is that what appears in the diagram aren't emotions at all: functional - reliable - usable - pleasurable.  These are all qualities of a thing, not emotions a person experiences.   I do not ever recall being in a "usable" mood, and I don't recall any psychologist including that term in any list of emotions.

The third problem is that the steps seem out of sequence.   By the diagram, a person must feel that something is reliable before they can feel it is useful.  Setting aside the fact that these are more functional than emotional qualities, they are in the wrong order.   To feel that something is "reliable" I must use it and assess (logically)  that it has done what I expected it to do.   If it is not usable, I will not achieve an outcome, and will not be able to consider whether the outcome is reliable.

In all, Walter seems to be onto something, but calling it a "hierarchy of emotions" is the wrong thing, as is attempting to schematize the concepts in this way.   Maybe a better illustration would show these three qualities as pillars upholding emotional engagement (which is not always pleasurable, though that be our desire to make it so), or inlets to a stream, or something else. I'm not sure deciding on a graphic design is quite productive until the concept is rectified.

And in that regard, I do think that there's some substance here.   Which makes it all the more troubleing because if the basic idea was complete poppycock I could dismiss the bad graphic without giving it a second thought.  But it deserves a second thought ... and needs some rethinking.

The Potential

The potential here, and this is quite important, is to communicate to enthusiasts of emotional design that there are prerequisites to engaging the user on an emotional level.

This is particularly important because people who understand neither design nor psychology are gravitating toward the concept of "emotional design" in order to fob off half-baked notions as being supported by a body of theory they haven't even read.   That happens a lot, and it's never a good thing because they seem credible a while before the flaws are noticed - and because their misuse of the term causes the valid theory to be disregarded.

The problem those types often make is in attempting to use emotional engagement as a substitute for its prerequisites.   To take a user experience that fails to deliver value to the user and attempt to graft an "emotional" layer onto it rather than addressing the fundamental problem.

While it is true that we experience emotions about things that aren't useful (most "souvenirs" are plastic junk that serve no purpose other than to trigger the memory of an emotion so that we may re-experience it), it is not true the emotion can be used to make a pointless task feel fulfilling.

And this is where Walker has really stumbled onto something: that if something is not usable, functional, and reliable it cannot be intrinsically emotionally engaging.  You have to satisfy those three prerequisites to emotional engagement in order to become emotionally engaging (with the goal of fostering pleasant emotions).


In the end, I do think that Walker should abandon this information graphic, do a little more thinking on his theory, and try again in a future edition.   I might even pick up a copy to see what other ideas he has that are worth considering.   But for now, my sense is that I've extracted the value from the ore, in spite of its shortcomings, and that it is something of value, indeed.

* I snagged this graphic, but have no idea of the source.  I'll gladly provide credit and a link, though likely the creator should read this article to consider whether it's something he or she would care to have their name associated to, given its flaws.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Fear, Desire, and Deception

I’ve been doing some reading in the topic of behavioral psychology this year, which seems a bit oblique to customer experience but has fundamental connections:  Customer experience is about helping people conveniently and comfortably obtain the goods and services they need, and psychology is helpful in getting a better grasp of what drives the sense of need (as well as defining what constitutes “convenience” and “comfort” in the process of obtaining it) – and while I’m still gathering wool it has already become clear that human “needs” are motivated by fear and desire, though this is often disguised by deception.

Fear and Desire

Fear and desire are easy enough to understand, as they are the two emotions that motivate the better part (and some would say all) of human activity.   Any action we undertake is motivated either to protect our default state against change or threat of change (fear) or an ambition to make an improvement in our default state (desire).  We may claim to have higher motives, but at a very fundamental level our behavior is driven by these two basic emotional states.

In the world of economics and business, strategy or tactics are based on objectives that are categorized into problem solving and opportunity exploitation … which is merely a sophisticated and self-aggrandizing way of admitting to fear and desire.   Any “problem” represents a fear, whether we are being threatened presently or perceive something that could become a threat, which is to say it is motivated by fear.   Any “opportunity” represents a desire to achieve something positive, which is to say that it is motivated by desire.

Culturally, economics and business are supposed to be very important, weighty, and sophisticated matters that are well-removed from the base and vulgar world of emotion (though a few theorists, mainly of the French school of economics, unabashedly admit emotion to be the driver of economic activity) – and so when a businessman fears something, he depicts it as a problem, describes it in non-emotional terms, and becomes irritated and irate when someone suggests that a person as urbane and sophisticated as himself is motivated by base emotions … but this is the beginning of deception, of himself and of others.
  • To say “I am hungry” is to confess to a somatic sensation that causes panic – that a deficiency causes a change in the status quo, whether it is immediate physical discomfort or merely a sensation that indicates discomfort will be experienced in future, followed by death if the discomfort is not addressed.   
  • To say “I need a new suit” may be motivated in part by a desire to have clothing as a survival need, but is more often motivated by a desire to have esteem – the old suit is serviceable, but out of fashion, and the desire to maintain (or obtain) the respect of others, whether as a means to gain their cooperation or merely feed a craving to be admired, drives this decision.
  • To say “we need to maintain competitive advantage” is to confess the emotion of fear: that if competitive advantage is not maintained, customers will be lost, income will be lost, the firm will become unsustainable, and the source of income (which provides for survival and other needs) is being threatened if an action is not taken.
Granted, the statement that “all actions are motivated by emotions” seems like one of those outrageous statements that is generally followed by a convoluted argument to prove itself to be true – but the more I think on it, the more sense it makes and the less plausible seem arguments to the contrary.


Deception has nothing to do with the existence of motivation, but a great deal to do with the way in which the individual understands his own motivations and, especially, in the way in which he describes his motivations to others when he requires their cooperation.

The desire to appear intelligent, sophisticated, and objective leads people to invent “higher” motives for their actions.  Consider the examples above, and then consider whether you have ever heard anyone tell the truth about their motivation, at least at first.   No-one expresses their fear of death by famine, but will say “I am hungry,” “It’s time for lunch,” or “There’s a new restaurant I’d like to visit.”   Those are very indirect ways of justifying an action without admitting to the truth about one’s own motivation.

To ignore or disguise fear and desire is to misconstrue the motivation to act.  Any good strategist will attest that when you are unclear about what you are trying to achieve, your attempts to achieve it will be far less likely to succeed, except perhaps by accident.   And when helping others to achieve their goals, it is particularly important to understand their true motivations in order to provide assistance that will serve their true “need” – regardless of the words in which they leverage to disguise or deny the baser and more vulgar motives that drive them.

The emotional underpinnings of a decision become most apparent when an individual rejects a choice that would solve the alleged problem or accomplish the alleged goal on a functional level.   “Let’s go grab a hamburger” is a practical solution to the problem of “I am hungry” – but when the hungry person hesitates and suggests that the solution is unacceptable, it means that their true motivation (or perhaps a secondary motivation) is not being addressed by the proposed solution.  A hamburger will satisfy hunger, but it seems a very unsophisticated solution and the hungry person also wishes to serve their need for esteem: their base fear of hunger is coupled with a different motive to which they do not wish to admit, which is not merely to eat but for others to respect or admire their dining choice, to which end only a meal (and a venue) that matches their desired image would suffice.   They want to feel socially superior to the kind of person who eats hamburgers, and so they opt for a more sophisticated meal in a more sophisticated venue – to satisfy the craving not for food, but for esteem.

And while it is fairly easy to observe the way in which people wish to disguise their true motives while expressing their needs to others, a far more insidious problem is that they attempt to disguise their true motives to themselves.   Neel Burton’s book on The Psychology of Self-Deception provides a great deal of insight on this practice, as well as many of the mechanisms (ego defenses) by which people deceive themselves – those people who truly believe in the lies they tell themselves can be very convincing when they present the same lie to others, and it can be difficult to get to the truth of the matter – that some form of fear or desire to which they do not wish to admit is the true motivation for their actions.

Connection to Customer Experience

As usual, this meditation has been a bit of a ramble, but its connection to customer experience is straightforward:
  • Fear and desire motivate human action
  • Customer satisfaction is achieved only when these base motives are addressed
  • People misrepresent their motives to others and themselves in order disguise their true motivation
  • To successfully serve a customer, the experience practitioner must see through their deception to recognize the base motivation
  • However, to please a customer the experience practitioner must play along with their deceptions – to leave their ego defenses intact while reaching past them to serve the base need
All of this seems rather convoluted and delicate, which presents a serious challenge to experience practitioners – but I have a strong sense that this is exactly the challenge we face, and understanding it such as it is, rather than such as we wish it to be, is critical to taking effective action.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Who Owns Your Brand?

A self-proclaimed social-media guru shared this advice with me: companies should pay close attention to what people are saying about their brand in social media so that they can recognize where the public has the wrong ideas about the brand, and use this information to drive brand messaging to rectify their errors.    It's an absurd notion, but one he seemed to take quite seriously, leading me to wonder about how widespread this misconception is.

The notion that a company dictates what its brand means to the public is so arrogant and wrong-headed as to be ludicrous.   Your brand exists in the mind of the market.   And if there is any disagreement between what you think of your own brand and what the market thinks of it, then you are the one who is wrong.   Granted, a firm may attempt to attempt to influence opinion of its brands and generally tries to spin it in a positive (and profitable) direction - but the brand exists in the market, not within the firm.

His statement, and the arrogant naivety with which he boldly made it, put me in mind of Gail Wynand, the (fictional) newspaper tycoon whose tragic flaw was believing that his newspaper dictated public opinion - but when he ran an unpopular editorial campaign, the public stopped buying his newspaper until the board of directors took control and reversed the paper's position.

There never was a way to control public opinion, and there likely never will be.  People come to their own conclusions, speak their own mind, and put greater trust in what their friends and neighbors have to say about a brand than the company who wishes to sell it, and whom they know to have an agenda to make others think positively about the brand no matter the truth.  I can understand how a company could delude itself into thinking its voice absolute during the age of mass-media where the voice of the customer was unheard - but especially in the age of social media, the customer's voice is out there for all to hear.

That is to say that the market owns brands - now more than ever.  You can label it "deluxe" and spend millions on an advertising campaign to promote the notion that it is high-quality.  But if your merchandise is poorly made, people will discover this and spread the news faster, further, and with a more credible voice than your marketing department and advertising agency.

They days when customers could be badgered and threatened into retracting negative remarks have also passed.  The old-school approach of silencing your critics when their criticism is entirely valid and warranted have also passed.   Companies that want to have customers say great things about a rotten product will find little success, and suffer an even worse reputation for having tried - whether proactively (by attempting to bribe or cajole) or reactively (by threatening and browbeating) - and their critics voices will gain all the more credibility when these tactics are discovered.

That is not to say that the voice of the public cannot be influenced or challenged - when there is a misperception, it can be corrected - but there's a stark difference between having an uninformed opinion and telling outright lies.   And for the most part, the public is spot on.   If a product is really great, people say good things about it; if it is truly rotten, they will say bad things about it; and if it's a matter of opinion, both sides will be heard - and others who listen to social media will weigh everything they hear and come to their own decision.

All of this boils own to a fundamental and inviolate truth: if you want public opinion of your product to be positive, then make a good product and provide good service - and the buzz will take care of itself.   Listen to the voice of the consumer as a matter of course, but when you find you're in disagreement, set aside your assumption that you're right and your critics are wrong.  It's usually exactly the opposite.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

What is a User Experience Producer?

"What do you do for a living?" is a common and innocuous question, and one that I dread hearing in any social encounter. The job title of "Experience Producer" draws a response of "What's that?"  I have a quick answer of "I try to convince my employer to make buying and using products simple and understandable for the customer," some people are curious about how I go about doing so - which is no simple matter to explain.

So the conversation is frustrating and tedious, but it does cause me to reflect a great deal about the purpose and method of my life, insofar as my profession is concerned.  I have a long list of "things to think about" that I generally try to avoid thinking about, as the practice of defining what you do, like the practice of defining who you are, seems necessary but at the same time tainted with pedantry and narcissism - as everyone wants to think of the activities on which they spend the majority of their waking hours to be very important and finds it difficult to refrain from aggrandizing.  

A blue-collar laborer who manually tightens the bolts of the soap-dispenser inside a washing machine can likely spout a five-paragraph essay that makes him seem like the savior of the planet.  And so it follows that a white-collar worker who makes buying and using products simple can likely do the same, and can likely be far more elaborate.

I've seen obscene levels of elaboration in a number of industry discussion groups, in which someone asks the question "how do we define what we do?" and a long string of answers follows, which begins with a five-sentence description of the job and others edit and extend until it becomes a multi-paragraph manifesto that ends up being unfathomably vague and heavily seasoned with melodrama.

In general, my practice is to step back from the fray and find amusement in the irony of a pompous and incomprehensible mass of verbiage written by people whose vocation is (allegedly) to make things simple and understandable.

It's not that what they are attempting to do is unimportant - again, understanding what you are doing is critical to doing it well - nor do I have many objections to the fine details and subtle nuances that they are attempting to communicate.   But for all practical intents, when someone asks you what you do for a living, you should be able to answer in a single breath.

I do look forward to the day that the general public knows what a "User Experience Producer" is without having to explain further - with the same knowledge and familiarity they have with processions such as "accountant" or "lawyer" or "plumber."  It would make the ritual exchange of information when meeting someone for the first time so much easier.

But more importantly, if people knew what a User Experience Producer does, that would mean that it is a common profession.    And in order for it to be a common profession, that would also mean that a majority of firms seek to make their simple and effective for the customer.  What a wonderful world it would be, filled with products and services that do what we need with a minimum of effort, if the practice of user experience were taken that seriously on such a broad scale.

I'd very much like to live in that world, and give the majority of my waking hours working to achieve it.   But until I do, I expect that the best answer I can give is still the one I have spring-loaded when the question is asked:  "I try to convince my employer to make buying and using products simple and understandable for the customer."   I suppose it's as good a way as any to spend one's days.